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With abortion on the 2024 ballot, campaigns could see millions in funding from familiar players


With abortion on the 2024 ballot, campaigns could see millions in funding from familiar players

Jan 05, 2024 | 2:05 pm ET
By Kelcie Moseley-Morris
Michelle Black of Columbus (center) listens to Lauren Blauvelt speak during the Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom Bans OFF Columbus rally for Issue 1, October 8, 2023, outside the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

Michelle Black of Columbus (center) listens to Lauren Blauvelt speak during the Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom Bans OFF Columbus rally for Issue 1, October 8, 2023, outside the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

Before the Dobbs ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2022, abortion was rarely an issue of such significance in elections that individuals and national political action committees poured millions of dollars into ballot questions and gubernatorial and judicial races.

But since Dobbs triggered the fall of Roe and abortion access became a central question in subsequent elections, it has become a much different story, with some familiar players. And when it comes to cold, hard cash, the abortion rights advocates have had a whole lot more to campaign with, according to state records. 

Abortion access has been a central question in at least six state elections since the Dobbs decision, including ballot questions in California, Michigan and Vermont that added access to abortion care as an explicit right, and 2023’s gubernatorial race in Kentucky, a state with a near-total ban and where an anti-abortion constitutional amendment failed in 2022. State supreme court races in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania also spotlighted abortion rights, and the candidates supporting those rights won decisively in April and November. 

Throughout the past year, many of the same high-earning individuals and influential special interest groups on both sides of the political spectrum have contributed millions to these initiatives, and will likely be involved in upcoming elections centered around abortion as well, such as citizen-led initiatives in Florida, Missouri, Arizona and Arkansas. 

In Kansas, Ohio and Michigan’s elections, and Kentucky’s race for governor last year, progressive organizations such as the Sixteen Thirty Fund, Open Society Policy Center, Planned Parenthood and wealthy individuals like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg all contributed millions to help enshrine abortion access. In Kansas, Ohio and Kentucky, influential conservative groups including The Concord Fund, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and many powerful Catholic institutions gave millions with a goal of permanently restricting state access to abortion care. But an analysis of campaign finance data shows the latter groups were significantly outspent by special interests as well as individual contributors across the country. 

Many eyes closely watched abortion politics play out in two typically red states

Two state elections with specific abortion-rights elections garnered more national attention than the others — Kansas and Ohio. 

Kansas held its referendum election in August 2022, a little more than a month after Dobbs. It was the opening salvo on post-Roe abortion politics, and the rest of the country was shocked when voters overwhelmingly said no to an amendment that would have expressly added to the state constitution that Kansans had no right to an abortion, that government funding could not be required for abortion, and that only elected state legislators could regulate when abortion would be permitted.

It was called Amendment 2, or the “Value Them Both” amendment, and pre-election polling in mid-July showed it stood a good chance of passing, with 47% in favor and 43% opposed. But instead, it failed by a significant margin, with more than 59% of 1.9 million voters opposed. Turnout was close to 49%.

Jaclyn Kettler, a political science professor at Boise State University in Idaho, is a Kansas native who moved away in 2008, but still has family there. Although Franklin County, where she grew up, voted for former President Donald Trump by 68% in 2020, the county still voted Amendment 2 down, with nearly 56% opposed. 

“I was surprised by that, I didn’t expect that,” she said. “I thought it would be really close, and the margin was higher than I would’ve expected.”

In Ohio last year, voters were first asked whether the state should make it much more difficult for citizen initiatives to qualify for the ballot by requiring signatures from all 88 counties instead of the current 44, removing a 10-day “cure” period to fix issues with signatures, and increasing the margin for an initiative to pass from a simple majority to a supermajority of 60%.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said in June that the referendum was “100% about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution,” ahead of an anticipated abortion-rights initiative to do just that. The election for that question, called Issue 1, was held on Aug. 8, and it failed by a wide margin, with 57% opposed.

A few months later, Ohioans were asked to vote again on the question of adding the right for an individual to make and carry out their own reproductive decisions and only allow the state to restrict abortion after fetal viability, with exceptions after that point to protect the pregnant patient’s life or health. It was also called Issue 1, and passed by nearly the same margin as the August election, with 56.7% in favor.

In both states, those advocating for abortion rights were campaigning with many more dollars to spare, from special interest groups as well as individuals from across the country.

