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‘Y’all are scared’: The huge, looming fight over abortion referendums

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon speaks at a primary election party in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Aug. 2. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

As their party confronts the vexing political fallout of the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade, some Republicans — especially those in tough 2022 races — are taking things a step further in trying to rid themselves of the issue: Embracing the idea that voters themselves should decide it.

The party as a whole, of course, probably won’t like what those voters decide, as Kansas recently showed. And we should hardly expect this approach to catch on very widely. Indeed, getting such measures on the ballot looks to be one of the next big battlegrounds in the fight over abortion, with Republicans as a whole preparing to fight against it.

But to a few candidates, direct democracy is apparently an attractive off-ramp.

This week, both Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and New Mexico GOP governor candidate Mark Ronchetti proposed letting voters decide the issue, in different ways.

Ronchetti in a new ad proposes putting the issue on the ballot, saying, “No politician should decide this; you should. We should vote on it as a state. Put it on the statewide ballots, so everyone gets a say.” Ronchetti, who has taken pains to soften his past position on abortion, adds that “no politician should make this decision for you.”

Johnson, meanwhile, suggested Wisconsin hold a ballot referendum to add rape and incest exceptions to Wisconsin’s Civil War-era law banning nearly all abortions. “We really ought to poll the citizens,” Johnson said. “And I’d rather do it through a direct referendum.” But the process for doing that in Wisconsin is lengthy and might be prohibitive.

One state that will see abortion actually on the ballot this fall is Michigan, whose Supreme Court made sure of that last week over Republican objections. GOP gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon promptly responded by saying voters can now “vote for [Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer’s abortion agenda & still vote against her.”

Also last week, a South Carolina GOP legislator proposed a ballot referendum, offering it during a contentious debate over new abortion restrictions. But state Sen. Sandy Senn (R) acknowledged that idea was going nowhere for a very specific reason.

“We won’t do that because y’all are scared to do that,” she said. “The same thing that happened in Kansas would happen here, resoundingly. Y’all think you know better than your own constituents.”

The vote in Kansas, where 59 percent of voters rejected an effort to remove abortion protections from the state constitution despite the red lean of the state, is certainly the biggest cautionary tale thus far. But it’s unlikely to be the only one.

Multiple polls in Michigan have shown the ballot measure that was greenlighted last week — which would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution and block a restrictive ban from taking effect — passing by a very wide margin. A Detroit News/WDIV poll last week showed it passing by a 60 percent-to-29 percent margin. An earlier EPIC-MRA poll showed an even wider margin: 67-24. That’s in a preeminent swing state.

Two blue states -- California and Vermont -- will also take up amendments explicitly protecting abortion rights, and the votes are expected to be lopsided, with a new poll this week in California showing voters support it by a 69-25 margin.

The votes in the other two states featuring abortion-related 2022 referendums — Montana and Kentucky — could be closer, as these are red states and the measures are narrower and are backed by Republicans.

The Montana measure is particularly narrow, imposing criminal penalties on medical providers who don’t do enough to save the life of an infant who is born during an abortion. The Kentucky measure would prevent anything in the state constitution from being “construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.”

We don’t have good polling on either state. The latter measure, though, could get interesting, in light of the similarities to the amendment that was rejected in Kansas. But Kentucky is a redder state, and Kansas has more of a tradition of a strong moderate wing of the Republican Party.

The results will be closely watched and could have major implications for the future of abortion-related ballot measures. Advocates had little time to put the measures on the ballot after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in late June, but they’re already cuing up potential referendums in several swing and red states moving forward. (The processes for getting on the ballot vary widely by state, with some being much easier and others — like Wisconsin — making it much more difficult.)

Given the results in Kansas and the likelihood that abortion rights supporters will win in some of these other states come November, Republicans will be confronted with how to fight back. With referendums and amendments, that often means trying to control the ballot language or trying to exclude the measure on a technicality, as was attempted in Michigan. In some states, they’re trying to increase the threshold for putting measures on the ballot.

But that’s a difficult trick, as Michigan also showed. And Republicans hailed the Supreme Court overturning Roe by emphasizing this merely returned the issue to the states — letting the people’s chosen representatives decide, rather than unelected judges. But then why not go all the way and let it be decided by direct democracy? That process is still prone to gamesmanship, of course — the late David Broder will tell you all about it — but it’s certainly a logical extension of the argument.

And now a few Republicans with their careers on the line in 2022 are apparently embracing that . Of course, they’re doing so as a means to show how populist and moderate they are on this issue — or, more likely, as an attempt to put the issue to the side. But the fact that they think this is what plays well shows how difficult it could be for the party to fight back against such ballot measures, ahead of what could be the biggest round of ballot initiatives in a very long time.