Nov 12, 2023 - Politics & Policy

How abortion could upend the 2024 battle for Congress

Data: Cook Political Report; Map: Jared Whalen/Axios

Democrats' rush to get abortion-related initiatives on the ballot in key states could throw a wrench in Republicans' effort to keep the House in 2024.

Why it matters: Election results in Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia on Tuesday demonstrated that the issue is still boosting Democrats at the ballot box more than a year after Roe v. Wade was overturned.

State of play: As many as eight states could have an abortion-related referendum on the ballot next November. Among those states are nearly two dozen House districts rated as some degree of competitive by Cook Political Report.

  • Maryland and New York — which alone could have half a dozen swing districts, pending a redistricting lawsuit — are both set to have referenda on the ballot.
  • Abortion rights advocates are in the process of trying to get constitutional amendments preserving access to abortion on the ballot in Arizona, Florida and Nevada.
  • In Iowa, the GOP-controlled legislature could set the stage for a vote on an amendment clarifying that the state constitution doesn't protect abortion. In Colorado and Nebraska, there are pushes for both pro- and anti-abortion rights ballot measures.

What to watch: "I think what we saw [in Tuesday's elections] validates that ... when you try to take freedoms away, people reject it," Rep. Pat Ryan (D-N.Y.), the only Democrat in a New York swing district, told Axios.

  • "It's very much on the minds of New Yorkers. So that will be a key driver of turnout, not just of Democrats but of a wide coalition who want their reproductive freedoms."
  • “Potential referenda in key House battleground states from Arizona to Florida and New York will help crystallize for voters the choice between Republican extremism … and Democrats' stand for freedom,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Courtney Rice.
  • New York Democrats plan to spend at least $20 million in support of a 2024 ballot measure codifying abortion protections, racial and LGBTQ+ equality, disability rights and more.
  • The state will be a hotbed of competitive 2024 House races: five Republican freshmen hold seats there that President Biden won in 2020.

The other side: Several Republican lawmakers in states with possible abortion-related ballot measures stressed that the key to defusing the issue's potency is striking a balance.

  • "I've done significant polling on this. Most people in our district fall into the 12-15 week [abortion restriction] bell curve," Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told Axios. "I've had a lot of people say, 'Don, I'm pro-choice, but 12 weeks is where it should be.'"
  • Bacon conceded the abortion initiative "could turn out" liberal voters, but said it may also backfire given the state's sizable Catholic community: "Last year ... I had a whole new part of the district, and they were like 'we hate your opponent' because he was running all these abortion ads."
  • "There will be New Yorkers who turn out for that reason," Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) said of his state's ballot initiative. "I'm going to continue to navigate it as I have for the last 30 years."

Zoom out: Several of these states are also among the most hotly contested Senate battlegrounds next year.

  • Democrats are trying to keep control of Nevada and Arizona — both states that went for Biden by just a few percentage points in 2020.
  • Democrats are also looking to Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) as a top target to offset their likely loss in West Virginia following the retirement of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
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