Pro-life politics hobbled by left successfully framing abortion debate as an all-or-nothing choice

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Republicans are rushing back to the drawing board for a winning message on abortion after the post-Roe scoreboard favored Democrats at the ballot box.

Liberal Judge Janet Protasiewicz’s 11-point drubbing of conservative Daniel Kelly in the Wisconsin state Supreme Court election on April 4 is the latest example of how the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade has strengthened the hand of Democrats. They are running unapologetically on an abortion-rights message, raking in gobs of campaign cash with a newly impassioned pro-choice battle cry and winning.

In the November elections, Democrats flipped legislative chambers in Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, giving them full control of those states. They did not lose any of the statehouses they already controlled, marking the first time since at least 1934 that the party in power has pulled off that feat, according to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which focuses on state legislative races.

Democrats also flipped a seat in the U.S. Senate, limited their losses in the House and won state referendum battles on abortion access since the high court’s ruling last year in Dobbs v Jackson sent the abortion issue back to the states.

Matt Carpenter, director of the conservative Family Research Council’s political action group FRC Action, attributed Mr. Kelly’s loss in Wisconsin to being outspent and out-hustled, but he said there is a way for Republicans and pro-life candidates to strengthen their message.

“When the pro-life movement is messaging on protecting children, they are winning,” Mr. Carpenter said. “We have to humanize the child in the womb and inform voters what is at stake here.”

Pro-life advocates note that voters rewarded Republican governors including Ron DeSantis in Florida, Brian Kemp in Georgia and Greg Abbott in Texas, all of whom signed abortion restrictions into law and did so in an unflinching manner

Anti-abortion activists said Republicans who attack the issue head-on win while those who take the ostrich approach — ignoring or running away from the issue — lose because they allow opponents to define them. 

“That’s why it is imperative that Republicans stand up and speak out on this issue and not let their opponents define them,” SBA Pro-Life America said in a statement. “Republican candidates win in competitive races when they expose their opponents’ no-limits approach to abortion.”

Republicans are sorting through the setbacks and working to strike a balance between catering to their loyal pro-life base without alienating other voters. That is proving to be a hard sell with voters who for over 50 years were accustomed to abortion being a constitutional right.

Gallup polls show that since 1976 the percentage of Americans that say abortion should be illegal in all situations has sunk to 13% from 21%. Over the same period, the percentage of people that say abortion should be legal under any circumstance climbed to 35% from 22%.

The slice of the electorate backing abortion only under certain circumstances has been less volatile, slipping to 50% from 54%.

Republicans have tried to woo voters by rallying around 15-week abortion bans, both at the state and federal levels. They tout polls showing more voters support than oppose that type of limit as long as they include carveouts for cases of rape, incest or risk to the physical health of the mother.

The challenge for Republican candidates is that the abortion debate often is framed as an all-or-nothing choice.

That dynamic tripped up the GOP, including in Kansas where voters last year overwhelmingly rejected — 59% to 41% — a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have said there was no right to an abortion in the state.

The issue also hit governors’ races.

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer went all-in on abortion rights, helping to drive turnout for Democrats up and down the ticket.

She won a second term by 10 points. Democrats flipped control of the state legislature. Voters also approved a 57-43% margin a constitutional amendment guaranteeing reproductive rights.

“Clearly in Michigan, the reason Republicans lost control of the state House and state Senate last year was because of Dobbs,” said Steve Mitchell, a Michigan-based GOP strategist.

The repercussions of the state’s pivot to the left are still being felt.

Ms. Whitmer on April 5 signed a bill, passed through the Democrat-controlled legislature, repealing the state’s 1931 law criminalizing abortion — a law which had been revived by the Dobbs decision.

Mr. Mitchell said Michigan Republicans should tread carefully, warning that efforts to nibble away at abortion rights could backfire now that voters have made it clear they want access to abortion, even if that means some people take it to the extreme.

“What would happen in my mind is the opposition will define it once again as either you are for abortion or against it, and people are easily persuadable, especially young voters who will flock to the polls and they will vote against that sort of proposition and for Democratic candidates,” he said. 

That dynamic played out in Judge Protasiewicz’s landslide win in Wisconsin.

Polling places were mobbed with young voters, particularly around the college campus. Soccer moms flocked to the polls in suburban areas that tend to swing statewide elections in Wisconsin.

“We do know there was a very high turnout of women and young people,” said state Rep. Christine Sinicki, a Democrat. “That is what I would attribute [the victory] to.”

Wisconsin Democrats, like their counterparts in Michigan, also saw a massive influx of money come into the state in the name of abortion rights. 

The group behind the push for the Michigan constitutional amendment raised a whopping $45. More than $46 million was spent in the Wisconsin state Supreme Court race, shattering the previous record of $15 million that was raised in a 2004 Illinois state Supreme Court race.

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