Republican candidates tack toward right on abortion

Republican candidates tack toward right on abortion
© Clara longo de Freitas/Greg Nash

Republicans across the country are working to appeal to the party’s anti-abortion voter base ahead of next year’s midterms elections by lurching further to the right on the deeply controversial issue than their primary competitors.

In Nevada, former Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerSeven most vulnerable governors facing reelection in 2022 Nevada becomes early Senate battleground Nevada governor Sisolak injured in car accident, released from hospital MORE voiced his support for the near-total ban on abortion in Texas as he announced his campaign for governor. Former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt has leaned heavily into his anti-abortion credentials in his run for Senate

Meanwhile in Ohio, three Republican Senate candidates have very publicly thrown their support behind “fetal heartbeat” legislation. 

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In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris SununuChris SununuThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Biden's strategy for midterm elections comes into focus Sununu says he skipped Senate bid to avoid being 'roadblock' to Biden for two years MORE (R), a potential Senate candidate, is facing backlash from Democrats for signing a state budget that included a ban on the procedure after 24 weeks of pregnancy and mandatory ultrasounds before abortions take place. 

The issue has also come up in other closely watched races, including in Virginia and Arizona. 

Despite facing backlash from Democrats on the issue, conservatives say the move to the right is essential for winning a Republican primary. 

“When we advise primary election candidates, we tell them that the areas they have to be very clear on include the Second Amendment, size of government and pro-life,” said veteran Ohio GOP strategist Mark Weaver. 

Anti-abortion groups say they are also gearing up to go on the offensive and encouraging anti-abortion Republicans to lean in to that messaging. 

“Given the fact that abortion is increasingly in the news and at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it makes it even more important that pro-life candidates explain what it is that they’re for and what it is that they’re against,” said Susan B. Anthony List spokesperson Mallory Quigley.

The group is already targeting voters in major swing states with Senate and gubernatorial races next year such as Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, with plans to expand to Florida and North Carolina. 

However, the Texas abortion law has provided Democrats with ample opportunity to go on the offensive against their Republican opponents, painting them as extreme ahead of general elections. 

“In key Senate battleground states, Democrats will be reminding voters of the stakes in next year’s election, why we must defend a Democratic Senate majority with the power to confirm or reject Supreme Court justices — and why we must hold every GOP senate candidate accountable for their attacks on women and families,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Jazmin Vargas. 

In Ohio, Democrats have already targeted Republican primary candidates such as J.D. Vance, Josh Mandel and Jane Timken for their stances on abortion. Vance, in particular, came under fire last week when he said “two wrongs don’t make a right” in response to a question on allowing for exceptions for rape and incest.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about an unborn baby. What kind of society do we want to have? A society that looks at unborn babies as inconveniences to be discarded?” Vance told Spectrum News in Columbus.

The Republican candidates in Ohio’s Senate primary have voiced their support for their state’s heartbeat bill, which bans abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Gov. Mike DeWineMike DeWineIntel to build B Ohio factory amid chip shortage Ohio Supreme Court strikes down GOP-drawn congressional map Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Russia have face-to-face sit down MORE (R) signed the legislation into law in 2019, but a federal judge blocked it before it could take effect that same year. 

Activists on both sides of the abortion debate in Ohio are now eagerly watching the response to the Texas law to see how it could affect the Midwestern state. 

But Republicans maintain they still have the upper hand on the issue in Ohio, which leans red.

“The news would be if a candidate wasn’t pro-life,” said another Ohio-based GOP strategist. “Just like [the pro-life block] is super essential in the primary, they’re also essential in the general because you need them to stick with you and turnout. That’s a good chunk of votes.” 

In New Hampshire, Sununu faces an entirely different political environment. National Republicans are pressing the governor to launch a Senate bid in an effort to unseat Sen. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanDemocrats torn over pushing stolen-election narrative These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Kelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race MORE (D-N.H.). The effort to oust Hassan will likely be a tough battle for any Republican in the race, which the Cook Political Report rates as “lean Democratic.” Meanwhile, Cook has rated the state’s gubernatorial race next year as “solid Republican.” 

Regardless of what office Sununu decides to run for, he is coming under fire from Democrats for his decision to include a 24-week abortion ban in the $13.5 billion two-year state budget. The ban only provides for exceptions when the life of the mother is at risk.  

“Whether Sununu runs for Senate or runs for governor, it is certainly going to be our mission to expose him for saying one thing to the voters and doing another,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley told The Hill.

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Sununu has described himself as “pro-choice” and has pointed to other states that he said have similar laws.

“Forty-three other states have similar clauses, including Massachusetts and New York, who have almost the exact same law. No one is screaming at them,” Sununu told reporters in June. “Do you want me to scrap a $13 billion budget for this one item? I will not do that.”

Anti-abortion groups in New Hampshire have also echoed Sununu’s sentiment. 

“We’re not talking about repealing Roe v. Wade here, we’re talking about something that the vast majority of the country agrees on, which is babies that can be born deserve some protection under the law,” said Jason Hennessey, the president of New Hampshire Right to Life. 

Still, Democrats in and out of the Granite State are already attacking the governor on the issue, suggesting he is beholden to Republicans in Washington. 

“The donors and the movers and shakers in Washington are anti-choice, and it makes it easier for him,” Buckley said. “But it will end up costing him.”

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Republicans and anti-abortion advocates pushed back at this notion, saying Hassan was bound to abortion rights groups like Planned Parenthood.

Despite being a controversial issue, Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that the issue is a strong one for turnout on both sides of the aisle.

“We live in divided, partisan times and in general elections, candidates win by turning out as many of their base supporters as they can,” Weaver said. “Certainly, you want to win swing voters to the extent that there are any. The larger question is, how big a group are they?”