Weeks before Tuesday’s election, Kentucky voters started seeing an ad from the campaign of Gov. Andy Beshear (D) featuring a young woman who was raped by her stepfather as a child.
The woman, Hadley Duvall, didn’t utter the word “abortion” as she spoke stone-faced into the camera. But the message was clear. “This is to you, Daniel Cameron,” she said of Beshear’s Republican opponent. “To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable.”
The 30-second clip was part of a flurry of abortion-focused advertisements Democrats launched in the final stretch of the campaign that highlight the party’s increasingly gloves-off approach to reproductive rights in the year-plus since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the case that established a right to an abortion.
It was an off-year election cycle, but Democrats once again bet big on abortion, according to data from the ad tracking firm AdImpact, running ads that used a mix of personal stories like Duvall’s and attacks that portrayed Republicans as too extreme.
By and large, the strategy seemed to connect with voters, who delivered abortion rights advocates victories in three states Tuesday night. Here’s a look at Democrats’ playbook on abortion and the GOP’s struggle to settle on an abortion message that resonates with the electorate.
Democrats surfaced emotional stories about abortion access from real people
In Kentucky, Beshear used Duvall’s stark account of abuse by her stepfather to call for leeway in the state’s tough abortion restrictions that have essentially banned the procedure.
“Anyone who believes there should be no exception for rape and incest could never understand what it’s like to stand in my shoes,” Duvall said in the clip. “I’m speaking out because women and girls need to have options.”
An advocacy group’s ad in Ohio took a similar approach. A young couple recounted how doctors told them their unborn daughter had no chance of survival 18 weeks into the pregnancy.
“An abortion was our only option. But the government here in Ohio took that decision away from us,” they said, referring to the state law that banned abortions after detection of a fetal heartbeat. They had to leave the state to get the care they needed, they said.
Only Democrats are finding success in painting their opponents as extreme
It wasn’t just personal stories that made a difference for Democrats. In some markets, they ran more traditional attack ads that leaned on extreme positions some Republican lawmakers have taken on abortion, like opposing abortion in all circumstances, including in the case of rape. “We banned abortion. No exceptions,” a mock Republican lawmaker said in a clip by the Progress Action Fund, a Democratic group that focuses on beating Republicans in swing districts. “I won the last election, so it’s my decision.”
Republican counterattacks, on the other hand, were few and far between. When they did push back, they argued that Democrats, not Republicans, were the ones who were out of touch with the American public.
One major ad buy out of Virginia centered on the less than 1 percent of abortions performed in the third trimester and accused Democrats of supporting abortion “at the moment of birth.” Democrats meanwhile zeroed in on Republicans’ proposal to outlaw most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which may have appealed to more voters as Democrats flipped control of the House of Delegates on Tuesday and maintained a blue majority in the state Senate.In Ohio, where abortion access itself was on the ballot, Republicans were forced to address the issue head-on. But they struggled to land on a coherent message. One notable ad featured Gov. Mike DeWine and his wife, Fran DeWine, acknowledging that Ohioans were divided on abortion before arguing that the state’s constitutional amendment “just goes too far.”
“This is the dog that caught the car,” Jacob Neiheisel, an expert on political campaigns from the University at Buffalo, said of Republicans. “Overturning Roe is a great tool to mobilize when it’s not going to be a reality. Now that it is, they have to find a way to back it.”
Democrats continued to outspend Republicans on abortion ads
In the 2022 midterms, Democrats significantly outspent Republicans on abortion. The same was true this year. And Tuesday’s results may offer the party a blueprint for continuing to campaign on abortion access in the 2024 general election.
Ohio saw the most abortion ad spending in 2023, with $32 million total spent on the issue in the five weeks leading up to the election, according to AdImpact data. Antiabortion groups spent significant money in the state, too, $11 million, but that number was still dwarfed by the $21 million spent on protecting abortion access.
In places where abortion wasn’t directly on the ballot, the spending was even more lopsided. In Virginia, for instance, Democrats spent $4.5 million on abortion-related ads in the last month of the campaign while Republicans spent just $40,000, according to AdImpact data. Even in bright-red Kentucky, Beshear ran three ads on the abortion, attacking Cameron for supporting the state’s near-total ban. As the state attorney general, Cameron has defended Kentucky’s abortion restrictions in court. But he ran no advertisements promoting his record.
“Democrats found the right trigger,” Neiheisel, the University at Buffalo professor, said. “People have very nuanced opinions about abortion. It wasn’t hard for them to say that the laws on the books and the laws proposed by Republicans are pretty extreme.”
It’s probably not going to get any easier for the GOP going into 2024, Neiheisel said.
“I don’t know that there is any ad campaign that is going to be part of a winning strategy for Republicans in competitive places without an accompanying shift in their stated policy positions,” he said. They could try fine-tuning their message to win back certain segments of the public, he added, “but it isn’t going to get them what conservatives want.”