Abortion rights on the ballot in Ohio Senate race The race for an open U.S. Senate seat in Ohio has put abortion rights and women voters in the national spotlight.

How abortion may be reshaping the close Ohio Senate race

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: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly say David Cohen is a professor at Akron State University. In fact, the name is the University of Akron.]

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Not long ago, Ohio was considered a swing state. These days, it is pretty red. President Trump won it by eight points in 2020, and he went there this weekend to stump for the Republican in Ohio's Senate race.

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DONALD TRUMP: The people of Ohio are going to vote to fire the radical left Democrats. You're going to send J.D. Vance to the U.S. Senate.

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KELLY: That race is looking very close as Election Day approaches. And a big part of that is women voters, many of them energized by the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has this report.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Brittany Koester has undergone one hell of a political evolution. She voted for Trump in 2016 but soon soured on him and started staunchly supporting Democrats. That fervor has grown. This year, she says, she's more politically active than ever. And it was the overturn of Roe that did it.

BRITTANY KOESTER: I was like, we got to do something. Like, what are we going to do? So I got involved with certain, you know, campaigns or just really in general, and I've been out twice knocking on doors and talking to people and reminding them to vote.

KURTZLEBEN: Koester is a busy woman. She spoke to me from her car on the job as a rep for lighting manufacturers. She has also been volunteering with Red Wine and Blue, a group of suburban women supporting Democrats, in particular by engaging family and friends. Koester has been talking about reproductive rights to her family.

KOESTER: You know, when Tim Ryan came to town, I got my mom and my Republican dad to go. My dad hugged Tim Ryan. My dad hugged him.

KURTZLEBEN: And she says her dad will be voting for Ryan, the Democrat in Ohio's Senate race. Polls have shown a substantial gender gap with women favoring Ryan. Tom Bonier is a Democratic strategist and CEO of polling and data firm TargetSmart. He has found that in several states, including Ohio, women's voter registration has spiked since the Dobbs decision.

TOM BONIER: Ohio's fascinating because before the Dobbs decision, men were actually out-registering women by a very narrow margin. Since Dobbs, that's flipped entirely so that now, women are out-registering men by an 11-point margin - so about a 12-point flip, which puts Ohio among the top states of biggest gender gaps since the Dobbs decision.

KURTZLEBEN: Bonier says his modeling shows the surge to be disproportionately Democratic. David Cohen, professor of political science at Akron State University, says there are several reasons this race is close. For example, Republican candidate J.D. Vance is inexperienced and has been out-fundraised by Ryan. But, he adds, Dobbs is definitely playing a role.

DAVID COHEN: There is an energy there that is not normally there in a midterm election for the president's party. And Dobbs has been a real focusing event for Democrats.

KURTZLEBEN: Vance mostly opposes abortion rights but told NPR that he supports, quote, "reasonable exceptions." Ryan, meanwhile, supports abortion rights, telling NPR that codifying Roe would be a good policy. That said, the economy is at the center of Ryan's campaign. Even when I asked him about abortion, he linked it to business concerns.

TIM RYAN: We're trying to get young people to move here and talent to move here. To have medieval women's right laws in the country, I think, is very detrimental to the economic well-being of the state as well.

KURTZLEBEN: Katie Paris is founder of Red Wine and Blue, the group that Brittany Koester volunteers with. The women she talks to understand Ryan's focus on the economy over abortion rights.

KATIE PARIS: They know what they need to know. People also know that in Ohio, to win, you got to do what Sherrod Brown does, and that's do well everywhere. And that includes doing better than most Democrats have done lately in rural Ohio.

KURTZLEBEN: It's true that reproductive rights aren't top of mind for all voters, including women. Polling has suggested women support abortion rights only modestly more than men, not overwhelmingly so. And that's what Vance is counting on.

JD VANCE: Women aren't single-issue voters, right? I mean, I think women care about a lot of things that men care about, which is security, inflation, crime, a whole other things - a lot of other things on top of it.

KURTZLEBEN: I spoke to Vance at the Morgan County Fair in southeastern Ohio. That's also where I met Leinala Porter, a 19-year-old waitress. I asked if she had heard much about J.D. Vance or Tim Ryan.

LEINALA PORTER: Nope (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: This will be her first election. She plans to vote, though she hasn't registered.

PORTER: I have not, not yet.

KURTZLEBEN: She's a woman of few words. But one topic where she did have a lot to say is abortion.

PORTER: I'm pro-choice in a large way. It just doesn't seem very fair to make a woman pay for and have a child when she just isn't ready or if it can potentially kill her.

KURTZLEBEN: And it's voters like her that could put Ryan over the top - new voters who aren't paying a lot of attention but who do care about reproductive rights.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

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