Some Republicans Accept Abortion Referendums, But GOP Will Fight Them

As their party faces the vexing political fallout of the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe vs. Wadesome Republicans — especially those in tough races in 2022 — are going one step further in trying to shrug off the problem: embracing the idea that voters themselves should decide.

The party as a whole, of course, probably won’t like what those voters decide, as Kansas recently showed. And we shouldn’t expect this approach to spread very widely. Indeed, getting such measures on the ballot appears to be one of the next big battlegrounds in the fight against abortion, with Republicans as a whole gearing up to fight it.

But for some candidates, direct democracy is apparently an attractive way out.

This week, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and New Mexico GOP gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti proposed letting voters decide the issue, in different ways.

Ronchetti in a new ad offers to put the question on the ballot, saying, “No politician should decide that; you should. We should vote on it as a state. Put it on statewide ballots, so everyone has a say. Ronchetti, who has tried to soften his past stance on abortion, adds that “no politician should make that decision for you.”

Johnson, meanwhile, has suggested that Wisconsin hold a referendum to add rape and incest exceptions to Wisconsin’s Civil War-era law banning nearly all abortions. “We really should be polling citizens,” Johnson said. “And I would prefer to do it through a direct referendum.” But the process to do so in Wisconsin is lengthy and could be prohibitively expensive.

One state that will see abortion on the ballot this fall is Michigan, whose Supreme Court made sure of it last week over Republican objections. GOP gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon quickly responded by saying voters can now “vote for [Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer’s abortion program and always vote against her.

Also last week, a South Carolina GOP lawmaker proposed a ballot referendum, offering it during a contentious debate over new abortion restrictions. But State Sen. Sandy Senn (R) acknowledged that idea was going nowhere for a very specific reason.

“We won’t because you’re all afraid to do it,” she said. “The same thing that happened in Kansas would happen here, resoundingly. You all think you know better than your own constituents.

The vote in Kansas, where 59% of voters rejected an effort to remove abortion protections from the state constitution despite the state’s red bent, is certainly the biggest cautionary tale to date. But it is unlikely to be the only one.

Multiple polls in Michigan have shown the ballot measure that was approved last week – which would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution and prevent a restrictive ban from taking effect – passing by a very wide margin . A Detroit News/WDIV poll last week showed he was going by a margin of 60% to 29%. An earlier EPIC-MRA poll showed an even wider margin: 67-24. It is in a preeminent swing state.

Two blue states – California and Vermont – will also pass amendments explicitly protecting abortion rights, and the votes are expected to be skewed, with a new poll this week in California showing voters supporting it by a 69-to-0 margin. 25.

Votes in the other two states with 2022 abortion-related referendums — Montana and Kentucky — could be closer, as they are red states and the measures are narrower and supported by Republicans.

Montana’s measure is particularly narrow, imposing criminal penalties on medical providers who do not do enough to save the life of a child born during an abortion. Kentucky’s measure would prevent anything in the state’s constitution from being “interpreted to guarantee or protect a right to abortion or to require funding for abortion.”

We don’t have good polls on the two states. This last measure, however, might become interesting, in light of the similarities to the amendment that was defeated in Kansas. But Kentucky is a redder state, and Kansas instead has a tradition of a strong moderate wing of the Republican Party.

The results will be closely watched and could have major implications for the future of abortion-related ballot measures. Lawyers had little time to put the measures on the ballot after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade end of June, but they are already planning potential referendums in several swing and red states in the future. (Voting registration processes vary widely from state to state, with some being much easier and others — like Wisconsin — making it much more difficult.)

Given the results in Kansas and the likelihood that abortion-rights supporters will win in some of those other states in November, Republicans will be faced with how to fight back. With referendums and amendments, this often means trying to control the language of the ballot or trying to rule out the measure on a technicality, as was attempted in Michigan. In some states they are trying to raise the threshold for putting measurements on the ballot.

But it’s a tough trick, as Michigan also showed. And Republicans hailed the Supreme Court’s reversal deer emphasizing this, he simply referred the matter to the states – letting the people’s chosen representatives decide, rather than unelected judges. But then why not go all the way and let direct democracy decide? This process is still subject to the mind game, of course – the late David Broder will tell you all about it – but it’s certainly a logical extension of the argument.

And now a few Republicans whose careers hang in the balance in 2022 are apparently embracing that. Of course, they do this to show how populist and moderate they are on this issue – or, more likely, to try to push the issue aside. But the fact that they think that’s what plays well shows how difficult it could be for the party to fight such ballot measures, ahead of what could be the biggest ballot in a very long time.


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