Anti-Choice Crusaders Team Up in Ohio Gubernatorial Race as Abortion Access Nears the ‘Breaking Point’ (Updated)

"What happens in Ohio may not stay in Ohio. It may have implications in the 45-year battle over Roe v. Wade.”

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a candidate for governor in the state's Republican primary, is a vocal opponent of reproductive rights. Mark Lyons/Getty Images

UPDATE, May 9, 10:00 a.m.: Mike DeWine won Ohio’s May 8 Republican primary and will advance to the November general election.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Jon Husted announced last week that the GOP gubernatorial candidates would merge tickets as they look to further erode access to abortion care across the state.

DeWine will top the ticket as a candidate for governor with Husted as his running mate in the state’s May 8 primary. “He shares my vision of where the state needs to go,” DeWine said of Husted during the announcement of the pair’s plans for the 2018 race.

DeWine and Husted are vocal opponents of reproductive rights. As the state’s attorney general, DeWine signed on to amicus briefs in support of anti-choice policies, including Texas officials’ fight to deny abortion care to an undocumented unaccompanied minor and in support of efforts to restrict access to contraception through the birth control benefit in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell.

Advocates say the state of reproductive health access in Ohio is at a critical juncture. “It’s very close, I think, to the breaking point,” Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio told Rewire. “We have seen Governor Kasich enact 19 different attacks on access to reproductive health care,” she said, pointing to the governor’s anti-choice record. “And as a result, we went from 16 abortion clinics to just eight, and some of those clinics are involved in litigation to remain open.”

Under Kasich, Ohio has undergone massive rollbacks in access to reproductive health care. The Republican governor has signed a measure to defund Planned Parenthood and a 20-week abortion ban. Moreover, his aides played a key role in drafting language requiring medically unnecessary licensing regulations for abortion clinics into the 2013 state budget bill. That provision ultimately led to the closure of clinics across the state.

Kasich vetoed Republican “heartbeat” bill last year that would have banned abortion care as soon as a heartbeat was detectable, which could be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Many people don’t know they’re pregnant at the six-week mark, meaning a “heartbeat” bill amounts to a total abortion ban. Though Kasich said the law would have been unconstitutional, DeWine said he would have defended the restriction if it had been signed into law.

Copeland said DeWine’s position on that total abortion ban was “absolutely” a concern. Though Kasich vetoed the measure, “I don’t think that we could count on that from a Governor DeWine,” she said. “He has used his office as attorney general in every way to interfere with access to reproductive health care, not just here in Ohio, but in other states,” Copeland continued, pointing to the anti-choice legal briefs he signed.

Kasich appointed Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis to the state’s medical board in 2012, and Gonidakis recently was given another 5-year term. Both DeWine and Husted have ties to Ohio Right to Life, which announced in July that it would no longer back candidates that didn’t support banning abortion without exceptions for rape and incest—though it claimed this was “not really a new strategy in any way.”

A public records request filed by the Associated Press in 2016 revealed DeWine was in contact through text message and email with Gonidakis.

Gonidakis, whose organization also has a PAC, told Rewire he still speaks with DeWine “on the phone or in person whenever the need arises” and does so in his “capacity as president of Ohio Right to Life or as a citizen of the state of Ohio.”

“Everyone in the state of Ohio regardless of political stripes has the ability to communicate with elected officials,” Gonidakis said. “And so do I.”

When asked whether he communicated similarly with Husted, Gonidakis said, “If the need arises for me to talk to him, I’ll pick up the phone and I’ll call him. Or I’ll schedule a meeting through his office,” though neither of them “have time for small talk.”

In 2016 Husted hired the former executive director of Ohio Right to Life, Stephanie Ranade Krider, to be his director of policy and legislative affairs. Husted’s gubernatorial campaign site, which now redirects to DeWine’s site, had boasted that the candidate “consistently backed the work of Ohio Right to Life and earned their endorsement during every race.” He has spoken at events sponsored by the group.

DeWine and Husted both appeared in recent “candidate spotlight” videos created by Ohio Right to Life. In early November, DeWine met with anti-choice activists at an Ohio Right to Life forum to “court their vote for Governor in 2018,” according to a post on the organization’s website. Husted met with the organization’s board of trustees earlier in the year and made “similar commitments to Ohio’s pro-life voting block [sic],” the post said.

Gonidakis told Rewire that the organization plans to endorse a candidate in the Republican gubernatorial primary, but he noted that Ohio Right to Life had yet to distribute a candidate survey. Such a questionnaire could definitively answer whether DeWine and Husted will officially support banning abortion care, a prerequisite for earning the group’s endorsement. Gonidakis said he didn’t know where the two stood on exceptions for abortion bans.

While Gonidakis said his organization was “excited to have a great group of candidates to choose from on the Republican side,” he said he hoped a “pro-life Democrat” would run. “Nothing would make us more excited [than] to be able to endorse a pro-life Democrat and a pro-life Republican for governor of Ohio because then we’d win no matter what,” he said.

“I don’t care what the Democrat’s position is on taxes, health care, anything else,” Gonidakis said. “If you’re a pro-life Democrat and you’re an elected official and you want to run for the governor’s office, call me. I’ll help you.”

Copeland suggested to Rewire that Ohio’s gubernatorial race has national implications for reproductive rights. “This is getting to the end of the chess match, if you will, on the battle over abortion access,” Copeland said. “Ohio anti-choice politicians have enjoyed gerrymandered districts that have allowed them to pass restriction after restriction without having to face the ire of voters. And these restrictions have all been designed to set up a buffet in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to say that these are a number of different ways that you could undercut or eliminate Roe v. Wade, and therefore access to abortion care.”

“All they need on the federal level is one more justice, one more vote,” Copeland said. “And so what happens in Ohio may not stay in Ohio. It may have implications in the 45-year battle over Roe v. Wade.”