GOP walks tightrope on abortion

Protesters against abortion demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.
Peter Afriyie
Protesters against abortion demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.

The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down decades of precedent protecting access to an abortion was hailed as a win for conservatives, but the political reality for Republicans is likely to be far more complicated.

Polling has shown a majority of the American public disapproves of the Supreme Court’s position, and prominent Republicans have tip-toed around calls from some conservatives for stricter abortion laws around the nation.

The court’s decision, which not only upheld Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban that directly clashed with the precedent set by Roe v. Wade but overturned altogether federal abortion protections at any stage, creates a quagmire for Republican lawmakers in moderate districts during what has been an otherwise favorable election cycle. And it poses even more questions as the party eyes taking back the White House in 2024.

John Thomas, a Republican strategist who has worked on House campaigns, expected Democrats to see a spike in small dollar donations and said the court decision provides a distraction from the economic woes that have sunk President Biden’s approval ratings and been a central focus of Republicans on the campaign trail.

“In terms of the short term, this is a winning conversation for Democrats, particularly vulnerable Democrats where there are lots of college educated white women,” Thomas said. “This gives them a bit of a reprieve from what was otherwise considered just a brutal conversation on almost every front.”

Republicans only need to pick up one Senate seat and flip a handful of House seats during a traditionally favorable midterm cycle to win majorities in both chambers.

“While I think it does shift turnout around the margins, I don’t think this is going to be the top issue people are going to be voting on,” Thomas said. “It’s still going to be an excellent cycle for Republicans; the question is does this allow an occasional Democrat to hold on? It doesn’t change the likely outcome of the majority shift.”

The risk, strategists say, lies in how vigorously Republican state legislatures and governors push for abortion bans and how Republicans handle the issue if they retake the majorities in Congress.

Aggressively pursuing abortion bans could backfire, given polling shows Roe was broadly popular.

An NPR poll found 56 percent of respondents opposed the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe, including 53 percent of independents.

A CBS News poll found 59 percent of Americans disapproved of the court’s decision, including 67 percent of women. Fifty-two percent of respondents called the ruling a “step backward for America,” compared with 31 percent who called it a step forward.

Perhaps most importantly for the political landscape, 50 percent of Democrats said the decision made them more likely to vote in the midterms, compared to 20 percent of Republicans. Forty-two percent of Democrats said it would have no effect on their likelihood to vote, and 61 percent of independents said it would have no effect.

“I think it all depends on how state legislatures handle this. There will be some that jump the shark … and that’s the thing that I think gives people like me pause is how does that impact kind of down the road,” said one GOP strategist who is working on House races.

A coalition of conservative groups wrote to the two top House Republicans on Tuesday urging them to schedule a vote on legislation that would outlaw abortion if a heartbeat is detected, going even further than the 15-week ban supported by many conservatives.

On the Senate side, Republicans have tried to downplay the long-term ramifications of the Supreme Court ruling.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has knocked down talk of a national abortion ban, saying Monday in Kentucky that neither side of the abortion debate has the 60 votes needed to codify abortion protections or restrictions.

Adam Laxalt, a candidate for Senate in Nevada, tried to strike a balance of his own, calling the court decision a “historic victory for the sanctity of life” that would give more authority on the issue to states. But he acknowledged Nevada has already voted to protect abortion in the state, making it a settled matter there.

Fighting the precedent set by Roe has long been a consistent talking point for Republicans, but would-be candidates for national office must now weigh embracing more restrictive abortion policies with potentially alienating the public.

Responses from other conservatives have run the gamut, from couching the decision as a win for states’ rights to endorsing an all-out ban on abortion, reflecting the unclear path forward on the issue.

Former President Trump hailed the Supreme Court ruling a “victory for life,”  but he did not make it a focal point of an Illinois rally.

Former Vice President Mike Pence urged states to pass laws restricting abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.

Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the court ruling “puts the debate back where it belongs — at the state level, closest to the people.”

However, it’s unclear if Democrats will even be able to successfully put Republicans on the defensive when it comes to abortion access. Republicans have been disciplined in focusing on the issues of rising inflation, crime and the flow of migrants over the U.S. southern border in an effort to put Democrats on defense.

And those against abortion access are pointing to past elections where they say Democratic efforts to hit Republicans on abortion have fallen flat.

“We have a great example in the Virginia gubernatorial race from last fall, which happened just a few weeks after the Texas heartbeat bill went into effect,” said Mallory Carroll, vice president of communications at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.

During the campaign, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe sought to paint Republican Glenn Youngkin as extreme on the issue, tying him to the Texas law, despite Youngkin saying he disagreed with the ban.

Youngkin instead focused on issues like education and cutting taxes. Exit polling showed that 8 percent of voters called abortion “the most important issue facing Virginia,” while 33 percent said the same about the economy and jobs.

“[McAuliffe] tried to go on offense to use it to rally his base, but it completely backfired on Election Day,” Carroll said.

Still, the historic nature of the Supreme Court’s decision could mean a different political landscape for this fall’s candidates.

“I would say it distracts voters from kind of the Democrats’ feckless ability to get anything done in Washington,” Thomas said. “Democrats thrive when they can make the argument something is going to be taken away from their voters.” 

Julia Manchester contributed.

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