After losses, GOP seeks new approach on abortion

Republicans have tried ignoring the problem and coalescing around a 15-week ban. Neither worked.
Anti-abortion groups protest near the Walgreens Deerfield headquarters over a plan to sell abortion pills in Deerfield, Ill., Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Republicans suffered electoral defeats in four states this week after Democrats hammered their candidates over proposals to restrict abortion rights, the second straight year in which the GOP fell short of electoral expectations after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the national right to abortion access.

Many Republicans viewed Tuesday’s results as an uncomfortable deja vu, reminiscent of midterm elections in which a red wave never materialized.

Those Republicans feel a new urgency to change the way the party talks about abortion and the pro-life movement, just a year before national elections in which they are likely to be led by the former president who installed three of the justices who voted to end Roe v. Wade.

“Tuesday was about abortion, again, as we’ve seen before. It shouldn’t have been a shock,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership. “This is a huge issue.”

In the years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Republicans have tried two strategies in the face of effective Democratic attacks.

In the midterm elections, most Republicans ignored abortion altogether. In 2023, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), quarterbacking his party’s attempts to win full control of the legislature, tried to coalesce Republican candidates around a ban on abortions after 15 weeks, with exceptions in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life or health of the mother.

Both of those strategies failed.

But Republicans have found little consensus over how exactly to address abortion rights and restrictions. Some in the party say they need to cast Democratic support for abortion rights as an extreme position of its own.

“A lot of these policies are so extreme. These women in the suburbs need to hear that too, but they didn’t, because Republicans didn’t spent enough time or money fighting it,” said Gail Gitcho, a longtime Republican strategist and aide to Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) presidential campaigns. “You can’t win the fight if you don’t show up.”

Others say their candidates should talk about abortion only after ensuring women voters — who have increasingly moved to Democratic candidates in recent years — know they would have access to health care if they need it.

“This is really about our health care, and that’s what women are voting on. They’re not voting to kill fetuses, they’re voting to be able to get access to medical treatment in case there’s a problem during pregnancy,” Chamberlain said. “We need to be better at explaining, and we really need to tie it to health care.”

Modern politics rarely encourages nuance, especially when the primary means of communication with voters are limited to 30-second advertisements or 280-character posts on social media. And Republican candidates who face primaries in which they must distinguish themselves in front of staunchly anti-abortion base voters will feel the pressure to stake out harder lines on abortion restrictions than their rivals.

That happened Wednesday night, just 24 hours after voters delivered their verdicts in Virginia and New Jersey, where Democrats gained seats in the legislature; Kentucky, where Gov. Andy Beshear (D) won re-election; and Ohio, where voters approved a constitutional amendment protecting abortion and reproductive rights.

In the face of those results, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), one of the five Republicans on stage at a presidential debate in Miami, called himself “100% pro-life.”

“I would certainly, as president of the United States, have a 15-week national limit,” Scott said. “We need a 15-week federal limit.”

Gitcho, the former Romney adviser, said Republican candidates are too focused on the point at which abortion is restricted, rather than the cases in which those limits might not apply.

“You’ve got to show your base that you’re conservative and that you’re pro life, but I think what people in the suburbs need to hear about is what you think about exceptions,” Gitcho said.

Chamberlain said the messengers matter — especially as the gender gap grows and women voters break toward Democrats.

“Women do not want white men talking about their bodies. This is our health care,” Chamberlain said. “We really need to be focusing on what the Republicans stand for.”

Even if strategists in Washington agree on an approach that can blunt what have been two successive years of Democratic attacks, it’s not clear that Republican candidates will embrace any sort of national consensus. States such as Iowa and Florida have approved abortion bans that begin when fetal cardiac activity is detected. Republicans in Nebraska approved a ban on abortions after 12 weeks. Republicans in South Carolina struggled to reach a consensus, after the five women in the state Senate filibustered a near-total ban.

Tuesday’s election results shook loose at least one of the Republican Party’s top cheerleaders. On his show Tuesday night, as the results rolled in, Fox News host Sean Hannity acknowledged the mounting losses, both in 2022 and 2023.

“I have to believe that is an indication that women in America, suburban moms, want it, probably, legal and rare, and probably earlier than at the point of viability,” he said.

To Chamberlain, the fact that anything other than a completely pro-life view would be voiced by one of Fox News’s primetime hosts is a sign that the party at least acknowledges the need for a new message.

“Now you even have the conservative TV network, in the evenings, talking about, hey this is an issue,” she said. “I think they’ll pay attention now.”