Politics / May 9, 2024

Could an Abortion Rights Referendum in Missouri Give Democratic Candidates a Chance?

The party has strong candidates up and down the ballot, and a referendum could bring out enough young voters to turn this red state purple.

John Nichols

An abortion-rights protester holding a “No MO Abortion Bans” sign at a pro-choice rally in St. Louis, Missouri, on May 30, 2019.

(Photo by Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

Missouri used to be a swing state, where Democratic presidential candidates made last-minute campaign stops and sometimes won, and where Democrats frequently held the governorship and US Senate seats. Of the 25 presidential elections in the 20th century, Democrats won 14—even electing one of their own, Harry Truman, as vice president in 1944, and president in 1948. Bill Clinton carried the state twice and, as recently as 2008, Barack Obama came within 4,000 votes of winning it. The state sent a Democrat, Claire McCaskill, to the US Senate through 2018; and it had a Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, who made national headlines for blocking Republican attempts to restrict access to abortion. Now, however, Missouri has an anti-choice Republican governor, two extreme right-wing US senators, and a habit of voting for Donald Trump.

But could Democrats stage a comeback in Missouri in 2024, perhaps making Joe Biden’s reelection bid in the state competitive? Could the party’s likely US Senate nominee, progressive populist Lucas Kunce, have a fighting chance to flip the seat now held by Republican Josh Hawley? Is it a reasonable prospect that the party’s likely gubernatorial nominee, state House minority leader Crystal Quade, might renew Democratic control of the statehouse?

If access to abortion remains the winning issue that it has been since the US Supreme Court overturned national protections with its 2022 Dobbs decision, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that Missouri might renew its battleground-state status. That is because Missourians are now expected to vote in November on a high-stakes abortion rights referendum that could shake up the state’s politics.

The lesson from recent elections around the country is that a referendum of this sort has the potential to significantly increase turnout by pro-choice voters. A significant portion of those voters could, in turn, boost Democratic races for national and state posts.

Missourians for Constitutional Freedom, a coalition of reproductive health care advocates that has been campaigning to place an abortion amendment on the fall ballot, needed to file 171,592 valid signatures by the end of last week to secure a ballot spot. On Friday, the deadline for filing signatures, a long line of activists began delivering to the Missouri secretary of state’s office boxes containing more than 380,000 signatures. That’s double the requirement for qualifying for a November referendum vote on overturning Missouri’s abortion ban and codifying reproductive rights in Missouri’s state constitution.

Current Issue

Cover of May 2024 Issue

“Our message is simple and clear,” says Tori Schafer, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and spokesperson for the campaign. “We want to make decisions about our bodies free from political interference.”

There is no question that support for abortion rights crosses political lines. Republicans in a number of red states have joined Democrats in backing ballot measures protecting reproductive rights, and that will surely be the case if there’s a November referendum vote in Missouri.

But Democrats believe that the Missouri referendum, like similar ballot initiatives in Florida and Arizona, could also attract young people and other likely pro-choice voters to the polls. The Democratic hope is that these voters would not only back the referendum but also boost the fortunes of Biden, Kunce, and Quade.

Quade, in particular, has been an outspoken advocate for a referendum. That’s primarily because she is a committed supporter of abortion rights who wants to defend personal freedoms. But as a savvy political figure who leads her party’s caucus in the state House, Quade is well aware of the impact that popular support for abortion rights has had in recent election cycles.

The Nation Weekly

Fridays. A weekly digest of the best of our coverage.
By signing up, you confirm that you are over the age of 16 and agree to receive occasional promotional offers for programs that support The Nation’s journalism. You may unsubscribe or adjust your preferences at any time. You can read our Privacy Policy here.

When abortion rights issues are on the ballot, even in states that lean Republican, voters show up to defend reproductive rights. And that often benefits Democrats. Since the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in the Dobbs case, voters in California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, and Vermont have backed abortion rights. Two of those states, Kansas and Kentucky, are states that backed Trump in 2016 and 2020 and yet have elected and reelected Democratic governors who support abortion rights. And it’s worth noting that Michigan’s November 2022 referendum on abortion rights gave a big boost to Democrats, who won full control of the state legislature for the first time in decades. After the 2023 off-year elections produced big wins for pro-choice Democrats in Kentucky, Virginia, and New Jersey, the New York Times headline read, “Abortion Rights Fuel Big Democratic Wins, and Hopes for 2024.”

