Republicans struggle for way out of abortion quagmire

The GOP’s election losses Tuesday underscored the political quicksand they find themselves in when it comes to abortion.

Republican candidates tried to reframe and moderate their positions on the issue and sought to paint Democrats as too extreme heading into this week’s contests.

But the party found itself on the defensive in deep-red and purple states alike, including Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia. In some of the highest-profile races of the night, Republicans — and the anti-abortion movement in general — lost decisively.

“The more we talk about abortion, the worse we’re doing,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters Wednesday. Instead, he said Republicans should focus on talking about improving the economy and bringing down the high cost of living.

But the results showed reproductive rights remains an energizing issue for voters more than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving Republicans frustrated after another round of losses and without a clear idea of how to move forward.

“You have to … say, ‘Look, this isn’t working,’” said Patrick Brown, a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. “We need to figure out not just new messaging, although I think that’s important, but in some cases it’s going to require new positions and messier compromises than we’ve been pushing for.”

Yet when the issue of abortion eventually emerged Wednesday during the third GOP debate, none of the candidates broke new ground in their answers, and none could agree on how best to move forward.

“I think of all the stuff that’s happened to the pro-life cause — they have been caught flat-footed on these referenda, and they have been losing the referenda,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), following a referendum in Ohio the night before that enshrined abortion rights into the state constitution.

DeSantis said Republicans and abortion opponents must “do a better job on” those ballot measures and referendums.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley leaned into familiar messaging, saying that the country needed to find a “consensus” because Republicans do not have the 60 votes needed in the Senate to pass any nationwide ban.

“Let’s agree on what — how we can ban late-term abortions. Let’s make sure we encourage adoptions and good quality adoptions. Let’s make sure we make contraception accessible,” Haley said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) pushed several of his fellow 2024 rivals to back a national 15-week ban, though such a bill was introduced in the Senate last year and never advanced.

Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, for his part, pointed to issues such as access to contraception, adoption and “sexual responsibility for men.”

Those comments came against the backdrop of an election night in which abortion was seen as the major factor propelling Democratic candidates to victory, even when the issue wasn’t directly on the ballot.

In Pennsylvania, voters sent an abortion rights supporter to the state Supreme Court, while Kentucky reelected a Democratic governor who also supported abortion access.

The winning power of abortion was most evident in Ohio, where the ballot measure guaranteeing access to abortion up until fetal viability passed decisively with 57 percent of the vote. Republicans in the state used multiple levers of power at their disposal to try to defeat the measure, but to no avail.

“Ohioans sent a message to the nation last night. Americans support abortion rights and will turn out to vote to protect these rights,” Veronica Ingham, the campaign manager for Ohioans for Reproductive Rights told reporters Wednesday.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R), who is running for U.S. Senate, told The Hill in a statement that abortion won’t be the defining issue on the ballot heading into 2024.

“I will always fight for the rights of the unborn and health care for women,” LaRose said. “As we approach 2024, I firmly believe the economy and what [Sen. Sherrod Brown (D)] has done to Ohio will be the main issue that voters will be weighing when they cast their ballots.”

In Virginia, popular GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Republican contenders in state legislative races tried to moderate their message, leaning into supporting “limits” on abortion after 15-weeks with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC argued in a $1.4 million ad that “there is no ban” and sought to define it as “a reasonable 15-week limit.”

But Democrats ran heavily on protecting abortion access and narrowly won control of the state Legislature.

“I think the one thing that we know is that abortion’s a really difficult topic, that there is a place to come together around a reasonable limit,” Youngkin said during a press conference Wednesday. “And I think Virginians can come there, and that’s something that I continue to be committed to work on with our Legislature.”

In deep-red Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, another popular governor, won reelection. The issue of abortion alone did not deliver Beshear’s reelection — he benefited from high approval ratings and a familiar family name — but the governor notably used his campaign in part to aggressively attack his opponent on abortion.

In the wake of the GOP’s 2022 midterm electoral losses, anti-abortion advocates urged Republican candidates to go on offense and not cede the messaging to Democrats. Some are still calling for that strategy, despite the repeated losses.

“What I do think is our candidates have to talk about this,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel told NBC’s “Today” on Wednesday. “We can’t put our head in the sand. We can’t let Democrats define us.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA Pro-Life America, a leading anti-abortion group that helped lead the campaign against Ohio’s measure, said Democrats will make abortion a “front-and-center” issue in 2024.

“The GOP consultant class needs to wake up. Candidates must put money and messaging toward countering the Democrats’ attacks or they will lose every time,” Dannenfelser said.

National Right to Life President Carol Tobias told The Hill that Tuesday’s elections showed that the Democratic Party “has become a one-issue party,” but she added that “for the pro-lifers, we need to work even harder to educate and talk to the American public about the humanity of the unborn child.”

Some Republicans argue their party put up a solid fight, a sign that 2024 could be about more than just abortion.

An adviser involved directly in Youngkin’s 2023 efforts in Virginia noted that while Democrats flipped control of the House of Delegates while retaining their edge in the state Senate, control for both chambers was decided narrowly — underscoring the competitive campaigns both sides ran. The adviser argued that Republicans need to be as specific as possible about their abortion platform.

“The lesson for other campaigns across the country in 2024 is you have to … say where you are on this issue, otherwise you will be defined, and it will be a ban,” the adviser said. “That is one of the most electric phrases in American politics right now, and you cannot ignore it.”

But abortion rights advocates are skeptical that Republicans and abortion opponents can effectively message on an issue that has continued to bedevil GOP candidates.

“I think the problem isn’t their message, the problem is their policy. You can’t message an unpopular policy that people do not support,” said Lauryn Fanguen, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Tresa Undem, a public opinion researcher who studies abortion, said there is a generational divide in the electorate. Voters are becoming more pro-abortion, especially in the wake of the Dobbs decision that ended Roe.

Exit polls in Ohio showed 77 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 voted in favor of the abortion measure, while only 45 percent of voters 65 and older did the same.

“The future is very clearly even more pro-choice,” Undem said. “Voters don’t want some 65-year-old white man telling them what they can and cannot do in their personal life.”

-Alex Bolton contributed 

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