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The Choice Is Choice: Abortion Rights Supporters Win Big in Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia

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We look at the results of Tuesday’s U.S. elections with The Nation's Amy Littlefield and John Nichols, who say the results leave no doubt that protecting and expanding abortion rights is motivating voters across the country. Ohio approved a state constitutional amendment to protect reproductive access, overcoming numerous procedural hurdles from opponents, and Democrats won key races for the governor's mansion in Kentucky and the Virginia statehouse based on enduring voter anger over abortion restrictions. “This is one of the best nights for Democrats in an off-year election that we’ve seen in a very, very long time,” says Nichols, who adds that the results suggest the electorate is more progressive than pundits often claim. Littlefield notes that after decades of abortion being treated as a third rail in U.S. politics, Democrats now “need the abortion rights movement more than the movement needs them.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with results from Tuesday’s election, which included major victories for abortion rights advocates after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

In Ohio, voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment to, quote, “make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions,” including contraception, abortion, fertility treatment and miscarriage care. Republicans had tried to derail the measure with misinformation and undemocratic procedural changes, and the conservative legal activist Leo Leonard’s dark money network spent $18 million opposing it.

In Kentucky, Democratic Governor Andy Beshear was reelected in the otherwise red state, defeating Republican Trump-endorsed Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who backed the state’s near-total abortion ban and is known for calling the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville justified.

In Virginia, Democrats maintained control of the state Senate and ended Republican control of the House after a campaign focused heavily on abortion rights. The victory will block Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin from enacting parts of his far-right agenda, including a ban on abortions after 15 weeks.

For more on all of this, we’re joined in Madison, Wisconsin, by John Nichols, The Nation’s national affairs correspondent, and in Boston by Amy Littlefield, abortion access correspondent at The Nation.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Amy, let’s begin with you. Clearly, across the country, the choice was choice. Can you talk first about Ohio and what happened there, and take us to Mississippi, to Virginia and Kentucky?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Amy, before I start, I just want to thank you and the entire team at Democracy Now! for your coverage of Gaza. Thank you for reminding us why we need independent media in this moment. And thank you for bringing us a modicum of hope during this horrific Israeli bombardment in the form of voices of resistance around the world speaking out, demanding a ceasefire now.

And I feel honored to be able to add my own tiny ray of hope this morning, Amy, to the show, and that is that in Ohio, voters resoundingly approved a measure to enshrine abortion rights, as well as the right to continue a pregnancy, to seek contraception, to seek miscarriage care and fertility treatments in the Ohio state Constitution. Was it close? It was not close. Fifty-seven percent of voters, last I checked, approved this measure.

And they did so despite an overwhelming amount of official misinformation, I mean, starting with the fact that the summary that voters saw in the ballot box referred to the unborn child and had misleading information that was approved by the Ohio state Supreme Court, which, fun fact, the Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s son sits on that court. It came after Ohio Republicans on the official state Senate website, which the Associated Press pointed out is privileged in search results because it’s an official website, were using inflammatory language referring to the dismemberment of children, in order to defeat this ban.

It comes after an attempt to kneecap direct democracy in the state by making it harder to pass initiatives like this over the summer, which Ohio voters saw through and resoundingly defeated. And then, for good measure, you saw Secretary of State Frank LaRose come in and purge 30,000 Ohio voters from the rolls at the last minute. And still Ohio voters resoundingly approved this abortion rights amendment.

Ohio is the seventh state to vote directly on abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and it is the seventh state to go for the abortion rights position. So, we are 7-and-0 now for the pro-choice position. And importantly, it is the first state that is Republican-led to vote on a proactive pro-choice amendment like this, with this swirling official misinformation.

And, you know, there is an important caveat here, Amy, which is that the amendment in Ohio does allow abortion to be banned after viability. A lot of abortion rights supporters I talked to saw this as a concession that wasn’t necessary. And I think looking at the overwhelming margin that this passed by and the fact that anti-abortion forces in the state were using inflammatory language about abortion up until birth and abortion at every stage of pregnancy, regardless of the fact that this allowed the Legislature to ban abortion after viability except to save the health of the pregnant person, should raise questions about concessions like that in the future.

But I think the overwhelming message, Amy, coming out of the election on Tuesday is that voters are still big mad about the Dobbs decision. And I have to say, you know, after I came on the show following the Kansas results last summer, and then after the midterms, at every step of the way media pundits are saying, “Are people still mad about Dobbs? Are they going to stay mad about Dobbs, or is that anger going to fade?” I’m sorry, Amy, this is insulting to insinuate that. It’s not like we all experienced a moment of collective hysteria after the Dobbs decision and all got our periods and got mad temporarily and then forgot that Republicans single-handedly overturned a 50-year-old constitutional right. Yes, voters are still angry about it. Yes, they see through the Republican misinformation. Yes, abortion rights are popular and always have been. And voters overwhelmingly demonstrated that on Tuesday.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amy, I’m wondering if you could talk about the Pennsylvania Supreme Court election, which has also garnered a quite amount of attention. Can you talk about the candidates there and their backgrounds?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: Yeah. So, I mean, state supreme courts are hugely important, Juan, of course, for a whole array of rights, including voting rights. And we saw the issue of mail-in ballots being a crucial issue in Pennsylvania in the last election, of course. So, we saw a Democrat defeating the Republican candidate, Carolyn Carluccio, who had been among the Republicans who, since the Dobbs decision, have run as fast as they can away from the issue of abortion. She had a résumé that referred to herself as a defender of life at all stages, and she scrubbed that from her website in the lead-up to this election. And so, again, I think we see another spot on the map where abortion rights was a decisive factor in buoying Democrats to victory in a race that is increasingly crucial, not just for abortion rights, but a whole array of progressive priorities across the board.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to bring in John Nichols, The Nation's national affairs correspondent. John, what's your takeaway from this, the election results and the large number of, quote, “Democratic victories”?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think it is a lot of Democratic victories. In fact, this is one of the best nights for Democrats in an off-year election that we’ve seen in a very, very long time. It’s not just the top-end results, for governor of Kentucky, for the Virginia Legislature and things like that, but it’s when you burrow down into the results, and you go to mayoral races, city council races, school board races, county executive races across the country. It was just a remarkably strong night for Democrats.

And what it suggests is that there’s something more going on in our politics than the polls and the punditry. And this is a big deal. We tend to be, because of a lot of the collapse of local media around the country, very reliant on national media outlets, that get a poll and then talk about it for a week or have a group of pundits on. And we lose sight of these elections around the country, which are not polls, but are actually people voting.

And so, let me just remind you of a couple of things that had happened last night. In addition to Andy Beshear winning in Kentucky as a supporter of abortion rights and someone who vetoed an anti-trans bill, someone also who marched on the UAW picket line — and Andy Beshear is not a leftist, by any means; he’s considered to be something of a moderate — but he won in Kentucky on a lot of issues that are considered to be kind of hot-button issues of the moment. In Virginia, you saw not just a Democratic win for the Legislature, but a rebuke to Governor Glenn Youngkin, who tried to make the race there a referendum on abortion rights and a host of other issues, trying to advance a right-wing agenda. In New Jersey, it looks like Democrats picked up seats in the state Legislature. You had the Pennsylvania result you just mentioned. You obviously had the Ohio result you just mentioned. But then, when you start to look at places like Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, where Sara Innamorato was elected as county executive to one of the largest counties in the United States, as a progressive, you just start seeing result after result after result.

And I think the message here comes off something that Amy said. You saw folks compromising on some issues or making concessions on some issues, because they were afraid that if they didn’t, they couldn’t prevail. In reality, the evidence from Tuesday night is that candidates who took some chances, who pushed the limits, who actually went further than expected, did very, very well.

And if I can add one final note, at a point where we are seeing so much evidence of Islamophobia in this country, in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, suburban Minneapolis, Nadia Mohamed was elected as the first Muslim mayor, Somali immigrant elected to the mayoralty there. And this is a real breakthrough victory, one of many for immigrants around the country and for Muslim candidates around the country. And so, I think it’s important to recognize that when you go into these results, you see this as a much more progressive country than I think a lot of the pundits would tell you.

AMY GOODMAN: And, John Nichols, this whole issue of Youngkin, who was putting forth a — what was being called a moderate 15-week ban on abortion, and being seen as a possible Republican presidential candidate, now being thwarted by the legislative victory for Democrats in both houses, this all coming at a time when Biden — and we don’t really talk about polls on Democracy Now! As you say, we consider the poll Election Day. But the polls are showing him at an all-time low. The overturning of Roe v. Wade, it’s horrifying to think, might have been quite a gift to Biden, considering how abortion was a theme throughout the country, even when it didn’t even seem to be. I mean, in Mississippi, you have Reeves winning again, the governor, but he was up against a Democratic challenger, Elvis Presley’s second-cousin, Brendan Presley, who was anti-choice.

JOHN NICHOLS: That’s right. No, look, you’re exactly right here. And let’s start with that Youngkin result. Glenn Youngkin went all in on this election. He was the face of the Republicans in this race. And he was also someone that, if we follow presidential politics closely, you realize that a lot of very, very wealthy Republicans were kind of looking at him as a possible last-minute entry into the 2024 presidential race, somebody with backing from, really, the billionaire class. Youngkin was dealt a horrible setback. He is now in a position where the talk of bringing him into the presidential race, I think, is going to die very, very quickly.

