Republican candidates are finding their footing on abortion messaging in the final weeks of the midterm cycle following weeks of Democrats pummeling them over the issue.
That all changed after the high court held in June that each state can formulate its own abortion laws, an outcome conservatives celebrated but that also exposed an intraparty rift on one of the most polarizing issues in American politics.
The split was on public display after Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) unveiled a proposed 15-week national abortion ban in mid-September. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly distanced his caucus from the plan, telling reporters that most GOP senators thought the issue should be left up to the states.
In the early months after the Supreme Court decision, GOP candidates scrambled to soften the blow as Democrats saw an opportunity to blunt a red wave in November by running on protecting abortion access. In Kansas, a red state, voters decided to keep the procedure legal in a stunning defeat for anti-abortion groups, and Democrat Pat Ryan’s win in a New York special election helped convince political watchers that abortion rights could turn into a potent topic for Democrats after the House candidate ran unapologetically on it.
Republicans in battleground states scrubbed abortion language from their campaign websites and altered their rhetoric on the trail. Arizona Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters, in a competitive race to unseat Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), removed the line “I am 100% pro-life” from his site.
As Republicans appear to be gaining ground in the home stretch of the midterm elections, closing the polling gap in key Senate races, GOP strategists are urging their candidates to attack Democrats on the likely culprit: rising gas prices and persistently high inflation.
“The politics of abortion are complicated. But the politics of 2022 shouldn’t be,” said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist in Washington.
When the topic of abortion comes up in a debate or on the campaign trail, strategists advise GOP candidates to adopt poll-tested positions popular with independents and be prepared to talk about their views without wavering. An Associated Press-NORC poll from July found 53% of adults believe abortion should be allowed 15 weeks into pregnancy and 33% support abortions at 24 weeks, which is largely considered the point at which a fetus can be viable.
“You don’t have to run from this issue. You can and should be prepared to speak about it forcefully,” Heye said.
Additionally, operatives inside the Beltway are urging Republican candidates to go on offense and flip the script on the Democrats by calling them “extremists” when it comes to their positions on reproductive rights.
Several commended the recent debate performance of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) against challenger Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), in which the senator, seeking a third six-year term, defended his record as the only senator up for reelection to co-sponsor Graham’s nationwide 15-week ban.
When pressed on whether he’d support a federal abortion ban, Rubio suggested an outright ban would never pass in the Senate.
“We’re never going to get a vote on a law that doesn’t have exceptions ’cause that’s where the majority of the American people are, and I respect and I understand that,” Rubio said.
The Florida Republican then pivoted by calling Demings an extremist on the issue, claiming she supports abortion through the end of pregnancy.
“The extremist on abortion in this campaign is congresswoman Demings. She supports no restrictions, no limitations of any kind,” Rubio said during the debate.
Demings countered that Rubio was misrepresenting her stance and clarified she would allow abortion until the point of fetal viability.
“I think the way he handled it was smart. The Democrats are going to call Republicans extremist. There’s no reason Republicans can’t accuse Democrats of also being extremist,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and a former press secretary and communications director for Rubio’s 2016 presidential run.
Republicans Ted Budd in North Carolina, J.D. Vance in Ohio, and Masters in Arizona all painted their Democratic opponents as too extreme on abortion in recent Senate debates.
Groups that oppose abortion said they’ve been pleased to see Republican candidates speaking more freely about abortion and challenging the Democrats on their views.
“We’re seeing Republican candidates finally picking up the talking points and memos we’ve been sending all summer long, telling them to get on offense when it comes to abortion,” said Kristin Hawkins, the president of Students for Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group.
“I’ve been excited to see Republicans pushing back. As more and more candidates do it, more candidates see it working, and the cycle continues,” she said.
Hawkins said she’s frustrated that political operatives have cautioned their Republican candidates not to talk about abortion amid fears of incurring political damage, but she said that’s nothing new this cycle.
“I think that candidates that refuse to talk about abortion refuse to put their opponent on the defense for their extremism. They do that at their own peril. The lessons we’ve learned from previous races is that candidates who confidently state their beliefs about abortion win,” she said.
The latest polling shows the economy has surpassed abortion as a top concern for likely voters, and the Democrats appear to be losing their advantage with women. A Monmouth University poll on Thursday found women to be split evenly between Democrats and Republicans on the generic ballot, an 8-percentage-point decrease since August. A New York Times-Siena College poll released Monday found female independent voters favored Republicans by 18 points — a swing from the same poll conducted in September, when they favored Democrats by 14 points.
Nevertheless, Democratic strategists say abortion is not a winning issue for the GOP and that Democratic candidates should continue to work to expose that vulnerability in the final days of the campaign.
“Many Republicans are blatantly lying about their record and are distorting the heck out of it because they don’t want to get on the wrong side of the issue with independent voters or what’s left of moderate Republicans,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who served as an aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).
“Democrats obviously need to be talking about this. Despite Republican comments to the contrary, many are prepared to enact a nationwide [abortion] ban, but it can’t be at the expense of talking about other issues,” Manley said.
GOP strategist Saul Anuzis emphasizes the messaging strategy on abortion must vary state by state in order for Republicans to be successful this midterm cycle. He also said the timing of the Supreme Court’s decision this summer gave Republicans more breathing room to formulate their strategy. He admits if the decision came out closer to the election, it would have been more problematic for Republicans on the ballot.
“Dobbs came out, we had four weeks of tough times, as everyone was trying to figure out what that actually meant because the laws went back to the states,” Anuzis said.
In the weeks after the Supreme Court made its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Anuzis believes the Democrats overplayed their hand.
“They tried to nationalize this by saying Republicans across the board want to outlaw abortion, which wasn’t true. So, they got caught in that, and our guys figured it out,” he said.
“Democrats made a tactical mistake, and as a result, Republicans are getting comfortable with a message that works,” Anuzis added.