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CLARENCE PAGE: Democrats ride abortion issue to victory

“Gut punch.”

With that memorable description, Sen. J.D. Vance, Republican from Ohio, spoke for many of his fellow partisans as Democrats racked up decisive victories in major races across the country where abortion was a leading issue.

“For pro-lifers, last night was a gut punch,” Vance wrote in a lengthy series of tweets on X, formerly Twitter. “No sugar coating it.”

But don’t give up, Vance reassured his allies. “Giving up on the unborn is not an option,” he tweeted. “It’s politically dumb and morally repugnant. Instead, we need to understand why we lost this battle so we can win the war.”

Why? For one thing, the public is not on his side. A Gallup poll in June found a record 69 percent supported legalizing first-trimester abortions and a near-record 34 percent who said abortion should be legal in all cases.

At the same time, polls confirm what just about everybody who is paying attention already knows. Political parties are more polarized on the issue than ever.

In elections since last year’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, in which the Supreme Court overturned the nearly 50-year-old constitutional right to abortion, Democrats clearly turned their own outrage into a rallying cry — and votes.

Ohio became the seventh state since Dobbs to pass a ballot initiative to establish the right to abortion in its state Constitution.

Abortion also helped state lawmakers in Virginia take majority control of both legislative chambers and propelled the re-election of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in Kentucky — leaving some Democrats observing that the “choice” issue is more popular in the polls than President Joe Biden.

But that’s OK, say leading Democrats, who intend to play their advantage on this issue for all it’s worth.

“Abortion is the No. 1 issue in the 2024 campaign,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in an interview Tuesday. “If you’re not talking about protecting women’s reproductive rights as a Democrat, you’re not doing it right.”

Pritzker has been an outspoken champion for abortion rights, just as Vance, freshman senator endorsed by Donald Trump, has been outspoken on the other side.

As regular followers of this column may recall, I took a special interest in Vance after learning that we both grew up in Middletown, Ohio, which, like many other Rust Belt towns, has seen better socioeconomic days.

Author of the bestselling “Hillbilly Elegy,” he impressed me with his rise from blue-collar struggles to a Yale law degree and the high-finance world of venture capital. Now he’s in the Senate, where I initially hoped he could help my old home state and the rest of us. His fealty to Trump quickly shook my optimism about that and, since then, his politics needless to say haven’t been my cup of tea.

Still, I was intrigued by his analytical assessment of why the political right on election night, in his words, “got creamed.”

“We got creamed among voters who disliked both Issue I (the constitutional change) and also Ohio’s current law,” which bans abortion when a fetal heartbeat, a controversial term in itself, is detected.

“Second, he said, “we have to recognize how much voters mistrust us (meaning elected Republicans) on this issue. Having an unplanned pregnancy is scary. Best case, you’re looking at social scorn and thousands of dollars of unexpected medical bills. We need people to see us as the pro-life party, not just the anti-abortion party.”

That’s fair. I’ve always questioned protectors of “the unborn” who lose their concern after the baby is born.

Importantly, too, Vance points out — as Trump has — that “you’ve got to have the exceptions.” Certainly, Trump is right there, as far as it goes for those on the anti-abortion side seeking some possibility of political success. Life is complicated, and so are many people’s circumstances.

And there was money, Vance notes. The pro-abortion rights side raised twice as much for their effort, another sign of how potent this issue is for Democrats.

For now, Dobbs has taken the debate out of Washington and returned it to the states. So far, voters have shown a preference for legalized abortion, although with some exceptions. That’s a rough compromise; for the foreseeable future, it may well be the best we’re going to get.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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