And so, what you see is that, yes, the abortion rights issue is resonant. So, too, are a number of other issues, including labor rights. And it’s notable that a lot of these candidates who won in races around the country were candidates who had stood up for the UAW in its strike, who had stood up for working people in a lot of situations. And again and again and again, what you see is there’s evidence that Democrats, when they compromise, when they make concessions, they do worse than they might have done if they had run boldly.

And as regards the polling on Joe Biden, I’ll offer you just one thought here. A year out from an election when you have an incumbent president, you’re often going to see polls that show them running poorly. And then, of course, the pundit class is going to get obsessed with that. They’re going to talk about nothing else. But we just had a remarkable intervention here. And that is an election, a relatively nationalized election, where you could ask the question, OK, given the choice, a clear choice on abortion rights, a clear choice on progressive issues versus going to the right, a clear choice on labor rights, a clear choice on a whole host of other issues — given that choice across country, in election after election after election, people voted for abortion rights. They voted for labor rights. They voted for progressive values and for Democrats, who often don’t get this right. This is a very, very powerful reminder that there’s a route forward. But it isn’t a route of concession. It’s a route of activism and engagement with communities that are rising up and saying they want a different direction, more progressive direction, for this country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amy, I’d like to get your sense of how the outcome of Tuesday’s elections set the stage for 2024, and especially for the future of abortion rights. What’s your sense?

AMY LITTLEFIELD: I mean, Juan, I think, crucially, as John pointed out, we saw the failure of the two signature Republican strategies that they were banking on for 2024. The first was this idea of a 15-week “limit,” of a “compromise” on abortion, right? And Glenn Youngkin was the face of this. He worked closely with Susan B. Anthony List. We’ve talked about this on the show before, how in the wake of the Dobbs decision, the anti-abortion movement tried to rebrand itself. Bans were not going to be bans anymore; they were going to be limits and compromises. And 15 weeks was supposed to be this, you know, compromise, as if voters were going to forget it was a 15-week ban in Mississippi that got us to the Dobbs decision in the first place and that Mississippi is now living under a total abortion ban and has been for about a year and a half. So, I think we can, you know, chalk the surprising success of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate there partly up to that reality. They haven’t forgotten about Dobbs. But we saw this strategy of the 15-week compromise fall on its face in Virginia, because voters saw right through that. They understood that an abortion ban is a ban. And this was a crucial part of their Republican strategy to rebrand themselves after the Dobbs decision. I think they’re going to want to abort that strategy, Juan. I don’t see that happening in the next 15 weeks, so, unfortunately, I think they’re going to have to carry it to term, or at least until the next election in 2024.

The other signature Republican strategy we saw fall on its face, as John pointed out, was in Kentucky, where somewhere on the order of $6 million was spent by right-wing groups attacking Andy Beshear for vetoing a bill that would have banned gender-affirming care for minors. This anti-trans fearmongering, again, did not work. Chef’s kiss, no notes. I love that that $6 million might as well have been flushed down the toilet for all that it resonated with Kentucky voters in this deep red state, or what is known as a deep red state. And so, I think Republicans are in serious trouble.

And on the flip side of that, I want to say, I don’t think Democrats can just lay back and count on abortion rights to save their butts in 2024. We know that Joe Biden is tanking among Arab American voters right now. We know that he’s struggling in swing states from The New York Times poll. And, you know, this is a position that abortion rights supporters are not necessarily used to. We’re used to abortion being a third rail in American politics and Democrats not taking the issue seriously. All of a sudden, it’s looking like Democrats need the abortion rights movement more than the movement needs them. And it’s not lost on me that while these results were coming in and it was becoming clear that abortion had lifted the boats of Democrats across all of the states, you know, from Virginia to Kentucky to Ohio and beyond, we saw 22 Democrats in Congress siding with Republicans to censure Rashida Tlaib, who, by the way, is one of the staunchest supporters of reproductive justice that we have in Congress, in addition to being the only Palestinian American. And so, I think supporters of abortion rights really need to ask themselves: What are you going to do with this power that you now have? And are you going to compromise, or are you going to push the envelope and go big and push Democrats who now need this issue in order to win?

AMY GOODMAN: Amy Littlefield, I want to thank you for being with us, abortion access correspondent for The Nation, John Nichols, The Nation's national affairs correspondent. A perfect segue into our next segment. We'll be playing the full speech of Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American member of Congress, just before she was censured by the U.S. House of Representatives. Back in 20 seconds.

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