Republicans rethink abortion strategy after bruising midterms
Republicans are recalibrating their messaging on abortion after Democrats successfully used the issue to galvanize their base and win over swing voters in 2022.
While the GOP largely focused on the three-pronged message of combatting rising inflation, crime, and the flow of migrants over the southern border, exit polls showed that abortion was a top priority for voters at the ballot box.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel has attributed some of the party’s losses to candidates ignoring the issue.
“It was probably a bigger factor than a lot of people thought,” McDaniel said in an interview earlier this month with radio talk show host John Catsimatidis. “We’ve got to get conversant on that.”
“We can’t just do an ostrich method and pretend that it doesn’t exist when Democrats are spending $30 million on that message.”
According to exit polling, 27 percent of voters said that abortion was the most important issue in deciding their vote, coming in only behind inflation at 31 percent.
The issue played a key role in the critical swing state of Pennsylvania, where Sen.-elect John Fetterman (D) strongly elevated the issue, particularly in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Thirty-six percent of voters in that state said abortion was their top issue, while 29 percent said inflation.
Abortion access proponents were also victorious on a number of ballot measures, with voters in California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont voting in favor of abortion rights.
The victories followed the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June, which punted the issue of abortion access back to the states. Republicans in a number of states moved to limit access to the procedure following the ruling, sparking a chain reaction among Democrats calling to protect abortion rights.
“The Dobbs decision was not unlike a political earthquake,” said Marilyn Musgrave, the vice president of government affairs at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “Republicans, in my opinion, could have had a much better response.”
An RNC polling memo published in September appeared to foreshadow the difficulty Republicans could face on the issue due to the Dobbs decision, with 80 percent of voters polled saying they were “not pleased” with the Supreme Court’s decision on the matter.
However, the memo did encourage Republicans to appeal to the same voters by taking a more middle-of-the-road approach by not taking a hard-line stance on the issue, but rather being open to exceptions to bans.
“When comparing a Democrat who supports abortion at any time for any reason, against a Pro-life Republican who supports exceptions for instances of rape, incest, or the life of the mother, the GOP candidate holds a +22 percent advantage,” the memo read.
In a separate post-election interview, McDaniel addressed what she said was a hesitancy among many political consultants to encourage their candidates to address abortion attacks head-on.
“We put out a memo, we said address this, take this head-on,” McDaniel said on “Washington Watch with Tony Perkins.”
“How many candidate consultants said we don’t want to talk about it, it’s not polling well? But the reality is, when you’re putting $30 million behind something, it doesn’t matter how it’s polling, it’s an issue,” she added, referring to Democratic spending on the issue.
Anti-abortion advocates have argued that many Republicans missed an opportunity by not being more consistent in labeling Democrats as “extreme” on the issue.
Musgrave called for “building a national consensus on reasonable limits on abortion.”
“I’m very confident that the voters are with us on this,” Musgrave said. “They just need to get that information and they need leaders and they need candidates talking about this. And of course, it will be a big issue in the presidential, so here we go.”
While most polling shows that a majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal, these findings shift when asked about specific trimesters in pregnancy. A Gallup poll released shortly before Roe was overturned earlier this year found that roughly 60 percent of U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy. However, that support declined to 28 percent for abortions taking place in the second trimester, and then to 13 percent in the last trimester.
And when some exceptions were factored into the polling, there was still general support for the procedure in the third trimester. Seventy-five percent of Americans said they believe abortion should be legal in the third trimester when the person’s life is endangered while 52 percent said the same in the case of rape or incest.
Jennifer Horn, who formerly served as the chair of New Hampshire’s GOP and has since become an independent, suggested that Republicans have made a mistake in not viewing abortion as a complex issue.
“For, at least Republican woman, a pro-life governor who is advancing limits on abortion is not unappealing,” said Horn, who personally described herself as pro-life. “You can believe that women have a right to make this choice and that there should be limits on how far into a pregnancy that right should exist.”
GOP stances on the issue could likely vary state to state in races down the ballot in 2024, but more eyes are starting to turn to how the issue will play in 2024.
“Heading into 2024, it is essential for any pro-life candidate to embrace the issue head-on, clearly defining their own position and contrasting it with the unpopular, extreme, abortion up-until-birth position of their opponent,” said Jeanne Mancini, the president of March for Life.
Republicans and anti-abortion advocates are pointing to Republican governors who have taken restrictive abortion stances and were victorious in 2022 as a bright spot going forward.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) were among those with anti-abortion stances who handily won reelection in 2022.
“Success stories in the states were very encouraging, and you really don’t hear much about that,” Musgrave said. “Those guys really came out fighting.”
Others argue that their wins did not directly correlate with their stances on abortion, arguing that other factors including incumbency, their opponents and other state and local issues were at play.
But anti-abortion advocates say it’s important to have someone like DeSantis, who is growing his national profile and his standing in 2024 polls every day. When asked at a press conference earlier this month whether he would support a “heartbeat bill” that would presumably ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, DeSantis did not directly commit to heartbeat legislation but said “I’m willing to sign great life legislation.”
“For candidates like DeSantis who are clearly looking to become the next president of the United States, through the Republican primary process, this issue and every other issue that comes up over the next two years is going to be addressed through an I-want-to-be, presidency filter,” Horn said.
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