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Republicans scramble to tweak abortion messaging ahead of November

Republican candidates are shifting their message on abortion after several recent elections have shown the issue energizing Democrats.

Some candidates for House, Senate and governor have either reworked sections on their websites or released ads that have sought to downplay, reverse or clarify some of their anti-abortion stances.

The shift started over the summer following the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, but the change has become increasingly noticeable as more and more signs have emerged showing abortion can be a galvanizing issue for Democratic voters in key states.

“I think the concept that for decades, you know, a Supreme Court fight energized the conservative base because they wanted to overturn Roe, right?” Republican strategist Barrett Marson, who previously worked on Arizona Republican Senate nominee Blake Masters’s campaign, said.

“I think you’re gonna see a flip on that, that the liberal base will get more energized about this issue because they got it taken away from them,” he added.

Voters in the red state of Kansas earlier this month resoundingly rejected a ballot measure that would have given the legislature more authority to restrict the procedure. And last week, Democrat Pat Ryan won a New York special election seen as a bellwether after focusing his campaign on abortion rights.

In three other special elections since the Supreme Court struck down federal abortion protections, Democrats outpaced expectations even though they ultimately lost. And states such as Pennsylvania, Idaho and Wisconsin are seeing larger gaps open up between new female and male voter registrations since the Supreme Court decision, according to TargetSmart, the Democratic data services firm. 

Taken together, the developments have seemingly pushed Republicans to reassess how they approach an issue that has already shown it can help swing elections and for some to step back from support for outright abortion bans.

NBC News reported last week that Masters had changed some language on his website regarding his stance on the issue, including getting rid of the line “I am 100% pro-life” and support for “a federal personhood law (ideally a Constitutional amendment) that recognizes that unborn babies are human beings that may not be killed.”

The network, which took images of the website before and after it was updated, also reported the previous version said he supported legislation that would criminalize abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, while an updated version showed him supporting restrictions after the third trimester.

“He has moderated slightly on this issue, and I would still say he is pretty unabashedly pro-life,” Marson said of Masters. “I mean, I don’t think there’s a question that he is very pro-life. And so, has he, you know, backed away from maybe some of the harsher stances? Sure. But [I] don’t think that he’s, you know, all of a sudden, a moderate on the issue. He’s not.”

Masters’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but the campaign did direct NBC toward an interview he did earlier this month with The Arizona Republic after his primary in which he expressed his support for restrictions in the third trimester. He also supported the state’s 15-week ban on abortion that outlines exceptions for saving the patient’s life as “a reasonable solution.”

Other GOP candidates are finding themselves pushing back against Democratic attacks on their abortion stances.

In Washington state, Republican Senate nominee Tiffany Smiley, who is taking on Sen. Patty Murray (D) released a commercial last week that included the line “Patty Murray has spent millions to paint me as an extremist. I’m pro-life, but I oppose a federal abortion ban.”

The ad came after Murray’s campaign released an ad that hit Smiley over her previous support of Texas’s abortion law and accused her of supporting a nationwide ban. Smiley has previously said she did not support a federal ban and took a critical stance earlier this year on Texas’s law.

Smiley spokeswoman Elisa Carlson contended Smiley hasn’t changed her messaging, saying she issued the ad to reiterate her position on abortion and that she’s willing to work with both parties. While she acknowledged that Smiley did previously support Texas’s abortion ban, she said Smiley changed her opinion “when it became clear how far that law went.”

The latest moves are a continuation of a trend that started this summer.

Scott Jensen, the GOP gubernatorial pick in Minnesota, told Minnesota Public Radio in an interview in March, before the Supreme Court decision, that he would try to ban abortion should Roe v. Wade be overturned.

“We have tremendous opportunities and availability of birth control. We don’t need to be snuffing out lives that if left alone will produce a viable newborn, that may go on to be the next Albert Einstein,” he said at the time.

Jensen in July released a video with his running mate, Matt Birk, following the Supreme Court decision, saying he supported some exceptions.

“I’m just gonna say it real clearly. Without question, rape and incest are exceptions that, with no hesitation on my part, I would want a pregnant woman to feel that they absolutely have the choice. You cannot bring a tubal pregnancy to fruition. What you would do is you would sacrifice the pregnant woman’s life, and as a physician, I would never go along with that,” Jensen said in the video.

The Hill reached out to the Jensen campaign for comment.

If there was any question that the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade would galvanize Democrats and abortion rights advocates, it was the developments that came after the ruling that showed the issue of abortion could play a critical role in the midterms.

Only one week after the high court issued its ruling, ActBlue, the digital fundraising platform for Democrats, had hauled in more than $80 million. 

The Kansas referendum became a warning sign for Republicans — even in red states.

And even in several special elections that Democrats lost, such as in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District and Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, Democrats lost by single digits races that were supposed to significantly favor Republicans, a sign that the issue could be encouraging more voter turnout.

“I think they underestimated the power and the historical voice women have always carried in this 200-year-old-plus republic. And I think they also underestimate how they have been out of touch and out of step with how, not just women, but how the American people feel about a woman having the ability to make her own health care decisions and those decisions remaining between her and her doctor,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright, who believed Republicans were trying to reverse course. 

Mallory Carroll, a spokesperson for Susan B. Anthony Pro-life America, argued that Republicans weren’t shifting their views on abortion, noting their messaging was simply “a reflection of the dynamics of the office that these people are running for.”

“While we would love to see every single human life protected from the moment of conception, you know, starting today, you know, from this moment moving forward, the reality is that the consensus is going to not necessarily look like what I, you know, what my dream policy would be like,” she said, adding that there’s a difference between what’s achievable at the state and federal levels.

Republican strategist Doug Heye said he didn’t think the Republican candidates’ reevaluation of their abortion message would hurt them with voters, but the issue is distracting from what Republicans wanted to make the midterms about: the economy, crime and a referendum on President Biden.

“In politics, you want to be talking about what you want to be talking about and you want your opponent to be talking about what you want to talk about, right? What they don’t want to talk about,” Heye said. “And so, if you look at Democratic messaging right now, they’re spending a lot more time on abortion than they are on inflation. And that should tell Republicans exactly what they need to know in a ‘don’t go there’ sort of way.”

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