Voters in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Mississippi and elsewhere head to the polls Tuesday for off-year elections that will offer clues to the continued potency of abortion against the drag of President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings as politicians prepare for the coming presidential election year.
The results may determine whether Democrats find some reassurances on their approach to key issues including abortion, which was a bright spot for the party in a new New York Times/Siena poll that showed Donald Trump leading Biden in five crucial swing states one year out.
Here is what to watch:
Abortion access vs. Biden’s unpopularity in Virginia and Kentucky
All 140 seats in Virginia’s General Assembly are on the ballot Tuesday, with the Democratic-leaning state’s relatively popular Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, hoping to capture the state Senate and secure total Republican control of Richmond. That feat would propel Youngkin’s national ambitions.
But Democrats are running on abortion rights, warning that GOP control would end abortion access in the last state in the Southeast.
Youngkin is testing a compromise that national Republicans hope will be a winning message after so many party losses since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion: a ban on abortion access after 15 weeks of pregnancy, with exemptions for rape, incest and the life of a mother. Democrats say that is a ruse, but they must overcome the weight of Biden’s unpopularity.
A similar dynamic is playing out in Kentucky, where Democrats have leaned heavily on the abortion issue, especially to tarnish the Republican challenger for governor, Daniel Cameron, who, as the current state attorney general, has had to defend Kentucky’s total abortion ban. The incumbent Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, remains popular, with a family name (his father, Steve Beshear, was also a governor) and a moderate reputation that have insulated him against attacks that he is soft on crime and supports “radical” transgender rights.
Beshear has led consistently in the polls, but in a state that Trump won by about 26 percentage points in 2020, the “D” by Beshear’s name is a liability. The final polls of the cycle pointed to a dead heat.
Will voters in Ohio back abortion rights?
Ohio has been a reliably Republican state since the rise of Trump, but a referendum to establish a right to abortion under the state constitution could be the purest test Tuesday of where even Republicans stand on the issue. Or not.
Abortion rights groups have been on a winning streak with ballot measures that put the question of abortion straight to voters since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, doing away with constitutional protections for abortion rights. Even in deeply Republican states such as Kansas, voters have overwhelmingly supported abortion access. But opponents of abortion scored some important victories before the referendum Tuesday. In this contest, voters will have to affirmatively vote “yes” on a constitutional change; Ohioans have historically tended to reject ballot amendments.
While the amendment would establish “a right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions,” it also explicitly allows the state to ban abortion after viability, or around 23 weeks, when the fetus can survive outside the uterus, unless the pregnant woman’s doctor finds the procedure “is necessary to protect the pregnant patient’s life or health.” But in the ballot box, voters will see a summary from Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican who opposes abortion, which says the amendment “would always allow an unborn child to be aborted at any stage of pregnancy, regardless of viability.”
Both sides of the issue have accused the other of misinformation and underhanded tactics.
In Mississippi, a test of expanding Medicaid – and scandal
Mississippi’s abortion ban brought down Roe v. Wade when the Supreme Court sided with Thomas Dobbs, Mississippi’s health officer, in Dobbs v. Jackson.
The Deep South state now faces a pitched battle for governor, but the candidates have not made abortion the central issue, since incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves and his Democratic challenger, Brandon Presley, both oppose it.
Instead, Presley’s surprisingly potent challenge has been fueled by a push to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and a public corruption scandal that saw the misspending of $94 million in federal funds intended for Mississippi’s poor on projects including a college volleyball facility pushed by retired NFL superstar quarterback Brett Favre.
Reeves was never directly implicated in the scandal, but he did fire an investigating attorney just after the lawyer issued a subpoena that could have turned up details about the involvement of prominent Mississippians.
“If you think Tate Reeves will take on corruption, I’ve got some beachfront property in Nettleton to sell you,” Presley said in a debate this month, referring to his hometown in the state’s northeast.
Presley, a member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, has a unique kind of name recognition; he is a second cousin of Elvis Presley.
But in Mississippi, Reeves has three advantages that could prove impenetrable: incumbency, the “R” next to his name on the ballot, and the endorsement of Trump, who won the state in 2020 by nearly 17 percentage points.
Ballot initiatives, from wealth to weed
Voters will make numerous direct decisions Tuesday, bypassing elected officials. Beyond abortion, the most watched initiative will be, again, in Ohio, where voters will decide whether cannabis should be legalized for recreational use. If voters agree, Ohio would become the 24th state to legalize marijuana. That could put pressure on Congress to move forward legislation at least to ease restrictions on interstate banking for legal cannabis businesses.
Texans will decide the fate of 14 constitutional amendments, including one that would bar the state from imposing a “wealth” tax, or a tax on the market value of assets owned but not sold. Liberal activists and some prominent Democratic senators, such as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have pushed such taxes as the only way to tap the wealth of billionaires, whose income taxes are minimal but whose vast, untaxed wealth supports lavish lifestyles.
Voters in Texas will also decide whether to raise the mandatory retirement age of state judges to 79, from 75.