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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Missouri abortion ballot item may attract GOP votes without harming party candidates

A woman votes at the ballot box.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Missourians could vote on a measure legalizing abortion. But it's an open question whether the ballot item could hurt Republicans in the fall.

St. Louis resident Desiree White has witnessed Missouri's unpredictable voting patterns.

White, a volunteer signature gatherer for the group circulating a petition to overturn the state’s abortion ban, said she’s seeing ample evidence that Missouri isn’t too Republican to put abortion rights protections in the state constitution.

“Missourians don't like it when you take their freedoms away. Absolutely not,” White said. “Whatever it is, we don't like that.”

Missouri abortion rights supporters are hoping to join voters in GOP-leaning states like Ohio, Kentucky and Kansas who have supported legalization through statewide ballot initiatives. Polling shows that a significant slice of Republican voters would back the initiative that would legalize abortion up to what’s known as fetal viability — a bloc that may be necessary to pass the initiative in a state Donald Trump won by double digits.

In some respects, Missouri could be a barometer of the down-ballot impact of abortion rights ballot initiatives. While backlash to abortion bans could matter in more competitive states like Arizona or Florida, it may not cause electoral doom for Missouri Republicans.

“People know where they stand on abortion rights,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia-based Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “We know from polling and from results in other states that there are a fair number of Republican voters who will vote Republican in other elections, but they don't agree with their party on abortion rights.”

A white man in a blue checkered shirt is reflected in a window.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Bryan Pyle on Thursday at his home in Kirkwood. Pyle is conservative in his political views but is against a ban on abortion.

Polling shows split voting dynamic

Bryan Pyle may be a good example of the split voting phenomenon that’s defined Missouri politics for a number of election cycles.

The Kirkwood resident signed the Missourians for Constitutional Freedom abortion rights initiative, even though he classifies himself as a conservative on a number of issues.

“It is kind of sad to see anyone, whether they’re Republican or Democrat or whatever they may be, to push their opinion on someone else,” Pyle said. “I’ve always been this way.”

Pyle voted for Republican candidates in 2016 and 2020 — and may do so again in 2024. But he said he’s going to vote for the abortion proposal, which would allow the procedure up to a point where a medical professional determines a fetus could survive outside of the womb.

“We don't need to have people take the rights from other people because they don't like it,” Pyle said. “And we should all have the right to make our own decisions.”

A February poll from St. Louis University and YouGov shows that Pyle is part of a noticeable trend. That survey found that 24% of GOP respondents will vote for the abortion legalization initiative. And while that’s much less than the 71% of Democrats who said they would vote for it, St. Louis University political science professor Steven Rogers said it shows that voting behavior on abortion rights doesn’t fit into neat partisan boxes.

Enola Proctor, 75, of Olivette, signs a petition for a Missouri constitutional amendment that would legalize abortion up until fetal viability on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, at The Pageant in St. Louis’ West End neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Enola Proctor, 75, of Olivette, signs a petition for a Missouri constitutional amendment that would legalize abortion up until fetal viability on Feb. 6 at The Pageant in St. Louis.

That same SLU/YouGov poll shows a Republican would easily win the governor’s race 52% to 38%.

If Missourians approve an abortion rights amendment and back Republican candidates, it would follow a trend in which the GOP dominated elected offices while voters approved Democratic-backed efforts to boost the minimum wage, expand Medicaid and institute campaign donation limits.

Some of those ballot initiatives may have benefited from underfunded or nonexistent opposition campaigns. But Kondik said this type of result showcases the consequences of states like Missouri with a robust initiative petition process.

“The best bet that Republicans have in the state is that they get the voters to put their ‘red jerseys’ on and look at the abortion rights issue as a kind of partisan issue,” Kondik said. “But again, my guess is there'll be a significant number of voters who don't do that. And you can imagine it passing even in the midst of an otherwise Republican environment.”

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a candidate for Missouri governor, speaks during a campaign event on Thursday, April 18, 2024, at the Ethical Society of Police in Fountain Park. Ashcroft is endorsed by the Ethical Society of Police.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a candidate for governor, speaks during a campaign event on April 18 at the Ethical Society of Police in Fountain Park. Ashcroft, like the other GOP candidates for governor, is opposed to abortion rights.

Republican opinion mixed

Some Republican candidates seeking to make it to the November ballot aren’t overly worried that an abortion ballot initiative will hurt their chances of winning.

Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, said it’s possible that the prospect of undoing decades of abortion restrictions could mobilize socially conservative voters — especially in rural counties and right-leaning suburbs where Republicans have gained recent ground.

“Even if there’s Missourians who say there might be some medical exceptions or exceptions for rape or incest, I think if they knew how far it allows it to go — it would give them pause,” Kehoe said.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, speaks with potential voters at a pancake breakfast on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo.
Dominick Williams
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, speaks with potential voters on Feb. 17 in Kansas City. Hawley is opposed to abortion rights with the exception of rape, incest or life of the mother.

And while some Republicans have expressed alarm that the abortion ballot item could go before voters, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley said he welcomes Missourians deciding for themselves on the issue.

“My whole adult life, I said Roe is wrong, because the Constitution gives us the choice of the people,” Hawley said. “My view is, you gotta let the people decide. So if the people want to vote on this, we should vote on it. We can vote on it every year, if they want to.”

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, said it’s possible that abortion rights could affect some state legislative contests — especially in suburban districts that are more evenly divided between the two parties.

“Maybe there’s certain suburban districts, those kind of 50/50 House districts or one or two state Senate districts, where maybe that changes the electorate enough to change who gets elected,” Ashcroft said.

State Representative Ashley Aune, D-Kansas City, poses for a portrait on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, at the state Capitol in Jefferson City. Aune, who was first elected in 2020, is the Missouri House of Representative's next minority leader.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri state Rep. Ashley Aune, D-Kansas City, on Jan. 25 in Jefferson City. Aune has been a critic of efforts to make it more difficult to amend the state's constitution.

Consequences for ballot initiative changes

Unless Ashcroft expedites the signature verification process, Missourians will vote on the abortion initiative in November if abortion rights backers turn in enough signatures by May 5.

One question is whether there could be a separate ballot initiative that would make it harder to amend the state’s constitution. If that passes in August, it’s possible that the November abortion initiative may need to pass in a majority of congressional districts in order to make it into the constitution.

“Folks are rightfully looking for Republicans in the legislature to lead on this issue and protect the constitution,” said Sen. Bill Eigel, who is also running for governor.

Making it harder to amend the constitution failed in states including Ohio and Arkansas.

“The voters are not going to be fooled by this effort,” said state Rep. Ashley Aune, D-Kansas City. “What they're trying to do is to essentially end majority rule.”

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said he’s tried to warn his Republican colleagues that a successful effort to gut the initiative petition process could backfire on the GOP.

“That's the thing that allows them to go around the legislature,” Rizzo said. “And if they can't do that, and they can't go around the legislature, they're going to start changing the legislature.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.