Michael Kang, a law professor at Northwestern University in Illinois who has an extensive research background in campaign finance, told States Newsroom the historical assumption is that progressives have the advantage in organizing and conservatives have the financial backing, but that’s not as true anymore. 

“Part of the reason you’ve got such a financial advantage for progressives and Democrats on this particular issue is because they’re on the popular side of this issue,” Kang said. “Abortion traditionally had been kind of a catalyzing issue on the right, they had a target to shoot for (with Roe), and now that they got it, I think the tables have switched a little and the energy is on the left in response to Dobbs.”

All but .7% of donations to anti-abortion side in Kansas came from in-state contributors  

In Kansas, the two groups most involved in the election were Kansans for Constitutional Freedom on the “no” side, and Value Them Both on the “yes” side. According to campaign finance records, Kansans for Constitutional Freedom raised a total of $10.5 million by the election date, while Value Them Both reported $6.6 million.

That money differential does matter, Kettler said, although it’s unclear how much it helps in each case. But particularly in an election with a constitutional amendment, where it may have been unclear which side a voter should choose, sending out informational mailers, running television and online ads and getting out the vote is crucial.  

About 68% of Value Them Both’s total came from churches and religious groups from across the state, the largest contributor being the Archdiocese of Kansas City at $3.18 million. Another $1.2 million came from large local Catholic institutions, and other local churches collectively contributed another $85,000, approximately. Chapters of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, contributed nearly $60,000.

Kansans for Life, an anti-abortion nonprofit organization based in Wichita, and its affiliates provided $1.25 million for the effort, and Free State PAC, a political action committee based in Kansas, donated $50,000. Special interests made up about 19% of overall donations, leaving about 12% from individuals and private businesses, which came almost exclusively from Kansans and a small number of donors in 42 other states. Out of the individuals not affiliated with churches or special interests, the highest donation of $100,000 came from J.B. Hodgdon, whose parents founded Hodgdon Powder Company, a manufacturer of gunpowder for rifles and pistols based in Shawnee, Kansas.

An analysis by States Newsroom showed 99.3% of contributions overall came from within Kansas, making up more than 6,000 of the 6,339 total donations to the campaign. 

Kettler said there is often concern about out-of-state spending because there is a fear of outsiders trying to influence a state’s policies and elections rather than the people. But ballot measures in particular have been trending that way for years in part because of the nationalization of elections, the ease of donation transactions through online mediums, and organizations soliciting donations from people in other states, she said. 

“It’s also different when we’re talking about individuals making a lot of these donations, or a lot of corporations, or PACs from DC,” she said. “That can also influence how citizens are evaluating these trends.”

Soros-backed organizations, billionaires devoted millions to Kansas election 

On the abortion rights side, special interest groups represented more than 61% of donations, while individuals and private businesses made up the remaining 38%, close to 4,500 donations just within the U.S. and some coming from other countries. 

While the highest number of contributors came from within Kansas, the highest dollar amount of donations came from New York — fueled by $1.25 million from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg — and Oklahoma, where Stacy Schusterman, the daughter of an oil executive who founded deepwater drilling company Samson Energy, donated $1.1 million.

Individuals in 48 other states contributed to the effort, with the second highest number of donors coming from California. Michigan was the lone state to sit out.  

“The out-of-state money, whether you’re talking about candidates or issue elections, tends to be more ideological,” Kang said. “Those are donors who are pretty well funded. If you’re taking an interest in politics outside of where you live and do business, you’re motivated by something else, and the political science indicates that it’s ideology that drives that.”

The special interest group that donated the highest amount to defeat the amendment was the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a progressive lobbying and advocacy organization largely funded by undisclosed donors that has poured millions into recent national elections. In 2022, the New York Times reported a foundation backed by George Soros, a billionaire hedge fund manager who has donated billions to progressive causes for decades, contributed $17 million to the Sixteen Thirty Fund. Along with the nearly $1.5 million cash infusion, the fund also reported an in-kind contribution of $85,000 to the Kansas campaign, meaning it donated services or other non-monetary goods valued at that amount. Another $250,000 came from the Open Society Policy Center, which is part of a network of lobbying groups founded by Soros in 1993.

Nearly $1.8 million came from Planned Parenthood Action Fund and two affiliates, Planned Parenthood Great Plains and Planned Parenthood Mar Monte in California.

Single $3 million contribution made Oklahoma highest contributing state in Ohio election 

Ohio’s election came more than a year after Kansas, and 17 months after the Dobbs decision. But some of the same patterns of donors emerged with even more money flowing from across the country.