This spring, when the Florida Supreme Court cleared the way for a November referendum on abortion rights in that state, CNN reported that the decision “delivered a burst of Democratic optimism that this once-purple battleground could flip blue again.” Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez declared that Florida was suddenly “winnable.”

Florida is an easier state for Democrats than Missouri. Biden got 48 percent of the vote in the Sunshine State in 2020, while he got just 41 percent in the Show Me State. In addition, Missouri voters have shown a tendency to take progressive stands when voting on referendums—as they did in 2018, when they overturned the state’s anti-labor “right-to-work” law by a 67-33 margin—and still elect Republicans to statewide posts. But this year, Biden’s running against a 91-times indicted Trump, while Kunce is targeting Hawley as a senator who encouraged efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and then fled the Capitol when Trump backers he had greeted with a clenched fist of solidarity stormed the building on January 6, 2021. Hawley’s also one of the Senate’s most ardent foes of abortion rights, while Kunce is an equally ardent supporter of reproductive rights who says he wants to prevent “control-freak politicians” from imposing their will upon women.

“This fight is about our rights and power—the right to an abortion and the power to control our own lives,” Kunce says of his challenge to Hawley. “I’ll fight to end the filibuster and enshrine reproductive rights and abortion rights into law.”

With the prospect that the referendum fight will raise the stakes in November, there will be added attention to the abortion rights stances of Kunce and Quade. That won’t assure victory. But it could make races up and down the Missouri ballot considerably more competitive.

If national Democrats decide to go all in for Missouri, as it appears they will do for Florida, the political dynamic could shift. And this reddish state might once more be the sort of battleground state where Democrats have a path to victory.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

More from The Nation

Bruce, after arriving in the middle of the night, waits to enter a Remote Area Medical (RAM) mobile dental and medical clinic on October 7, 2023, in Grundy, Virginia.

It’s Not Too Late for Democrats to Win Back Rural Voters It’s Not Too Late for Democrats to Win Back Rural Voters

Putting together a Democratic majority in 2024 requires winning back some portion of the rural working class. The good news is that it can be done. Here’s how.

Rethinking Rural / Erica Etelson and Anthony Flaccavento

Joe Biden delivers remarks while meeting with the Joint Chiefs and Combatant Commanders in the Cabinet Room of the White House May 15, 2024 in Washington, DC.

Don’t Believe the Pundits: Gaza Is a Political Disaster for Biden Don’t Believe the Pundits: Gaza Is a Political Disaster for Biden

Some observers say the war isn’t that big a deal in the 2024 campaign. Here’s why they’re so wrong.

Joshua A. Cohen

Angela Alsobrooks, Democratic US Senate candidate from Maryland, greets voters on the state's primary election day at Lewisdale Elementary School in Chillum, Md., on Tuesday, May 14, 2024.

Angela Alsobrooks Beat the Big Money. Now She Has to Beat the Big Republican. Angela Alsobrooks Beat the Big Money. Now She Has to Beat the Big Republican.

Maryland’s new Democratic US Senate nominee won a bitterly contested primary. Now, she has an even tougher fight on her hands.

John Nichols

The Media Keeps Asking the Wrong Questions About Biden and the “Uncommitted” Vote The Media Keeps Asking the Wrong Questions About Biden and the “Uncommitted” Vote

Expecting voters to support the person with the power to stop the killing of their families, but who refuses to use it, is asking the impossible. This is about now, not November.

Phyllis Bennis

Michael Cohen, former president Donald Trump's former attorney, arrives at his home after leaving Manhattan Criminal Court on May 13, 2024, in New York City.

Michael Cohen’s Testimony Reveals the Sad Life of a Trump Toady Michael Cohen’s Testimony Reveals the Sad Life of a Trump Toady

Trump’s former lawyer described in court how the former president demands total sycophancy from his underlings.

Chris Lehmann

US President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House about pro-Palestinian campus protests on May 2, 2024.

Biden’s Domestic Reforms Don’t Add Up to the Great Society Biden’s Domestic Reforms Don’t Add Up to the Great Society

But they do signal that government can make life tangibly better.

Katrina vanden Heuvel