Mixed message: Republicans hunt for abortion playbook as Democrats go on offense

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. G3 Box News Photo/Susan Walsh

Mixed message: Republicans hunt for abortion playbook as Democrats go on offense

Sarah Westwood

January 19, 05:35 AM January 19, 05:35 AM

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A decision by House GOP leadership to place two abortion measures at the top of the legislative agenda as the 118th Congress got underway did not sit well with every Republican lawmaker.

Some, including Reps. Nancy Mace (SC) and Brian Fitzpatrick (PA), argued the prominent placement of the bills suggested their party had learned nothing from its disappointing midterm performance.

And Democrats quickly seized the opportunity to hammer the new GOP House majority as extreme and out of touch.

The dust-up reflects how deeply divided Republicans remain about how to approach abortion heading into 2024 — and the opening that has provided to Democrats.

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization forced candidates on both sides of the aisle to rewrite their playbooks for abortion politics in 2022.

For Democrats, that meant going on offense against any and all Republican restrictions on abortion.

For Republicans, that meant suddenly walking a delicate line between an emboldened anti-abortion movement, with which many GOP lawmakers are personally aligned, and an electorate that regards many limits on abortion with suspicion.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) attempted to rally Republicans behind a middle ground designed to exempt GOP candidates from charges of both hypocrisy and extremism.

Graham proposed a measure in September that would ban abortion nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The bill would provide more allowances for abortion than many anti-abortion activists believe are morally right while limiting the procedure earlier in pregnancy than permitted under the Roe v. Wade framework.

Some anti-abortion activists rallied behind the proposal despite their history of advocating far stricter limits on the procedure.

“I’ve been a member of Congress. People have all sorts of opinions,” Marilyn Musgrave, vice president of government affairs for the Susan B. Anthony List, told the Washington Examiner.

“Consensus will have to be found at the federal level. Pass the best pro-life bill that can be passed,” she said.

Musgrave, previously a congresswoman from Colorado, said Democrats spent far more time leading the conversation about abortion than Republicans did during the midterm elections, which she said was a mistake.

“After the Dobbs decision, the other side reacted. You saw in the campaigns that Democrats spent $471 million defining their opponents, while the Republicans spent $58 million. And some Republicans handled it very well: [Sens.] Marco Rubio, J.D. Vance,” she said. “Some Republicans just didn’t want to talk about it.”

Estimates of how much money Democrats spent on abortion-focused ads vary, but all figures suggest Democrats vastly outspent their GOP opponents.

How Republicans should talk about abortion in the next election remains a topic of fierce debate within the party.

Musgrave, like other anti-abortion advocates and Republicans, said GOP lawmakers should have spent more time highlighting the fact that many Democrats oppose placing limits on late-term abortion.

Polling suggests most voters support outlawing abortion later in pregnancy; an G3 Box News-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll from June 2021 showed 65% think abortion should be illegal in the second trimester and 80% think it should be illegal in the third.

But other Republicans say focusing on abortion exposes a weakness for the party; they think GOP candidates would be better off sticking to economic and public safety issues.

“We have been tone-deaf on this issue since the time that Roe was overturned,” Mace complained last week.


Fitzpatrick said he and other House Republicans would push to keep the conference working on other issues, not abortion, after a midterm letdown in which Democrats won an outright majority in the Senate and barely lost the House despite expectations of a red wave.

How Republicans handle the abortion issue is likely to play a major role in 2024 GOP primaries.

In red states, that could mean a race among GOP candidates to prove their anti-abortion credentials.

In Indiana, for example, Republican Rep. Jim Banks jumped into the Senate primary this week with a campaign announcement that included strong references to his anti-abortion record.

In swing state primaries, Republicans could face the more difficult task of appearing sufficiently anti-abortion to their primary voters without boxing themselves into a position they can’t defend in a general election.

Beyond where in pregnancy to draw the line on abortion, Republicans have yet to answer many other questions about how they want to handle the issue.

Should there be exceptions, beyond the established cutoff point, for pregnancies from rape or incest? What level of danger must a woman be in for her to receive an abortion late in pregnancy?

Should doctors who perform abortions past the legal limit face criminal charges? If so, how severe? What about women who seek illegal abortions?

The midterm elections provided many examples of how getting the abortion message wrong could cost Republicans seats.

In Ohio, former GOP Rep. Steve Chabot faced a barrage of attacks over his opposition to abortion, including a billboard in his district, paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, that claimed he wanted to outlaw birth control and abortion and “throw doctors in jail.”

Democrats hammered Chabot on the airwaves in abortion-themed ads and focused heavily on his vote in July, along with most other House Republicans, against a federal law codifying the right to contraception access.

After 26 years in Congress, Chabot lost his election in Ohio’s 1st Congressional District to Democratic Rep. Greg Landsman.

Republican responses to Dobbs during the midterm elections generally fell into one of three categories, and GOP lawmakers continue to debate which of the three they should unite behind in the next election.

The first involved a deference to state lawmakers who, some Republicans argued, had primary responsibility for writing abortion laws thanks to the structure of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

This approach, used by GOP candidates such as Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Christine Drazan in Oregon, allowed them to avoid staking out positions on abortion that their opponents could use as a weapon. Oz and Drazan lost their races, yet other Republicans who deployed the strategy won, including Rep. Jen Kiggans, who defeated former Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria in Virginia.

The second style for approaching abortion involved leaning into the anti-abortion cause that animated the party’s base after Dobbs.

Some Republicans in safer seats last year chose to cheer the changes to abortion laws and seize the opportunity to place restrictions on the procedure.

Graham championed the third approach to abortion politics: imposing limits on abortion that go beyond the 24-week ban in place under Roe but that fall short of the more ambitious proposals of the anti-abortion Right.

Supporters of this approach, including now-Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) argued the 15-week ban would bring American abortion law in line with most other countries and embrace something of a middle ground.

“I think it’s totally reasonable to say you cannot abort a baby, especially for elective reasons, after 15 weeks of gestation,” Vance said at a debate in October. “No civilized country allows it. I don’t want the United States to be an exception.”

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While Republicans have flailed on what to do next, Democrats have so far managed to avoid taking concrete positions on late-term abortion and other difficult topics by keeping their focus on what Republicans propose.

In fact, most Democrats have benefited from an inverse of the political dynamic that existed before Dobbs; whereas Republicans once got to rail against Roe without laying out precisely what they thought should replace it, now Democrats get to rail against Dobbs without articulating what, if any, limits they think should apply to the procedure.

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