Republicans running for office don’t want to talk about Texas’s abortion law ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
The near-total ban on the procedure has drawn the ire of Democrats, who argue it is the first step in the conservative movement’s quest to overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s also split Republicans between those who want to emulate Texas’s law in their own states and those who, while in favor of banning the procedure, find the specifics of Texas’s law hard to swallow.
The law outlaws abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can take place as early as six weeks into pregnancy, and only makes exceptions for medical emergencies. Additionally, and most controversially, the law leaves enforcement to private citizens, who can sue doctors and anyone else they believe aided a person receiving an abortion.
Democrats have used the ban to go on the attack against Republicans who would rather focus on crime, the economy, the border crisis and the botched U.S. troop pullout in Afghanistan.
“It will have handed an issue to Democrats at the very moment when the Biden administration and the congressional liberals are out at sea,” said Matthew Continetti, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The past month has been a turbulent one for the Biden administration and its Democratic allies, who are dealing with Afghanistan, surging coronavirus cases caused by the delta variant, rising inflation and internal party disagreements over the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill.
“Amidst all this, I would counsel Republicans to lean back and enjoy the show, but Texas seems convinced to change the subject,” Continetti said.
Republicans have leaned heavily into those issues a year out from the midterms, but the party’s lawmakers and candidates are still being hounded by questions on the Texas law.
This has played out in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe has tried to tie his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, to the measure. The issue was front and center at last week’s gubernatorial debate.
McAuliffe said Youngkin is aiming to “ban abortion,” citing remarks from the Republican earlier this year when he was recorded saying he would “start going on offense” on abortion after he is elected governor and had a majority in the House of Delegates.
Youngkin, who identifies as anti-abortion rights, said he would not support an abortion law like the one in Texas, calling it “unworkable.” Additionally, Youngkin has said he supports the procedure in the cases of rape and incest, breaking from the Texas law.
However, the Republican did suggest he would support a “pain threshold bill,” and swiped at McAuliffe, saying he wants to be “the abortion governor.”
Conservatives say the abortion issue is more likely to work in Republicans’ favor when it comes to banning late-term abortions instead of early term ones.
An Associated Press-NORC survey released in June found that 61 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases in the first trimester of a pregnancy, while 65 percent said it should be illegal in the second trimester and 80 percent in the third trimester.
“There’s a way for the pro-life cause to be a winning issue for Republicans and that is to paint Democrats, accurately in my view, as extremists,” Continetti said.
“Youngkin is trying his best to switch the debate back to the ground on which Republicans have an advantage, which is late-term abortions,” he continued. “But McAuliffe is using the Texas law as a way to emphasize restrictions in the first trimester and to put Youngkin in a box.”
The issue could stand to hurt Republicans with suburban voters, including women, who have moved toward Democrats in recent elections.
An NBC News poll released earlier this month found that 54 percent of suburban voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 42 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases. The same poll found that 59 percent of women said the procedure should be legal in all or most cases, while 38 percent said it should be illegal.
“That is what boxes in the Republicans right now. They are walking a very fine line on how you court the more faith-based, one-issue voters on this topic, while still courting the women’s vote,” said Olivia Troye, the director of the Republican Accountability Project. “A lot of their campaigning this past time around was aimed at women, aimed at the suburban women’s vote too. So where does that play out?”
In Washington state, Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley, who describes herself as a “pro-life” Republican, has been forced to address the issue in her campaign to challenge incumbent Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayBuilding strong public health capacity across the US Texas abortion law creates 2022 headache for GOP Top Democrat says he'll push to address fossil fuel tax breaks in spending bill MORE (D-Wash.) in the deep-blue state.
“While I’m pro-life, I often say I am pro-woman first,” Smiley, a former OB-GYN triage nurse, told reporters on Tuesday.
Smiley recalled working with pregnant women and parents of pregnant women who were unsure of whether to continue with a pregnancy.
“I know what that feels like,” she said. “And I think if we’re really going to be pro-life, we have to be pro-woman first. It means ensuring that keeping that child isn’t a ticket to poverty or a ticket to a lack of education.”
Smiley said that while she agrees with the Texas law, she said “there’s a lot of parts of it that make it very hard for me in Washington state.”
“But at the end of the day, I’m pro-woman first and then always pro-life,” she added.
The business community’s reaction to the legislation also stands to put Republicans, who often pride themselves on promoting free market principles, in a difficult position.
More than 50 companies, including Yelp, Lyft and Reddit, signed a letter this week saying the ban threatens the health and economic stability of their workers and customers. Meanwhile, software company Salesforce told its Texas-based employees earlier this month that it would assist them in relocating if they had concerns over Texas’s new law.
Some worry the issue will impact private sector donors whose employees are voicing reservations about the law.
“When the private sector is being very outspoken on this issue, I think that plays into the calculus of why you’re seeing a lot of Republicans kind of try to distance themselves from it and not really comment on it,” Troye said.
Still, not all Republicans are staying silent or distancing themselves from the law.
Nevada Republican gubernatorial candidate Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerNevada governor Sisolak injured in car accident, released from hospital Democrats brace for tough election year in Nevada Democratic poll finds Cortez Masto leading Laxalt by 4 points in Nevada Senate race MORE suggested this week he would be in favor of a similar abortion law for his state.
“I like what Texas did,” the former senator said. “As governor, I’ll get the most conservative abortion laws that we can have in this state, regardless with who’s controlling the legislature at the time.”
In Florida, while Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisSupport for governors sliding in states without vaccine mandates: survey Vaccine 'resisters' are a real problem Republicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' MORE (R) has expressed his support for pro-life laws, he’s notably backed away from the Texas law’s provision that would give financial incentives to individuals who sue others who assist in provisioning abortions.
Regardless, Democrats say they are ready to go on the offensive.
“Republicans running for office might try to hide their radical views, but they can count on Democrats at every level to hold them accountable and expose them for the extremists they are,” said Democratic National Committee spokesperson Adonna Biel.