Many ads run by Democrats and abortion rights advocates during the 2023 elections relied on personal stories. (Video: The Washington Post)

Weeks before Tuesday’s election, Kentucky voters began seeing a campaign ad from Gov. Andy Beshear (D) featuring a young woman who was raped by her stepfather when she was a child.

The woman, Hadley Duvall, did not say the word “abortion” as she spoke to the camera with a straight face. But the message was clear. “This is for you, Daniel Cameron,” she said of Beshear’s Republican opponent. “Telling a 12-year-old girl that she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable.”

This 2023 campaign ad aired in Kentucky was one of the most high-profile Democratic ads on abortion. (Video: Andy Beshear for Governor)

The 30-second clip was part of a wave of abortion-focused ads that Democrats launched in the latter part of the campaign that highlight the party’s increasingly casual approach to reproductive rights in the year following the reversal of the Supreme Court’s decision. Roe v. Wadethe case that established the right to abortion.

It was an off-year election cycle, but Democrats once again bet big on abortion, according to data from ad tracking company AdImpact, running ads using a mix of personal stories like Duvall’s and attacks describing Republicans as too extremist.

Overall, the strategy appeared to resonate with voters, who scored victories for abortion rights in three states Tuesday night. Here’s a look at Democrats’ playbook on abortion and the Republican Party’s struggle to embrace a message on abortion that resonates with the electorate.

Democrats reported moving stories about abortion access from real people

In Kentucky, Beshear used Duvall’s brutal account of abuse by his stepfather to call for some leeway in the state’s strict abortion restrictions that essentially banned the procedure.

“Anyone who believes that there should be no exceptions for rape and incest will never be able to understand what it’s like to be in my shoes,” Duvall said in the clip. “I’m speaking out because women and girls need to have options.”

An advocacy group’s advertising in Ohio took a similar approach. A young couple has told how doctors told them their unborn daughter had no chance of surviving after 18 weeks of pregnancy.

“Abortion was our only option. But the government here in Ohio took that decision away from us,” they said, referring to state law that banned abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat. They had to leave the state to get the care they needed, they said.

In Ohio, abortion rights advocates relied on personal stories in ads encouraging voters to support enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution. (Video: Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights)

Only Democrats succeed in presenting their opponents as extremists.

It wasn’t just the personal stories that made the difference for Democrats. In some markets, they ran more traditional attack ads that drew on extreme positions taken by some Republican lawmakers on abortion, such as opposing abortion under all circumstances, including in cases of rape .

“We have banned abortion. No exceptions,” a fake Republican lawmaker said in a clip from the Progress Action Fund, a Democratic group that focuses on winning against Republicans in swing districts. “I won the last election, so it’s my decision.”

In that campaign ad, Democrats portrayed Republican lawmakers as having extreme positions on abortion, such as not supporting rape exceptions. (Video: Action Fund for Progress)

Republican counterattacks, on the other hand, they were rare. When they responded, they argued that it was Democrats, not Republicans, who were out of touch with the American public.

A major ad campaign in Virginia focused on less than 1 percent of abortions performed in the third trimester and accused Democrats of supporting “time-of-birth” abortion. Meanwhile, Democrats focused on Republicans’ proposal to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which could have attracted more voters as Democrats flipped control of the House of Delegates on Tuesday and maintained a blue majority in the state Senate.

Virginia Republicans have tried to portray Democrats as too extreme on abortion. (Video: Virginia House Republican Caucus)

In Ohio, where abortion access itself was on the ballot, Republicans were forced to address the issue head on. But they struggled to formulate 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 “simply goes too far “.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) and his wife, Fran DeWine, tried to argue that the state’s constitutional amendment on abortion rights went too far. (Video: Protecting Ohio Women)

“It’s the dog that caught the car,” Jacob Neiheisel, a political campaigns expert at the University at Buffalo, said of the Republicans. “Overturning Roe is a great mobilization tool when that may not be a reality. Now that it is, they need to find a way to support it.

Democrats continued to outspend Republicans on abortion ads

In the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats significantly outspent Republicans on abortion. The same was true this year. And Tuesday’s results could offer the party a model to continue its campaign on abortion access in the 2024 general election.

Ohio saw the most ad spending on abortion in 2023, with a total of $32 million spent on the issue in the five weeks before the election, according to AdImpact data. Anti-abortion groups also spent significant amounts in the state, $11 million, but that figure was still dwarfed by the $21 million spent to protect abortion access.

In countries where abortion was not directly on the ballot, spending was even more lopsided. In Virginia, for example, Democrats spent $4.5 million on abortion-related ads in the final month of the campaign, while Republicans spent just $40,000, according to data from AdImpact. Even in bright red Kentucky, Beshear aired three abortion ads, attacking Cameron for his support of the state’s near-total ban. As state attorney general, Cameron defended Kentucky’s abortion restrictions in court. But he didn’t release any ads promoting his record.

“The Democrats found the right trigger,” said Neiheisel, a professor at the University at Buffalo. “People have very nuanced opinions about abortion. “It wasn’t hard for them to say that the current laws and the Republican proposed laws are pretty extreme.”

It probably won’t get any easier for the GOP by 2024, Neiheisel said.

“I don’t think an advertising campaign is part of a winning strategy for Republicans in competitive places without a concomitant change in their stated policy positions,” he said. They could try to refine their message to win back certain segments of the public, he added, “but that won’t get them what the conservatives want.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *