GOP candidates navigate abortion minefield

GOP candidates navigate abortion minefield

This is the third story in a series examining the impact of the fall of Roe v. Wade with the Supreme Court’s ruling last June in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Republican presidential contenders are navigating a minefield on the issue of abortion one year after Roe v. Wade was overturned, as candidates seek to appeal to the party’s anti-abortion base while keeping more moderate general election voters in mind.

The party’s 2022 midterm candidates suffered losses in critical swing states, causing many candidates to reassess their messaging on the issue.

So far, the 2024 Republican field has offered differing positions. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum have signed six-week abortion bans. But former President Trump, who played a consequential role in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, is taking a relatively evasive approach.

The divergent messaging comes as even members of the party urge fellow Republicans to moderate on abortion heading into 2024 or risk losing key elections.

“I think you’ve got a lot of people who are trying to find their sea legs when it comes to the abortion issue politically. It is a hot potato right now,” said Dave Wilson, who previously served as president of the influential Christian conservative nonprofit Palmetto Family Council.

“You don’t have consistency across the board yet from various pro-life groups in America as to what their stance is going to be,” he added.

Ruling gave Democrats a boost

Republicans lauded the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a ruling that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion established in the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade.

For Democrats, it was a watershed moment — especially at the polls in the 2022 midterm elections.

The high court’s ruling became a consequential voter turnout mechanism, as a number of Republicans in battleground states lost their elections. Democrats expanded their razor-thin Senate majority and kept the GOP’s majority in the House narrow at a time when many predicted a “red wave.”

Anti-abortion proponents argue that those candidates lost their bids because they were not aggressive enough in painting their Democratic opponents as extremists on the issue. 

“Dr. Oz is a perfect example of someone who shied away from the issue and he allowed his opponent to really characterize him as an extremist on this issue,” said E.V. Osment, vice president of communications at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. 

“The problem is he just left it wide open. It was like a duck and cover,” she continued. “You cannot do that in a post-Dobbs landscape.” 

One Republican pollster noted that the GOP saw success with that tactic in 2021, when then-Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin hit back against his Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe on abortion. McAuliffe accused Youngkin of wanting to “ban abortion,” while Youngkin called McAuliffe “the most extreme pro-abortion candidate in America today.”

“Even pro-choice voters are uncomfortable with the idea of up-to-birth abortion,” said Amanda Iovino, a Republican pollster. “But just as the Republican primaries are more conservative than the overall electorate, Democrat primary voters allow no compromise on that issue whatsoever.”

How abortion restrictions are described

Anti-abortion advocates and Republicans have said the news media and candidates should be cognizant of the language they use when talking about exceptions and restrictions.

About 93 percent of reported abortions are performed around or before 13 weeks of pregnancy, 6 percent occur at 14-20 weeks and less than 1 percent are performed after 21 weeks, according to 2020 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A pregnancy is full-term at 40 weeks.

Most states limit some abortions at a certain point in pregnancy, with 17 banning the procedure at viability or 24 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

“I wouldn’t use the word ban because I think it’s really misleading for the American people,” Osment said, noting that states have exceptions to abortion restrictions, such as in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is in danger. “Across the country, we’ve seen different states accept different exceptions.”

“But when you say ‘ban,’ that is really misleading to the American people because then they think there’s not exceptions,” she said.

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America (SBA), one of the most influential anti-abortion advocacy groups in the country, has been meeting with Republican 2024 contenders. The group is calling for restrictions on the procedure at 15 weeks, with exceptions at the federal level.

Gallup poll released June 14 found that 69 percent of Americans said that abortion should be legal throughout the first trimester of pregnancy. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said the procedure should be legal in the second trimester, while 22 percent said the same about the third trimester.

Where GOP 2024 candidates stand

Republican presidential contenders have handled the issue of abortion differently, with Trump dodging whether he would be supportive of a federal abortion ban and also applauding the overturning of Roe v. Wade. In that ruling, three justices he tapped were part of the majority.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who initially offered differing answers on the issue, has suggested he supports a 15-week limit. Pence has said Americans would “welcome a minimum national standard” of 15 weeks.

Meanwhile, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley said the country needs to find “consensus” around the issue, but has also suggested it’s unrealistic to consider federal restrictions given it’s unlikely to go anywhere in Congress.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has said recently he believes abortion access should be left up to the states with the federal government uninvolved “until there’s a consensus around the country.”

Though DeSantis has signed his six-week abortion ban, his stance on a federal abortion ban has been vague, saying only in an interview with Fox News last month, “Dobbs returned the issue to the elected representatives of the people, and so I think that there’s a role for both the federal [government] and states.”

How will abortion affect the general election?

Some Republicans, however, have expressed concerns that their position on abortion could be costly in a general election.

“I feel like [the] majority of the Republican field so far is catering to the far right of the party because obviously a nationwide abortion ban is what the base wants,” said Sarah Matthews, who served as a former White House deputy press secretary in the Trump administration.

“It might serve them well in a primary but whoever is the nominee, if you take this really harsh, restrictive stance on abortion, then it’s just going to come back to hurt you in the general,” she added.

DeSantis’s six-week abortion ban could play well among primary voters in the early contests of Iowa and South Carolina, but it’s unclear how those policies play in a general election.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) signed a six-week ban on the procedure with exceptions last month, while Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) requested to reinstate a 2018 law that would have banned abortion in most cases after six weeks.

Iowa’s state Supreme Court on June 16 upheld a 2019 district court ruling that blocked the law – striking down Reynolds’s request and keeping abortion legal. As for voters, 61 percent of Iowans say abortion should remain legal, and 49 percent disagree the procedure should be banned at six weeks, according to a 2022 poll from Des Moines Register. Forty-five percent of respondents agree that abortion should be banned around six weeks of pregnancy.

Matthews, who said she doesn’t support a federal abortion ban, argued Republicans need to do better not only articulating what limits they support but also other components to the discussion, too.

“We need to be talking about it in a more holistic way. I think that it’s not just enough to talk about the timeline of when you would want a ban. I think that Republicans need to be talking about … contraception or investments in like prenatal care, postpartum care, foster care, things like that,” she said.

Abortion-rights advocates say GOP is ‘extreme’

Meanwhile, abortion-rights proponents argue that Republican lawmakers are largely on the same page when it comes to restriction policies — even if candidates put forth varying timelines.

“I don’t think there is actually that much difference between their positions at all. Every one of them has an extreme position that is out of step with the electorate,” said Ryan Stitzlein, senior national political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Democrats also say they’re not taking their foot off the gas when it comes to campaigning and pushing back on Republicans over the issue in 2024.

Christina Reynolds, senior vice president of communications and content at Emily’s List, pointed to one candidate running for lieutenant governor in North Carolina who recently released an ad focused on abortion.

“I think you’re going to see Democrats continue to talk about it. One, because it’s important and because Republicans are still going after it. And two, because voters are with us … I think it will continue to be an issue as long as you have Republicans continuing to try and ban it,” Reynolds said.

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