Republicans are struggling over how to craft their message on abortion, an issue that has repeatedly kneecapped GOP candidates and that is seen as a huge problem next November.
No consistent message has emerged from the GOP presidential field, which has been all over the map with its strategies for winning over voters on the issue.
At one end stand hard-line abortion opponents such as former Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), who have argued for stiff bans on abortion across the nation.
Meanwhile, candidates such as former President Trump and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley have urged restraint, warning that Republicans risk losing suburban women voters and others over the issue.
Yet even Haley and Trump have tough stances on abortion. Trump is directly responsible for the overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision; three of his Supreme Court nominees made up the majority decision. Haley, during her time as South Carolina governor, also backed legislation that would severely limit abortion rights. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has not said whether he supports a federal ban on the procedure but signed a six-week ban on the procedures with exceptions in his state.
“We did not talk about the issue, and I will tell you why,” Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership, said when discussing last year’s midterms.
“I was personally sitting there with all men and a pollster and I said, this is going to be a huge issue,” she continued. “[They said], ‘No, no, women are going to vote with their pocketbooks.’ I said no they’re not; I said they’re absolutely not. And they didn’t.”
Abortion was largely seen as the key issue that tempered the GOP’s wins in the House and stopped the party from taking back the majority in the Senate in last year’s midterms.
This time around, Senate Republicans are pushing back against calls for a national ban.
“The [National Republican Senatorial Committee] is encouraging Republicans to clearly state their opposition to a national abortion ban and support for reasonable limits on late-term abortions when babies can feel pain with exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother,” said a source familiar with the strategy being employed by the NRSC. “They are encouraging candidates to contrast that position with Democrats’ support for taxpayer-funded abortion without limits.”
Chamberlain is in agreement that candidates should treat abortion as a state issue. “If you’re a Republican, you support giving more power to the states,” she said.
“Let’s put it there, and then let the states deal with it and try to get it out of the federal arena,” she said.
Chamberlain also cited polling commissioned by the Republican Main Street Partnership that found that 60 percent of Republicans said they think the issue should be left to individual states, while 32 percent said there should be a federal law on abortion restrictions; 8 percent said they were unsure.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be successful at doing that. If not, then I think we probably need to go to maybe the European-style abortion law,” she said, referring to how many European countries ban elective abortion procedures after 17 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
Whether a state has a ballot initiative on the legality of abortion could also impact particular races. In at least 10 states, including Florida, Ohio, South Dakota and Missouri, abortion rights advocates are considering ballot measures to codify rights to the procedure. Meanwhile, in other states including New York, Nevada, Maryland and Colorado, there could be opportunities to enshrine existing abortion protections to the procedure.
Ohio’s ballot measure is slated for this November, which could mean abortion access may not play in the state’s Senate race next year. Maryland and New York’s measures will not take place until November 2024.
However, the issue could play up and down the ballot in a swing state such as Arizona, or even a red state such as Florida.
“It’ll be at the forefront of voters’ minds. It probably will drive turnout for Democrats there, so it’s an issue that Republicans will have to be very comfortable talking about,” one Republican strategist told The Hill.
Democrats say they are hopeful after abortion rights supporters were victorious in Kansas, Kentucky, Montana and Michigan, where voters cast ballots backing rights to the procedure in the states. Democrats also attribute recent special election victories in Virginia, Wisconsin and New Hampshire to abortion rights messaging.
“What that shows you is that even though it’s past 2022, a lot of these candidates are still talking about it,” said Abhi Rahman, a Democratic strategist and communications director at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) echoed this sentiment in a statement to The Hill, telegraphing that it plans to keep the issue in the forefront next year.
“On the record and on video, Republican Senate candidates have already staked out dangerous positions that would make abortion illegal and rip away women’s right to make our own health care decisions,” said Nora Keefe, a spokesperson for the DSCC. “We’ll make sure voters see and hear what Republicans have said in their own words, and in 2024 voters will hold them accountable by rejecting them and their toxic agenda.”
Republicans are in agreement that they need to paint Democrats’ stances on abortion as dangerous, pointing specifically to their positions on late-term abortions.
“The truth is, they’re telling you there should be no restrictions on abortion,” a second GOP strategist said. “It’s kind of like the goal post, at least for the Democrats, is literally moved to the point of — and I don’t mean to be crass when I say this — it’s just not a baby until it leaves the hospital.”
A Gallup poll released in June found that 69 percent of Americans said they believe abortion should generally be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, 37 percent said it should be legal in the second three months of pregnancy, and 22 percent said it should be legal in the last three months of pregnancy. While Gallup’s polling shows the results are the highest trends shown in its poll since 1996, there continues to be decreasing support for the procedure’s legalization in the later stages of pregnancy.
“[In a lot of] voters’ minds, they just view Republicans as across-the-board no abortions whatsoever, no exceptions whatsoever, but when you actually dig into the details of what they actually believe, their position even among voters who call themselves pro-choice, their position is not that far out of line from the mainstream party platform,” the first Republican strategist said.
Democrats are predictably skeptical.
“It’s the biggest loss of rights for a large group of people in the last 50 years,” Rahman said. “So no matter what they do, it really won’t help them because all they’re doing is putting lipstick on a pig.”