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How Republicans Watered Down Their Abortion Message

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Republicans were suddenly faced with a conundrum.

They could adopt the court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned nearly 50 years of precedent and eliminated the federal right to abortion. Or they could veer toward the political center and hit more than one consensus, as Chief Justice John Roberts unsuccessfully tried to do in court.

Instead, many Republican candidates have tried to pull off a magic trick by doing both. And, with just six days until Election Day, there are signs that some of them have managed to pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat.

The emotionally charged issue of abortion has put Republicans in a bind. The party base was delighted to have achieved a long-cherished goal. But middle voters who often decide elections were decidedly less enthusiastic, and Democrats had found a topic that could engage their otherwise dyspeptic supporters.

The timing of the court was not propitious for the Republicans. A leaked draft of Judge Samuel Alito’s opinion, which closely matched the final text, hit the internet in May – in the midst of a primary season where candidates were vying for right-wing favors. And yet polls showed him to be surprisingly unpopular, with nearly 60% of the public disagreeing with the High Court’s decision.

Even anti-abortion groups, such as Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, advised Republican candidates in a leaked memo to focus on “Democratic extremism” and “avoid the pitfalls set by the other side and their allies in the media”.

So what was an aspiring Republican public servant to do?

As an adviser to Mitt Romney once said during the 2012 presidential race, running in a general election is “almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we’re starting over.

They shook it off and tried to start over.

In August, Blake Masters, the GOP candidate for the Arizona Senate, cleaned up his website of comments calling for a 100% abortion ban and a federal “personhood” law. Instead, in a video he posted on Twitter, he said, “I support banning very late and partial-birth abortion.” (Very few abortions take place after the first 21 weeks of pregnancy, and when they do, it’s often when the pregnant woman experiences health complications.)

During his senatorial primary in Georgia, Herschel Walker initially opposed any exceptions to the abortion ban, even for rape, incest or women’s health. On at least one occasion, he told reporters, “There is no exception in my mind.” But he later said he supported a Georgia bill that would ban abortions after fetal heart activity.

Adam Laxalt, who hopes to unseat Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, called Roe v. Wade of “joke” and “total and complete invention”. Now he’s pointing out the legality of abortion in Nevada to inoculate against Cortez Masto attacks.

Some of those pivots have been clumsy. Bo Hines, a former college quarterback who is running for a House seat in North Carolina, supports the creation of a panel that would decide whether to allow abortions in cases of rape or incest. But he was vague on how it might work.

“There are certainly legal mechanisms that you could put in place through legislation that would create an individual basis,” Hines told Spectrum News. Democrats issued a press release calling the idea “post-Dobbs rape panels.”

Dr. Mehmet Oz, who is running against Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman for the Pennsylvania Senate, says he opposes a federal abortion ban. But he hinted during their only debate that ‘local officials’ should be involved in deciding whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Who was he talking about was a mystery – the alderman? departmental assessor? — and Democrats pounced.

Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin took a new approach. Although he has supported a federal ban on abortion in the past, he now calls for “a single, single-issue referendum to decide the issue.” His campaign even released a sample ballot with a multiple-choice quiz, asking, “When does society have a responsibility to protect the life of an unborn child?”

Tudor Dixon’s journey is perhaps the most instructive. She is running for governor of Michigan against Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who has aggressively positioned herself as an advocate for abortion rights. Whitmer sought an injunction to stop a 1931 “trigger law” criminalizing abortion that came into effect after the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dobbs case.

A left-leaning grassroots coalition, meanwhile, is proposing an election measure that would make abortion legal again in Michigan. In response, anti-abortion groups claimed it would invalidate laws requiring parental consent and even allow children to undergo sex reassignment surgery without their parents’ permission. Legal experts say that would all be up to the courts to decide, but Democrats claimed the right “has done a good job of muddying the waters.”

During the primary, Dixon said she opposed abortion in cases of rape or incest, remarking in an interview that in conversations with rape victims she discovered “there is had a healing because of that baby.”

Now Dixon is warning that the ballot measure would invalidate parental consent laws. And if the Michiganders want to protect abortion rights but oust Whitmer, they can vote for her. and the measure of the poll.

As they reversed positions they took in the primary, Republicans accused Democrats of trying to distract from issues that played more to their advantage: inflation and crime. Judging by recent comments from Gov. Gavin Newsom of California and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, some Democrats even agree.

Many Republicans also followed the Susan B. Anthony group’s playbook and portrayed the Democrats as the real extremists. Saying that Democrats support “abortion on demand” has been a frequent topic of discussion among Republicans. It has sometimes tripped up Democratic candidates, but it has rarely done any real damage.

For example: Excerpts from a Fox News interview made the rounds on social media in May in which Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic Senate nominee from Ohio, was asked if he supported “any limits abortion at any time” and said it was all the woman. decision. But Ryan fought his way within striking distance of his Republican opponent, JD Vance.

In libertarian Arizona, as Dave Weigel recounts on Semafor, Republicans seized on Planned Parenthood’s support for police defunding and its use of gender-neutral language to try to delegitimize the abortion rights stance. at large.

It’s hard to say if these tactics worked. But they seem to have helped shift abortion from an unbalanced issue to a more neutral one. They also prevented Republicans who took hard lines in their primaries from suffering the fate of Todd Akin, whose “legit rape” remark immediately put him on the sidelines in the 2012 Senate race in Missouri. .

But abortion has not been the disqualifying issue that some Democrats hoped for. A Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday found that white suburban women, a key target of Democrats’ abortion messaging, were turning to Republicans.

Republicans who didn’t shake the Etch A Sketch had it harder.

Consider the fate of Doug Mastriano, who stuck to his guns without exception and lost nearly 10 percentage points to Attorney General Josh Shapiro in the race for governor of Pennsylvania.

Or look at Rep. Ted Budd, the Republican Senate candidate from North Carolina, who backed a federal abortion ban that Sen. Lindsey Graham proposed even as other Republicans walked away from the idea. Before inflation returned to the forefront of voters’ concerns in late September, Budd’s race against Cheri Beasley, a moderate former judge, had narrowed considerably.

Democrats have spent nearly $320 million on ads focused on abortion rights, my colleagues noted yesterday. That’s 10 times more than they spent on inflation ads.

Much of this was aimed at holding Republicans accountable for their past positions. But although there have been doubts about the wisdom of this approach, many party members insist it was worth the effort.

“It competes with a lot of other motivations,” said Christina Reynolds, communications director for Emily’s List, an abortion rights group that supports female candidates. “But it’s an issue that has put us in the fight in many ways.”

Thank you for reading On Politics and for subscribing to The New York Times. — Blake

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