Abortion rights on the ballot may not be bad news for Republicans everywhere

By Jason Rosenbaum
Voters take to the polls in the early hours of the morning on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, during the 2022 Midterm Elections at Ladue City Hall in Ladue, Mo.
Voters take to the polls in the early hours of the morning on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, during the 2022 Midterm Elections at Ladue City Hall in Ladue, Mo.

ST. LOUIS – Missouri may soon be a barometer for how abortion-related ballot initiatives can affect elections in Republican-led states.

If advocates and volunteers turn in enough signatures by May 5, Missourians will vote on an abortion-rights initiative in November.

Some Democrats in the state hope it energizes voters enough to help candidates running for key statewide and state legislative posts, but in some respects, having the ability to pick and choose policies through a robust initiative petition process could be a double-edged sword.

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Voters in Missouri could show that abortion rights initiatives are not a down-ballot Democratic dream everywhere, especially if GOP voters who dislike their party’s views on abortion rights still like candidates on most other issues.

Desiree White, a Missouri resident, says the state has the opportunity to break from widespread assumptions about its politics and voting habits.

White is a volunteer for Missourians for Constitutional Freedom, a group trying to repeal the state’s ban on most abortions. As she helped gather the signatures needed to appear on the ballot, White says there’s ample evidence that Missouri is not some “throwaway state” when it comes to abortion rights just because it tends to back GOP candidates.

“We’re not too red,” White says. “We long for our freedoms here in all aspects.”

Public opinion may show the same. “We know from polling, and from results in other states, that there are a fair number of Republican voters who will vote Republican in other elections, but they don’t agree with their party on abortion rights,” says Kyle Kondik, who is with the University of Virginia-based Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “They can place themselves on a spectrum of supporting abortion rights and say: ‘Hey, maybe I even think that this ballot issue is too permissive. However, it’s closer to my position than this current law in Missouri, which is among the most draconian in the country.’ “

Missouri and split tickets

St. Louis County resident Bryan Pyle may be a great example of the type of voter Kondik is talking about.

Pyle signed the Missourians for Constitutional Freedom ballot initiative, which would allow abortion up to what’s known as fetal viability. That’s defined in the initiative as a point when a medical professional determines a fetus could survive outside of the womb without extraordinary medical intervention.

“We don’t need to have people take the rights from other people because they don’t like it,” Pyle says. “And we should all have the right to make our own decisions.”

But Pyle, who voted for Republican candidates in 2016 and 2020, expects to vote for the GOP in 2024. That corresponds with recent polling from Saint Louis University and YouGov showing that 24% of Republican respondents would vote for the Missourians for Constitutional Freedom initiative. That same survey shows a Republican winning the governor’s race without too much trouble.

“The best bet that Republicans have in the state is that they get the voters to put their ‘red jerseys’ on and look at the abortion rights issue as a kind of partisan issue,” Kondik says. “But again, my guess is there’ll be a significant number of voters who don’t do that. And you can imagine it passing even in the midst of an otherwise Republican environment.”

Split ticket voting behavior is common in Missouri, where Republicans control all statewide offices and both U.S. Senate seats but thanks to an initiative petition process allowing groups to circumvent the legislature, Missourians have enacted fairly left-of-center policies expanding Medicaid and raising the minimum wage. They also legalized marijuana for adult use and instituted campaign donations.

Some of those results stem from underfunded opposition campaigns. Still, others say it’s part of a broader trend allowing voters to back policies that may depart from their chosen candidates’ political orthodoxy.

“You’re asking voters a single question,” says pollster Christine Matthews, who runs Virginia-based Bellwether Research and Consulting. “And they’re only considering the abortion issue. When you’re looking at a candidate, you’re looking at them with a whole lot of different positions and needs and frames in mind.”

Republicans aren’t fearful of blowback

For their part, GOP candidates in Missouri aren’t too worried about abortion rights upending their bids for office in 2024.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, for instance, says he welcomes Missourians deciding for themselves whether to legalize abortion or keep the ban in place. Hawley opposes abortion rights except in cases of rape, incest or the life of the mother. That’s out of step with Missouri’s law, which doesn’t have exceptions for rape or incest.

“My whole adult life I said Roe is wrong because the Constitution gives us the choice of the people,” Hawley said earlier this year. “My view is, you gotta let the people decide. So if the people want to vote on this, we should vote on it. We can vote on it every year if they want to.”

