In the days before Tuesday’s election, voters across Ohio heard a stark warning in an ad that blanketed the airwaves. “She could be your neighbor, or niece, your sister or daughter,” the ad said, “But if she is raped and gets pregnant, a law in Ohio would force her to have the child.”
In Kentucky, a young woman named Hadley spoke directly to voters in an ad from Gov. Andy Beshear’s campaign. “I was raped by my stepfather after years of sexual abuse,” she said. “I was 12. Anyone who believes there should be no exceptions for rape and incest could never understand what it’s like to stand in my shoes.”
Deeply personal and explicit, the ads signaled a new tone in Democrats’ messaging on abortion rights, one that confronts head-on the consequences of strict anti-abortion laws.
Historically, it has been Republicans who used dire warnings and shock value in advertising to make their case on the issue — graphic images of bloody fetuses, medically unsubstantiated claims of fetal pain, charged accusations of infanticide, and testimony from women who said they regretted their abortions.
At the same time, many Democrats for years treaded carefully around the topic. Some, including President Biden, avoided even using the term “abortion,” casting their views broadly as a matter of women’s rights.
But the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Dobbs v. Jackson, despite being a resounding legal and policy victory for Republicans, has had the paradoxical effect of galvanizing long-held, broad public support for abortion rights. And because the issue has now been forced to the states, that public sentiment is now on the local ballot, and it is Democrats who have fear — and momentum — on their side.
Since the Dobbs ruling, Democrats have prevailed in a series of statewide elections, including in Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia on Tuesday, by making abortion access a centerpiece of their messaging, even when it wasn’t explicitly on the ballot.
“There absolutely has been a shift, and it’s not that the way we talked about it before was bad by any means,” said Angela Kuefler, a partner at Global Strategy Group, a political firm that mostly aligns with Democrats and that worked on liberal victories for abortion in ballot measures on Tuesday in Ohio and last year in Kansas.
She added, “It’s more that since Dobbs, we have discovered that part of the way to make this feel more visceral and real for people, and to get them to really understand the impact this decision has on voters, is to tell stories.”
Across the country, Democrats have spent more than $74 million on ads about abortion rights in 2023, compared with $16 million for Republicans, according to data from AdImpact, a media tracking firm. In places with competitive statewide elections, like the Kentucky governor’s race, the disparity was even starker: Democrats spent $1.3 million since September, while Republicans have not aired a single ad on the subject since early August, according to AdImpact.
In Virginia, Democrats spent $16.7 million on ads about abortion — by far the top issue by spending — while Republicans spent one-tenth of that, the AdImpact analysis shows.
Republican leaders and strategists have sounded the alarm in recent months about the need for the party to take a more nuanced, moderate stance on abortion, and to improve its messaging or risk losing more elections.
Last month, at a party gathering in Dallas, Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, played the Kentucky ad with the young woman named Hadley to a group of more than 100 donors. It was meant to serve as an example of how Republicans had been caught flat-footed on the abortion issue and were losing the ad wars, according to two people who were present and insisted on anonymity to describe the closed-door meeting.
In an emailed statement, Ms. McDaniel said, “Since the Dobbs decision, I have been talking to candidates and campaigns about how we can’t let Democrats spend millions of dollars defining us on this issue without a response.”
She added, “Republicans have to invest in resources to fight back and put Democrats on defense.”
Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster and political adviser, said that Democrats now had “first-person testimonials that shock the conscience.”
“The pro-life movement is like the dog that caught the car,” she said, adding that Republicans must sharpen their message and spend “real money” to put Democrats on their heels.
“If Kansas was the smoke alarm, Ohio was the five-alarm fire,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican political adviser in Arizona, who said the issue was a natural target for Democratic ads. “This is such a personal issue, that it is easy to pull at the heartstrings of your everyday, average, low-information voter.”
The #MeToo movement, which set off its own wave of political advertisements that detailed sexual assaults, provided an early road map of how Democrats could talk about sensitive, previously taboo issues.
Perhaps nowhere was the Republican concern about losing the political debate on abortion more apparent than Virginia, where Gov. Glenn Youngkin had been pushing for a 15-week ban. The abortion ad with the most money behind it in Virginia was from Mr. Youngkin’s political committee, Spirit of Virginia, trying to paint Democrats’ message as “disinformation politics at its worst.”
“Here’s the truth: There is no ban,” a narrator says in the ad. “Virginia Republicans support a reasonable 15-week limit with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.”
Yet while the ad was backed by more than $500,000 over the final week of the election, Democrats still vastly outspent Republicans on the issue, running multiple ads that told the stories of women facing life-or-death decisions, of survivors of sexual assault and of medical professionals denouncing abortion restrictions.
In Kentucky, Daniel Cameron, the Republican candidate for governor, ignored the issue entirely on the airwaves in the general election, while Mr. Beshear made it central to his closing message. One ad featured Erin White, a local county prosecutor, calling Mr. Cameron’s position on abortion — he initially supported an absolute ban, then said later that he would support one with exceptions — “an insult to the injury these survivors have made it through.”
Another featured a family who was forced to terminate a pregnancy because their unborn baby could not develop a brain.
Groups pushing to protect and expand abortion access commended Mr. Beshear’s campaign for its focus on the issue and for winning in a deeply red state, but cautioned against focusing too heavily on extreme exception cases.
“When we focus on these really horrific, dire, exceptional stories, they have that power to really disgust, recoil, upset people and really crystallize why something seems so inane, but it also tends to lead to policy outcomes that focus on the exception,” said Mini Timmaraju, the president of Reproductive Freedom for All, formerly known as NARAL. “And that’s something that we should be mindful of as we try to advance the broadest range of reproductive freedom possible.”
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