Abortion debate to dominate 2024 races with Republican Party doubling down on bans

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Abortion, an issue that helped flatten a GOP red wave in the last elections, is poised to make a big comeback in 2024 and likely make it harder for Republicans to win in critical swing states.

The Republican National Committee last month doubled down on efforts to restrict the procedure. The RNC adopted a resolution urging GOP lawmakers “to pass the strongest pro-life legislation possible” at the state and federal level, including measures to ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.

The thinking behind the resolution was that the problem in the midterms wasn’t the pro-life stance but rather that Republican candidates were poor messengers for it after the Supreme Court overturned nationwide abortion rights.

Democrats seized on the high court ruling in June 2022 to galvanize their base, particularly female voters, and to sway independents, spending nearly $130 million on advertising on abortion-related campaign ads ahead of the midterms. 

Their efforts may have prevented the House GOP from securing the double-digit majority many analysts predicted. A post-election analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found nearly half of midterm voters said the Supreme Court ruling had a significant impact on which candidates they chose, including 64% of voters who picked Democratic House candidates. Republicans ended up with a five-seat majority.

Many Republican candidates dodged the issue entirely on the campaign trail and tried to keep the focus on inflation and gas prices — top voter concerns.

Other GOP candidates stumbled in their attempts to articulate the party’s position on abortion, which abortion foes say left the party at a disadvantage in the face of Democratic attacks. 

“Instead of fighting back and exposing Democratic extremism on abortion, many Republican candidates failed to remind Americans of our proud heritage of challenging slavery, segregation, and the forces eroding the family and the sanctity of human life, thereby allowing Democrats to define our longtime position,” the RNC resolution declared.

Republican strategists and pollsters, however, aren’t so sure GOP candidates can win over swing-state voters in the next election by doubling down on the most restrictive abortion bans, which may be supported by the most conservative Republicans, but are not supported by most voters.

While campaigning to end abortion will draw support from evangelical Christian voters in the GOP base, it likely will again galvanize Democrats and independent voters, particularly women, in key states in 2024.

In Pennsylvania, a pivotal swing state in the upcoming presidential race, Republicans in November lost a critical Senate seat as well as the governor’s race, in part because of the threats to abortion access, polls suggest.

A Franklin and Marshall College Poll found abortion topped the economy among Pennsylvania voters  17% to 11% in the Senate race and 14% to 10% in the governor’s race.

Republican candidates Mehmet Oz for Senate and Doug Mastriano for governor each had difficulty articulating an abortion position in the wake of the high court ruling that sent the abortion issue to state legislatures. 

Mr. Mastriano said he opposed abortion at any stage of pregnancy and did not favor exceptions for rape or incest. He pledged to sign a ban on abortion at six weeks of pregnancy if elected governor, basically promoting the position the RNC is now asking the party to embrace in 2024.

Mr. Mastriano was clobbered by Democrat Josh Shapiro, losing by nearly 15 points.

Mr. Oz stumbled badly during the only Senate debate when asked about abortion, telling the audience, “I want women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive, to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves.”

Democrats quickly cut a political ad showcasing Mr. Oz’s blunder as an assertion that politicians should have a say in a woman’s decision to have an abortion. The celebrity heart surgeon lost the election by 5 points to Democrat John Fetterman, whose campaign was overshadowed by his struggle to communicate following a serious stroke.

“I have no doubt that the abortion issue played an important role in helping the Democrats win the Senate and governor races,” Franklin and Marshall Poll Director Berwood Yost said. “Whether that was solely based on abortion, or amplified because Doug Mastriano’s position on the issue was so outside the mainstream for the state is unclear, but important.”

The Pennsylvania results should serve as a lesson to the party, particularly in swing states, Republican strategist Doug Heye said. 

National and state polling show voters support limited restrictions on abortions. 

An AP/NORC poll in June found 61% of adults nationwide said abortion should be legal in the first trimester, which is 12 weeks of pregnancy. Those opposed to a first-trimester ban included 55% of independents and 41% of Republicans. 

Support for abortion dropped for all political groups in the second and third trimesters.

“A combination of where the parties were a generation ago is where most voters remain — they want abortion to be rare, safe and legal, with restrictions and exceptions,” Mr. Heye said.

Republican candidates should stop endorsing all-out bans on abortion, with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the mother, or punishing women who obtain abortions in violation of new state bans, he said.

“Failure to do so will mean more disappointing election nights in the future,” Mr. Heye said.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said Republicans who lost in 2022 simply failed to draw a sharp contrast to Democrats who support no limits at all on abortion, which is also out of step with public opinion. 

She said GOP candidates “put their heads in the sand, pretended the issue of abortion didn’t exist, and let Democrats spend hundreds of millions of dollars distorting their pro-life positions and defining them as extremists.”

Candidates in 2024, she said, “must stay on offense,” and draw a contrast with Democrats. 

Abortion opponents point to political victories in Georgia, Florida and other states that have implemented abortion limits in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

In Georgia, incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican who signed a ban on abortion after 6 weeks of pregnancy, easily won re-election. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is eyed as a 2024 GOP presidential contender, trounced his Democratic opponent by 20 points after signing a less-restrictive ban on abortions that prohibits the procedure after 15 weeks.

Mr. DeSantis has not said specifically whether he will push for more restrictions on abortion, such as a six-week ban, in his second term. 

Support for abortion bans hurt Republicans in Michigan, another key swing state.

The issue ranked at the top of voter concerns, helping incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, to defeat GOP challenger Tudor Dixon, who supported abortion restrictions and was backed by groups opposing abortion, including Right to Life of Michigan.

Voters in Michigan also voted in November to enshrine the right to abortion in their state constitution. 

In Minnesota, Republican Scott Jensen said he believes the abortion issue contributed to his 5-point loss in November to incumbent Democrat Gov. Tim Walz. Mr. Jensen lost despite raising more money than any GOP candidate for governor in state history and running a competitive race.

Mr. Jensen tried salvaging his campaign by softening his view on abortion. At first, he pledged to institute an abortion ban if elected and opposed exceptions for rape. He later said there should always be exceptions to abortion bans and the procedure could not be limited at all without a constitutional amendment supported by state voters. 

Minnesota polls showed a majority of voters opposed the Supreme Court ruling and two-thirds said they did not support a ban on the procedure.

Mr. Jensen’s pivot didn’t save his campaign. The abortion issue ultimately cost him the race, eroding advantages the Republican party may have had on economic issues and concerns about rising crime, he said.

“For so many Americans across the country, this election was about an intrusion into a person’s autonomy,” Mr. Jensen said in a post-mortem discussion of his defeat on Facebook. “If you infringe on someone’s freedom … you’ll probably lose.” 

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