The three major Republican candidates seeking to succeed Missouri Gov. Mike Parson aren’t worried they’ll suffer electoral blowback either — even if the abortion initiative goes before voters in November.

Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe says it’s possible that the initiative could motivate socially conservative voters — especially in rural counties and conservative suburbs where the GOP gained ground in the past decade.

“Even if there’s Missourians who say there might be some medical exceptions or exceptions for rape or incest, I think if they knew how far it allows it to go — it would give them pause,” Kehoe says.

Still, recent history shows that abortion rights can impact down-ballot elections. Back in 2012, then-U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill won a resounding reelection victory over GOP opponent former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin. Akin set off a national firestorm after he said on a local television program, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Even current GOP candidates, such as gubernatorial hopeful Jay Ashcroft, Missouri’s secretary of state, say they don’t think the effect of an abortion rights initiative will be nonexistent on other contests. He says it’s possible that it could affect state legislative contests, especially in suburban districts where the two parties are more evenly divided.

“Maybe there’s certain suburban districts, those kind of 50/50 House districts, or one or two state Senate districts, where maybe that changes the electorate enough to change who gets elected,” says Ashcroft.

And Democrats like Lucas Kunce, one of the Democrats running against Sen. Hawley, say the reason to get the abortion rights ballot item up to Missouri voters has less to do with the political impact and more about overturning what he sees as a cruel and overreaching ban.

“The importance of that is not my race, it’s the importance of giving women access to the health care that they need,” Kunce says. “It is about taking care of everyday Missourians and taking away the weird control that our politicians want to have over women and giving them the ability to make their own decisions.”

Ballot items in limbo?

Unlike other states such as Wisconsin, Missouri’s robust initiative petition process makes legalizing abortion possible, but that may change.

Missouri lawmakers have been trying to place another ballot item, presumably on the August ballot, that would raise the threshold to amend the state’s constitution. Some lawmakers also want to place other items into the initiative, such as a measure barring noncitizens from voting.

“Folks are rightfully looking for Republicans in the legislature to lead on this issue and protect the constitution,” says Missouri Sen. Bill Eigel, who like Kehoe and Ashcroft, is running for governor.

Democrats have decried the other items in the initiative petition overhaul as “ballot candy” meant to confuse voters from the real purpose: making it nearly impossible for organizations to place ballot items up for a vote.

“The voters are not going to be fooled by this effort,” says Democratic state Rep. Ashley Aune, noting a similar effort fell flat in Ohio. “What they’re trying to do is essentially to end majority rule.”

Sen. John Rizzo, the Democratic leader of the Missouri Senate, says he’s tried to warn his Republican colleagues that a successful effort to gut the initiative petition process could backfire on the GOP.

He says giving people the right to pick policies different from the candidates they ultimately vote for may help Republicans in the long run.

“That’s the thing that allows them to go around the legislature,” Rizzo says. “And if they can’t do that, and they can’t go around the legislature, they’re gonna start changing the legislature.”

Missouri abortion initiative gets big-name support

Missourians for Constitutional Freedom are slated to turn in their signatures by May 5. In addition to getting thousands of volunteer signature gatherers and millions of dollars in campaign donations, the campaign also received support from fashion icon Karlie Kloss.

Kloss was in the St. Louis area earlier this month to gather signatures for the abortion initiative. Like other volunteers, she noticed that a good share of people who wanted to sign the petition were Republicans who disagreed with their party on the right to a legal abortion.

“It’s no secret that there’s an enormous amount of bipartisan support,” Kloss said earlier this month in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio. “Many signatures and people showing up here today and organizing this effort are Republicans — as well as Democrats.”

Kloss, who grew up in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, said the rest of the country should pay attention to what’s happening in Missouri — and not just for political implications. The lack of abortion access is causing stress on smaller health care facilities, especially in Illinois where the procedure is legal. That’s one of the reasons she started a group called the Gateway Coalition to support those facilities.

“It’s devastating to me the reality of what is happening and how it has become so politicized,” Kloss said. “Because to me, this is a conversation that belongs between an individual and their physician, and an individual and their loved ones. Politicians should not be involved.”

Missourians should know sometime over the summer if they’re going to vote to legalize abortion.

“To me, this issue is about dignity,” Kloss said.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.