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Commentary: Ohio's GOP just learned voters are not as gullible as they think

People - mostly women - smile, clap and raise their arms in the air
Jay LaPrete
People celebrate the defeat of Issue 1 during a watch party Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Columbus.

Nice try, Ohio GOP.

Issue 1, the incredibly bad deal you were offering Ohioans, failed miserably.

A solid majority could not figure out why, for heaven's sake, they would agree to allow 41% of voters to shoot down an idea for a state constitutional amendment.

The 60% threshold was a miserable flop; and so too was another piece of Issue 1, which would have made it nearly impossible for any citizen-driven initiative to get on the ballot.

And the only thing you accomplished was to make Ohio taxpayers foot the bill for an August special election and waste the tens of millions of dollars both sides spent on this pointless campaign.

Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, who wanted this more than anything to try to squelch the reproductive rights amendment on the November ballot, and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, the cheerleader-in-chief for Issue 1, are the ones chiefly responsible for this GOP disaster.

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LaRose and Huffman bit off more than they could chew.

With 82% of vote counted, Issue 1 went down with 57% voting "no."

Kyle Kondik, an Ohio native with the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said he thought it "extremely unlikely" that the issue could pass as the night went on.

"This is a classic example of the old saying in politics, 'pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered.' "

'Our work is far from over'

This was an election that never should have happened. In fact, last December, the Republicans in the Ohio legislature did away with August elections altogether.

LaRose was all in favor of that. But when it became clear that the only way they could stop the November abortion rights amendment was with the 60% ballot initiative, he was all for the legislation to hold an Aug. 8 special election.

A coalition of over 250 organizations from across the political spectrum in Ohio were busy declaring victory early Tuesday night.

But Liz Walters, chairwoman of the Ohio Democratic Party, made it clear their work is not done.

"Our work is far from over," Walters said in a written statement. "Over the next 90 days, we'll continue working to move our state forward and to protect abortion rights."

The election evolved into a proxy battle between 81 of Ohio's 88 counties that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 to the seven that voted for Biden — the big urban counties of Hamilton, Montgomery, Franklin, Lucas, Cuyahoga, and Summit, as well as little old Athens County, deep in the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, home to Ohio University and as blue as the sky.

Biden versus Trump. Big cities versus farm country and suburbs. Blue versus red.

ANALYSIS: How your vote on Issue 1 directly impacts November's vote on reproductive rights

The Ohio Democratic Party has become very good at getting people out since the Obama wave of 2008. This special August election was no exception. It drew 642,000 early voters and the results skewed heavily Democratic.

The Ohio Republican Party has struggled in trying to convince its base to cast ballots early at the boards of elections or by mail. Republican voters tend to vote on Election Day, and that was the case in Tuesday's results.

The role of reproductive rights in Issue 1

The battle over Issue 1 had the issue of abortion rights at its core from the beginning, regardless of how much Republican proponents tried to spin it initially as the way to save Ohio from a largely non-existent scourge of well-funded special interest groups trying to con Ohio voters.

The only real example of that happening was a Nov. 2009 ballot issue establishing casino gambling in Ohio. That constitutional amendment passed with 52% of the vote.

But the anti-abortion rights groups that supported Issue 1 — most importantly, Ohio Right to Life — were having none of that argument, and went directly to their principal message: that this was about making it much harder or even impossible for an abortion rights amendment on the November ballot to pass.

The 60% threshold may be too high a bar for abortion rights groups to reach — although a USA Today/Suffolk University poll shows 58% support for abortion rights in Ohio.

LaRose, the most enthusiastic supporter of Issue 1 among Ohio Republican elected officials, made the job of hiding the abortion rights connection that much harder when he was caught on video at a Seneca County Republican Party event saying that Issue 1 was "100%" about keeping abortion rights groups' hands off the Ohio constitution.

LaRose wasted a lot of time trying to explain what he meant, but no one seemed to be listening and that short video clip became the centerpiece of the "No on 1" TV ad campaign.

They used it primarily to fire up suburban women to vote no — women who don't identify with one party or the other but who believe government should stay out of women's health care decisions.

The 'gut punch'

As odious as the 60% threshold was to opponents of Issue 1, the requirement about gathering petition signatures to place a constitutional amendment was even worse.

The standard since 1912 has been that petitioners have to gather the signatures of 5% of voters from 44 of Ohio's 88 counties. Issue 1 would apply that to all 88 counties, which proponents believe would give more power to Ohio's smaller, rural and reliably Republican counties.

It sure would have.

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It would mean that one county — one — out of 88 could effectively prevent any proposed constitutional amendment, good or bad, from reaching the ballot.

The most effective tool the One Person/One Vote campaign had came from an unknown source — a meme that went viral on social media a month or so ago that made the issue plain and simple, and probably had a big impact on undecided voters or voters who were having a hard time understanding what exactly Issue 1 would do.

It was very simple: A box which showed the score of a fictional football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Michigan Wolverines. The score said, "Ohio State 59, Michigan 41."


Then it pointed out that, under Issue 1, the team with 41 points would be declared the winner.

ANALYSIS: What Michigan can teach Ohio about redistricting

Simple and understandable.

And a gut punch for anyone who roots for the Buckeyes.

But not nearly the gut punch this election turned out to be for the Ohio GOP.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.