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How abortion may be reshaping the close Ohio Senate race

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, greets supporters during a rally on May 2, 2022 in Lorain, Ohio.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, greets supporters during a rally on May 2, 2022 in Lorain, Ohio.

Updated September 20, 2022 at 3:20 PM ET

Brittany Koester experienced something of a political evolution recently. She voted for Trump in 2016, but soon soured on him, and started staunchly supporting Democratic candidates.

That fervor has grown — this year, she says, she is more politically active than ever. In large part, the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade drove her passion.

"I was like, we got to do something like, what are we going to do?" she said, of her reaction to the decision. "So I got involved with certain campaigns or just really in general, and I have been out twice knocking on doors and talking to people."

Koester is a busy woman – she spoke to me from her car, on the job as a sales rep for lighting manufacturers. When she is not working, she volunteers with Red Wine and Blue, a group of suburban women supporting Democrats, in particular by engaging family and friends. ​​

Koester took her training from the trail to her family. She has been talking about reproductive rights at home and believes she has influenced her parents, sister and husband's thinking.

In her enthusiasm, she may have also influenced their votes.

"You know, when Tim Ryan came to town, I wanted to meet him in person. I got my mom and my Republican dad to go," she said with a laugh. "My dad hugged Tim Ryan."

Now, she said, her dad will be voting for Ryan, the Democrat in Ohio's Senate race.

A big bump in women registering to vote

Not long ago, Ohio was considered a swing state. These days, it is pretty red; Republicans hold the governorship, the state house and state senate. President Donald Trump won the state in 2020 by 8 points.

Despite political trends towards conservative candidates, the U.S. Senate race this year is looking very close as Election Day approaches. The Cook Political Report gives Republican candidate, author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance a slight advantage, rating the race "Lean Republican." Polls also signal it is a tight race.

The greatest political outlier right now in Ohio are women voters, many of whom report feeling energized by the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision.

Polls show a substantial gender gap in the Ohio Senate race, with women favoring Ryan and men favoring Vance. The latest poll from Emerson College shows Vance with a 19-point advantage among men, and Ryan with an eight-point advantage among women.

Tom Bonier, a Democratic strategist and CEO of polling and data firm TargetSmart, has found that in several states, including Ohio, women's voter registration has spiked since the Dobbs decision.​

"Ohio is fascinating because before the Dobbs decision, men were actually out-registering women by a very narrow margin," he said. "Since Dobbs, that's flipped entirely so that now women are out registering men by an 11 point margin. So about a 12-point flip, which puts Ohio among the top states of the biggest gender gaps since the Dobbs decision."

A New York Times analysis in late August found a similar, if slightly smaller, swing in Ohio.

It is not perfectly clear who benefits from that swing toward women's voter registration. In Ohio, voters do not choose a political party when they register to vote. However, Bonier said his modeling shows the surge to be disproportionately Democratic.

David Cohen, professor of political science at the University of Akron, explained several reasons this red-state race is close – for example, Vance is inexperienced and has been out-fundraised by Ryan. But, Cohen added, abortion rights are definitely playing a role.

"There is an energy there that is not normally there in a midterm election for the president's party," he said. "And Dobbs has been a real focusing event for Democrats."

Talking abortion, but focusing on the economy

Vance mostly opposes abortion rights but told NPR that he supports "reasonable exceptions."

Ryan, meanwhile, supports abortion rights, telling NPR that he sees codifying Roe as a good policy in terms of what limits should be on the procedure.

The economy, though, runs this race. Ryan centered the economy even when other issues came up with voters. On the campaign trail, when I asked him about abortion, he linked it to business concerns.

"We're trying to get our young people to stay here and raise families here, and we're trying to recruit people to come to college and universities here. We're trying to get young people to move here and talent to move here," he said. "To have medieval women's right laws in the country, I think is very detrimental to the economic well-being of the state."

Katie Paris is founder of Red Wine and Blue – the group that Brittany Koester volunteers with. As she speaks to women, they have a pragmatic view of Ryan and his focus on the economy over abortion rights.​

"They know what they need to know. People also know that in Ohio to win, you got to do what Sherrod Brown does, and that's do well everywhere," she said, invoking Ohio's popular Democratic senator. "And I think that in that includes doing better than most Democrats have done lately in rural Ohio."

It is true reproductive rights are not top of mind for all voters, including women. Polling suggests women support abortion rights only modestly more than men — certainly not overwhelmingly so.

Vance referenced that reality when I asked what he might need to do to energize more women.

"Women aren't single issue voters," he said. "I mean, I think women care about a lot of the things that men care about, which is security, inflation, crime, a whole other things on top of it."

I spoke to Vance at the Morgan County Fair in southeastern Ohio. That's also where I met Leinala Porter, a 19-year-old waitress at a nearby Bob Evans restaurant.​

She did not have a lot to say about the upcoming election — I asked if she had heard much about JD Vance or Tim Ryan — "​Nope," she said, with a laugh. She plans to vote, but has not registered yet.

One topic where she did have a lot to say: abortion.

"I'm pro choice in a large way," she said. "It just doesn't seem very fair to make a woman pay for and have a child when she just isn't ready, or if it can potentially kill her."

It is voters like Porter that could put Ryan over the top – new voters who might not be paying a lot of attention, but who do care about reproductive rights.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 19, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
The audio version of this story incorrectly says David Cohen is a professor at Akron State University. In fact, the name is the University of Akron.
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.