At a recent gathering in Orange County, Republican leaders did something strange: They effectively urged the party’s candidates to charge headlong into a political buzz saw.
Specifically, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution calling on GOP contestants to “go on offense” on the abortion issue and recommended state and federal lawmakers “pass the strongest pro-life legislation possible,” such as banning the procedure before many women even know they are pregnant.
The statement, laden with history and lots of whereas, threw a proverbial bone to the antiabortion wing of the party, which is vital to the GOP.
Passage might also have been a relief after a surly leadership fight between Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and the caustic San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon. (McDaniel prevailed to win another two-year term.) There were no insults or flying elbows as committee members approved the measure on a voice vote.
As a political strategy, however, the resolution made precisely zero sense.
The 2022 midterm election was a crushing disappointment for Republicans, who bucked history and squandered a silver-plattered political opportunity, losing a Senate seat and eking out just a bare majority in the House despite high inflation and President Biden’s crummy approval ratings.
One big reason was the abortion issue.
Turnout in election battlegrounds surged among women and younger voters — both of whom tend to support legal abortion — after the Supreme Court set aside nearly 50 years of precedent and overturned the Roe vs. Wade decision, which established abortion as a constitutional right.
Significantly, the exit polling done for major TV networks showed abortion coming in just behind inflation as the top voter concern in November; more than three-quarters of those who cited the issue as their priority voted Democratic, which helps explain why the much-anticipated “red wave” never materialized.
Meantime, voters facing the question directly passed ballot measures boosting abortion rights in a half-dozen states, including the Republican strongholds of Kansas, Kentucky and Montana.
That’s not what you’d call a rousing record of success for the antiabortion movement.
Still, Republicans assembled for their winter meeting in Dana Point ignored those results and suggested the setbacks were simply a matter of salesmanship and the party’s failure to sufficiently make the case against Democrats and their “extreme” views.
“Too many GOP candidates used the ‘ostrich strategy’ in which they put their heads in the sand, pretended the issue of abortion didn’t exist” and were pummeled by a blitz of attack ads, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said in a statement celebrating the resolution.
It’s a long way from here to the ballot box in 2024. But there’s a recent test case, and it doesn’t bode well for those wanting Republicans to double down on outlawing abortion.
New Mexico is one of the most permissive states in the country when it comes to the procedure, allowing a woman to terminate her pregnancy at any stage. The GOP’s 2022 candidate for governor, Mark Ronchetti, repeatedly assailed Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham for the policy she signed into law, which helped turn the state into a regional hub for women fleeing abortion restrictions elsewhere.
“The governor supports abortion up to birth,” Ronchetti said in one TV spot. “That’s extreme.”
“There’s only one person in this race who is an extremist on this issue,” he said when the two debated in Albuquerque. “It’s the governor.”
It was just the kind of pugnacious approach that party leaders prescribed, using the exact language they suggest.
And it didn’t work.
New Mexico is fundamentally a pro-choice state and offering a middle ground — Ronchetti softened his opposition to abortion and proposed a cutoff after 15 weeks — wasn’t about to change that. The reversal of Roe vs. Wade “hurt Republicans and hurt Ronchetti,” said Brian Sanderoff, the state’s leading nonpartisan pollster. “It helped [Grisham] win by a comfortable margin.”
By contrast, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Oregon, another staunchly pro-choice state, took a different tack.
Like Ronchetti, Christine Drazan describes herself as pro-life. But she downplayed the issue, vowing to follow the law — Oregon codified abortion rights in 2017 — “regardless of my personal opinions.”
“My administration will be focused on the issues Oregonians care most about,” she told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “Fixing our schools, addressing the crisis in the streets, and making our state a more affordable place to live and raise a family.”
Drazan lost but not by a whole lot, 47% to 44% in a three-way race, which was not bad considering the state elected its last Republican governor when President Reagan was still in his first term.
Control of Congress will be at stake once more in 2024.
Democrats, who need to gain just five seats to win back the House and face a daunting electoral map to hold the Senate, would be delighted if abortion was again a top voter concern.
After the Supreme Court decision “a lot of pundits and a lot of reports in the media suggested this issue was going away, it wasn’t going to make any difference, it’s a two-week thing, a three-week thing,” said Mike Stratton, a Democratic strategist who worked in midterm races across the country. “But people remembered. Women remembered.”
“It didn’t go away,” Stratton said. “And it’s not going to go away.”
Especially if Republicans push it front and center.