The two main political action committees running campaigns in Ohio were Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights advocating for passage of the amendment, and Protect Women Ohio lobbying against it. Between August and November, anti-abortion Protect Women Ohio raised $14.6 million, while Ohioans United took in more than double with $39.5 million. According to an analysis by States Newsroom, 1,601 contributions were made to Protect Women Ohio, while 16,979 donations went to Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights. Nearly 74% of the total for the abortion rights campaign came from special interest groups, according to the data.

Notable individual contributions to the campaign advocating for abortion rights included: 

  • $3 million from Oklahoma resident Lynn Schusterman, whose husband, Charles, founded an oil drilling company, and the two subsequently founded a family philanthropy foundation. She also gave $1 million to the PAC in June leading up to the August ballot question.
  • $1 million from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg
  • $500,000 from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker
  • $1 million from Abigail Wexner, CEO of investment company Whitebarn Associates
  • $1 million from Gwendolyn Sontheim Meyer, heir to massive Minnesota-based food production company Cargill
  • $100,000 from Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw

Like Kansas, where in-state contributors played a large role, the highest number of contributions came from Ohio, but Lynn Schusterman’s donations in Oklahoma made it the highest dollar contributing state, followed by New York and California. Individuals in all 50 states donated to the campaign, with the smallest total coming from a singular $3 donation in North Dakota.

On the opposing side, two of the largest individual contributions were $250,000 from Joseph Williams III, manager of StoneRiver Management, and $200,000 from Thomas Jeckering, who is retired.  

Same organizational players in Kansas vastly increased spending in Ohio 

The Sixteen Thirty Fund nearly quadrupled its investment in Ohio, giving almost $5 million directly to Ohioans for Reproductive Rights between August and Election Day in early November, along with a $2 million contribution to an adjacent PAC called Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom, which then passed the funds along to the main PAC.

The Open Society Policy Center also drastically increased its contribution from $250,000 in Kansas to $4 million in Ohio’s election. Another progressive nonprofit called the Tides Foundation provided nearly $3.7 million. Although it is a separate entity from Open Society, the Tides Foundation has received tens of millions from the Soros organization over the past decade, according to Influence Watch.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund and its affiliates contributed more than $2.6 million, and a nonprofit focused on supporting progressive ballot initiatives called The Fairness Project provided $2.8 million.

Another nonprofit organization called Advocacy Action Fund Inc. contributed $1.5 million. That organization was founded by Michael Kieschnick, president and founder of the Green Advocacy Project, in 2021. Advocacy Action reported $61.3 million in revenue in its most recent tax filing, and says it exclusively supports social welfare causes. 

On the anti-abortion side, the largest special interest contributions came from The Concord Fund, a conservative advocacy group that has long dedicated its efforts to influencing judicial appointments across the country. The cumulative total of the Fund’s donations from August to November was $8.36 million. The Concord Fund is part of a network of organizations associated with former Federalist Society vice president Leonard Leo, who was instrumental in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ultimate decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, according to ProPublica. The Concord Fund also poured $3.3 million into Kentucky’s November gubernatorial election, where Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear won reelection against Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who strongly supported the state’s near-total abortion ban.

Like Kansas, religious organizations infused millions into the anti-abortion side in Ohio, including $1 million from Catholic-based organization Knights of Columbus, $400,000 from the Diocese of Columbus and about $522,000 from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, according to state campaign finance records.  

The Concord Fund’s investment was far higher than that of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, one of the most influential anti-abortion interest groups. The organization gave a total of $1.77 million between August and November.

In an emailed statement to States Newsroom, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser said Issue 1 passed because abortion activists and “outside Democrat donors ran a campaign of fear to Ohio voters” that women would die without the amendment. Dannenfelser said that wasn’t true and it deceived voters.

“There have been many valuable lessons learned from Issue 1. Moving forward in states where abortion will be on the ballot in 2024, pro-life, pro-woman coalitions will need to devote more resources to compassionate pro-life messages for women and their children, combating the campaign of fear from the other side,” Dannenfelser said. 

No matter what happens in 2024, Kettler said she thinks upcoming races around access to abortion will be political hot spots.

“I suspect these measures are going to continue to attract a lot of money, whether it’s through individual donations or outside spending,” she said. 

Stateline reporter Tim Henderson contributed to this report.

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