The March for Life on the National Mall thrust the abortion debate into the spotlight on Wednesday.
As tens of thousands of anti-abortion activists and politicians gathered in Washington, they also brought with them a new push for the Republican Party to reiterate its opposition to abortion just in time for the 2014 elections.
But at the same time, more mainstream GOP observers fret that emphasis distracts from what they had hoped was a post-election consensus — to stay away from social issues and try to refocus the debate on the economy, opposition to ObamaCare and the party’s s core fiscal values.
Social conservatives say they’re tired of that argument, though, and want to regain control of the debate around abortion. They believe that by reframing the issue as one concerned with strengthening the family, rather than as a women’s health issue, they'll come out ahead.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said on Wednesday that when Republicans are “on defense, we’re losing.” Instead, the former GOP presidential candidate said his party needs “to learn to talk about these issues in a way that is positive and uplifting” and underscore Democrats’ indifference to popular opinion for some legal boundaries.
“The Democratic Party platform is unlimited abortion with no exceptions, no restrictions of any kind anywhere, and federal funding for abortion,” Santorum told The Hill. “That position’s held by less than a quarter of the population of this country and yet we’re playing defense on the issue. It’s silly.”
More than 60 percent of Americans believe abortion should be illegal after the first three months of pregnancy, according to a 2012 Gallup Poll, and that same majority approved of a law making sex-selective abortions illegal in a Gallup poll the year prior.
The focus on bipartisan curbs on abortion rights comes even as public opinion is widely shifting in favor of the Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide 41 years ago Wednesday.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted last week shows for the first time a majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases — a development driven largely by minority women and women without college degrees. That survey also showed 70 percent of Americans don't believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned.
Nonetheless, the new offensive push from anti-abortion leaders began earnest at this week’s Republican National Committee winter meeting, where Committeewoman Ellen Barrosse presented a resolution that passed the RNC Resolutions Committee unanimously condemning GOP candidates who stay silent on the issue and calling on GOP candidates, strategists and political action committees to “fight back against Democratic deceptive ‘war on women’ rhetoric by pointing out the extreme positions on abortion held by Democratic opponents.”
Barrosse said she expects the resolution to easily pass a full committee vote on Friday, because she believes the party has finally learned the lessons of the past two presidential elections and the Virginia gubernatorial election, where Democrats charged Republican candidates with waging a “war on women” that Republicans admit hurt them in the end.
“We keep hearing that, oh, people are going to turn against the life issue and it’s going to be a political liability — the evidence is not there,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “I think the problem that Republicans have had, that have had problems with the issue, is that they’ve gone silent on it and allowed the Democrats to really define the debate.”
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney lost in 2012 with a significant gender gap, and in a 2012 post-mortem report the RNC suggested the party “must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming” on social issues.
But RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and other party leaders, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), struck a more aggressive tone on abortion at Wednesday’s march. Cantor pledged a vote in the House next week to enact a permanent ban on taxpayer funds being used for abortion services that is typically renewed each year, and for the House GOP to support the anti-abortion movement.
"I can make you this promise: The people's House will stand for life," the GOP leader said. "We will do everything in our power to make sure that our values and the sanctity of life are reflected in the law of the land."
Still, Santorum said there was “no question” that Republicans have had trouble communicating their views on abortion in a compassionate way.
Skeptics say the trouble candidates had in 2012 when addressing abortion — they point to Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, whose remarks on the issue contributed to their loss in winnable races — prove that the party should stay away from the issue.
One national GOP strategist engaged in Senate races granted anonymity to speak frankly on the issue insisted that Republicans would focus on the economy, rather than the abortion issue, in 2014.
“According to a January 22nd Quinnipiac poll, abortion will not be an issue in 2014 elections no matter how hard Democrats try to make it one. When they do, all it does is expose how out of touch they are with the electorate and how dire their electoral situation is,” the strategist said.
Indeed, that poll showed the economy was at the top of voters’ minds, and that abortion was not a top-10 consideration heading into the election year.
But Santorum said if the party commits to nominating candidates that are willing to stand in opposition to abortion, they will have an easier time talking with confidence on the issue.
“If we nominated a bunch of people who only care about cutting taxes, then you’re going to get people who say some really stupid things, who aren’t comfortable in their own skin when it comes to these issues,” he said. “Let’s quit running from these issues and start teaching our candidates how to talk about them.”
But Democrats maintain any focus on the abortion issue will ultimately backfire on Republicans. Both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its House campaign counterpart issued releases slamming Republicans for “yet again waging a war to push divisive social issues and roll back health care rights for millions of women across the country instead of focusing on the economy, creating jobs, and helping the middle class.”
“Republicans are doubling down on the same failed strategy that lost them big with women and independent voters in 2014. They can parse polling all they want, but restricting women’s access to health care is simply not a priority for voters. It’s the only playbook they know,” said EMILY’s List Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for the Democratic group that supports pro-abortion-rights female candidates.
But that characterization of the abortion debate is exactly why anti-abortion activists are advocating embracing, rather than avoiding, the issue. While Democrats have used the “war on women” to motivate their base, Republicans want the new push to motivate their social conservative wing and break through both gender and age stereotypes.
“What you see here is not recoil you see action and determination and, I hope you also see when you walk around here, a lot of kindness. There’s a lot of compassion in this group of people. They’re regular, normal, female-dominated group of people and very young,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List.