Ohio GOP Senate candidates pitch federal abortion bans even after voters protected reproductive rights

FINDLAY, Ohio — Ohioans voted decisively last year to enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution, but all three of the Republicans competing in a tough U.S. Senate primary here say they are open to overruling them and supporting federal restrictions.

State Sen. Matt Dolan and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose present themselves as better authorities on the matter, arguing that voters didn’t fully understand the 2023 ballot measure.

Businessman Bernie Moreno favors a federal ban at 15 weeks — a timeline that Dolan also says he would back if “late-term abortions” become the “norm.” And while Dolan and Moreno both say they support exceptions in cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is in jeopardy, LaRose, who brags that his anti-abortion record “is not something I run away from,” is tougher to pin down.

“I support doing things that we can do to reaffirm the sanctity of life,” LaRose told reporters Monday after a GOP debate at the University of Findlay. “And I look forward to that conversation in the U.S. Senate, but I’m not going to litigate here how many weeks, how many exceptions.”

Ohio is expected to host one of the most competitive and expensive Senate races in the country this fall, with Republicans aiming to unseat three-term Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown — a staunch abortion-rights supporter — in a state that has become more conservative in recent years.

Early voting for the March 19 primary began this week. Public polling has been limited, though Moreno is viewed as a slight front-runner, thanks to an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, who twice won the state by comfortable margins. Moreno and Dolan are heavily self-funding their campaigns and have been on air with TV ads for months.

LaRose, who as a state senator supported a “heartbeat bill” to ban abortion at six weeks, is banking on name recognition and hoping the GOP base rewards him for his central role in opposing last year’s constitutional amendment. Moreno was also visible in the fight and donated money to the campaign to defeat the ballot measure, known as Issue 1. He drew scrutiny when he falsely claimed the measure would allow a rapist to “force” a woman to have an abortion.

The amendment passed with 57% of the vote, indicating support from plenty of independents and Republicans. Over the last quarter-century, Brown and former President Barack Obama are the only Democrats who have won more than one statewide election in Ohio.

“I think abortion is going to be a pivotal issue that Sherrod Brown runs on,” said Mehek Cooke, a Republican strategist in Ohio who worked on the campaign to defeat the abortion measure.

“For any candidate that emerges as a front-runner for the GOP, it’s really important for him to understand that this has to be more of a national discussion,” Cooke added. “A majority of Ohioans voted against a ban, and we need to figure out moving forward where that middle ground is so that as Republicans we can still protect life.”

Ohio Right to Life, an influential anti-abortion group in the state, issued a dual endorsement of Moreno and LaRose this month. All three GOP candidates, meanwhile, are trying to strike softer notes on the issue.

“Bernie is proudly pro-life and believes we can unify this country around ending late term abortion once and for all,” Moreno spokesperson Reagan McCarthy said. “He doesn’t believe in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good and his goal is to protect as many babies as possible.”

During a debate last month in Cleveland, LaRose and Moreno objected to the moderator’s use of the word “ban” when asked about their position. But both confirmed they would support a federal law that restricts access to abortion. LaRose said “there should be a bare minimum that we look at.” Moreno endorsed a 15-week “floor,” with “commonsense restrictions after 15 weeks.”

Dolan, meanwhile, said he preferred not to legislate the issue at the federal level but that he would support a 15-week ban, with exceptions, if more states follow Ohio’s lead and “late term” abortions “become the norm” nationally. Dolan, his rivals and other GOP candidates frequently use the phrase “late term” without defining what they mean. Most abortions occur within the first trimester.

At a debate Monday in Findlay, Dolan suggested that his rivals are too extreme on the issue, pointing to LaRose’s record and to Moreno’s past opposition to exceptions in cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life is at risk. Dolan also noted how the Issue 1 ballot measure outperformed Brown’s vote share in nearly all of the 16 counties that the senator won in his 2018 campaign.

“My opponents have been a little disingenuous, because they’re both on tape with positions that maybe don’t fly with the rest of Ohio,” Dolan said. “I have a pro-life record that I’m proud of, but I have a pro-life record that can beat Sherrod Brown, because if Sherrod Brown makes it about abortion with me, I’m the one that’s going to point to him and say, ‘You’re for late-term abortion.’”

LaRose, who supports exceptions to abortion restrictions when a mother’s life is at risk, acknowledged a need “to be compassionate in the way that we talk about” abortion.

“Being pro-life means being pro-life, not just pro-birth,” he said. “And that means that we have to have supportive services for mothers, we have to make sure that it is less costly to bring a child into the world, that it’s less costly to engage and less bureaucratic in the adoption process.”

Moreno also talked of wanting to “make it less expensive” to have and raise children and said he would support efforts to improve access to adoption services and contraception. His attempts to show compassion took what critics found to be awkward turn, though, when he veered into a story about how strangers were polite and helpful to one of his daughters, a young mother, on a recent flight.

“You know, a mom carrying what looks like a F1 team worth of equipment,” Moreno said. “People helped her on that plane, helped put the stroller away, helped her with her seat. … Those are the kinds of things that we can do. Let’s [have] a pro-mom, pro-family policy.”

Brown on Wednesday posted a video that featured a woman lifting a stroller on her own and mocking Moreno for sharing the anecdote in response to a question about abortion. (The video left out other context from Moreno’s answer.)

“No matter who emerges from this primary, Ohioans will know they would overrule them by voting for a national abortion ban,” Brown spokesperson Reeves Oyster said.

In separate meetings with reporters after the Findlay debate, when asked how they reconciled their openness to federal abortion restrictions with last year’s vote, both LaRose and Dolan contended that the measure was more complicated than voters realized.

“It is clear that a majority of Ohioans support some access to abortion,” LaRose said. “The problem is that’s not what was on the ballot. What was on the ballot creates this constitutional right — it makes Ohio one of the most extreme states now in the nation.”

“I’m not saying that they were confused,” LaRose added of voters, when asked if he believed that was the case. “I’m saying, though, that I think for many people, it became a very binary thing. And as you know, these are much more complex than just binary decisions. People that were pro-choice voted one way. People who were pro-life voted another way.”

Dolan was more direct.

“What I have said is I don’t think Ohioans fully understood that they voted for the opportunity for late-term abortions,” he said. “So if late-term abortion becomes the norm around the United States, then I do think the federal government should look at getting involved.”

Despite their concerns, which filled anti-Issue 1 ads last year, abortion in Ohio remains illegal after about the 24th week of pregnancy, except when a mother’s health or life is at risk.

Moreno did not meet with reporters after the debate.

“How people vote in an off-year election on a single issue is very different than how they vote in Senate races, particularly in presidential cycles,” a Moreno adviser told NBC News. “As much as Sherrod Brown and his allies in the mainstream media would like to make this entire election about abortion, it’s very unlikely that that issue is going to end up overshadowing issues like inflation and the various foreign policy issues that are popping up all over the world.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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