February 21, 2024

Voter frustration with abortion bans has run hot in state and local elections and has propelled backlash at the ballot box. Abortion rights ballot measures have enjoyed a clean sweep of victories across seven states. Blowouts in blue states have been reinforced by double-digit wins in reliably red states from Kansas to Ohio. In a closely watched Wisconsin Supreme Court race, a liberal judge beat a staunchly anti-choice opponent, flipping the body’s ideological majority. The race heavily featured debate over the future of legal abortion in that state. Pro-choice Governor Andy Beshear handily won his reelection in Kentucky after his state soundly rejected a ballot measure that stated there is no right to abortion under the state constitution and made future challenges to the state’s current abortion ban more difficult. And Governor Glenn Youngkin lost his quest for Republican control of both houses of Virginia’s legislature, after he supported a planned 15-week abortion ban in the state. Exceptions in the measure were meant to mollify moderate voters, and still it failed. Democrats held the state Senate and flipped the House of Delegates. Youngkin’s bill was dead on arrival.

If history serves as any guide, the only thing standing in Democrats’ path to using this issue as a cudgel in 2024 is themselves. Democrats must ignore the pundits who will inevitably claim—as they did in 2022—that the issue is played out. Instead, double down. If candidates up and down the ballot drive home to voters what their opponents want this country to look like for women and for families, they will win. Here’s a quick playbook on how to leverage this massive and historic advantage.

Come out swinging. Republicans know better than anyone that they have overplayed their hand on abortion, so they cross their fingers and hope for their opponents’ silence. Or they try to mimic Donald Trump, who adheres to a strict formulaic and noncommittal answer to neutralize the issue. First, he takes credit for installing the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade, while still suggesting skepticism about a federal ban before pivoting to slime Democrats with the false claim that they support abortion “even after birth.” Republicans’ ability to mollify the base/comfort the middle/deflect the extremism is effective only if they set the table for the audience. Democrats should throw the first punch, make their opponents own the abortion bans, and lay the destruction at their feet. If Republicans claim victory on abortion, they undercut their support with the majority of voters. If they try to distance themselves from what they have done, they alienate their base. Either plays badly; don’t let them off the hook until they answer.