Juan Williams: GOP flailing against the tide

The hidden news in last week’s elections is that Republicans need a new plan for dealing with the political power of abortion rights.

When strategists plotting 2014 congressional races review exit polls in Virginia’s gubernatorial race they will find the economy was issue number one for voters. Healthcare was the second most important issue. On both counts, voters sided with the Republican candidate, Ken Cuccinelli.

Abortion was the top issue for only 20 percent of Virginia voters.

But on that one issue the pro-abortion rights candidate, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, won 59 percent of the vote compared to 34 percent for anti-abortion rights candidate Cuccinelli.

The abortion issue was the difference in the race.

Cuccinelli, a Tea Party favorite, is known for his hardline conservative views on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Most notably, Cuccinelli supported a law to require Virginia women to undergo physically invasive trans-vaginal ultrasounds before they could terminate a pregnancy.

McAuliffe’s campaign hit Cucinelli early and hard on his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest. “He’s focused on his agenda, not us,” was the phrase repeated in advertising painting the Republican as a threat to abortion rights in Virginia.

The result was that McAuliffe won 67 percent of the votes of single women. The Democrat also won 58 percent of single men. Cuccinelli won among married women by 51-42 and married men 50-44.

But the gap among single female voters created by the abortion issue was too big for Cuccinelli to overcome. McAuliffe won by about 3 percentage points.

The outcome is consistent with the latest Quinnipiac University national poll that found 58 percent of Americans in favor of legal abortion in all or most cases compared to 37 percent who say it should be illegal in all or most cases.

Democrats have made the GOP’s opposition to abortion the centerpiece of their winning charge that Republicans are engaged in a “War on Women.” And “unmarried women have become a massive – yet under-appreciated – political force in America,” pollster Stan Greenberg said after last week’s race.

In the current civil war pitting Tea Party Republicans against “Establishment” Republicans, the central issue is how far the party will travel down a losing road by emphasizing its opposition to abortion.

This dynamic was on display last week when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R- S.C.) introduced a bill to make abortion after five months a crime.

The bill, similar to one recently passed by the Republican majority in the House, looks like a peace offering from Graham to Tea Party forces in his state as they consider a primary challenge against him next year. But it is not helping the party with single women voters.

When former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) suggested focusing on economic issues and not social issues before the 2012 elections, he was attacked as a traitor by Tea Party activists. But his advice would have saved a Senate seat in his home state for the GOP.

Richard Mourdock, the party’s candidate, ignored Daniels and said he opposed abortion even for a victim of rape and incest because the pregnancy, he said, was “something God intended.” He lost.

In Missouri, the Republican candidate for Senate, Rep. Todd Akin, said he opposed abortion for rape victims because “if it was legitimate rape, the female body had ways of shutting that whole thing down.” He lost, too.

Now Republican strategists are quietly urging the party to downplay abortion. They are not asking the Tea Party folks to abandon the issue but simply to make it secondary to the party’s economic proposals.

Their role model is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who does not focus on his opposition to abortion and won big last week .

Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, William Whalen, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, said his top suggestion to help the GOP in the upcoming midterms and the 2016 presidential race is to turn away from “concepts and crusades – including defunding Planned Parenthood and promoting the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act – that were grist for the Democratic attack mill.”

Karl Rove, the GOP’s best known strategist, delivered a similar message in his column in the same newspaper. He praised Cuccinelli for downplaying social issues during the campaign but said it was too late given the candidate’s “past words on abortion, birth control and divorce laws,” and past penchant for using “polarizing language and an acerbic tone that even allies found off-putting,” when discussing social issues, most notably abortion.

The GOP’s problem with social issues is getting bigger as gay marriage gains political traction with voters. Not so long ago, in 2004, the GOP promoted gay marriage bans as ballot initiatives in key electoral states like Ohio to help drive turnout by conservative voters. Now polls show opposition to gay marriage fading even among Republicans.

Last week, with critical support from nine Republicans, the Senate banned workplace bias against gays via the Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA). This is the first time Congress has voted on ENDA in 17 years. The measure passed by a vote of 61-30. The GOP’s House majority, with its powerful Tea Party caucus, is unlikely to even consider the issue.

On gay rights and abortion, the Tea Party base of the GOP is swimming against that tide. 

Older, more socially conservative voters who align with the GOP on these issues are dying off.  Younger voters, including an increasing number of single women, side with the Democrats on social issues.

With the 2014 races fast approaching, the war on social issues within the GOP is weakening the party even before its candidates get in the ring to start fighting the Democrats.