The abortion issue, which helped flatten a red wave in the November elections, is poised for a big comeback in 2024 that likely will make it harder for Republicans to win in critical swing states.
The Republican National Committee doubled down last month on efforts to restrict abortion. The RNC adopted a resolution urging party lawmakers “to pass the strongest pro-life legislation possible” at the state and federal levels, including measures to ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.
The thinking behind the resolution was that the problem in the midterms wasn’t the pro-life stance but rather that Republican candidates were poor messengers after the Supreme Court overturned nationwide abortion rights.
Democrats seized on the high court ruling in June to galvanize their base, particularly female voters, and to sway independents. They spent nearly $130 million on abortion-related campaign ads.
Their efforts may have prevented Republicans from securing a projected double-digit majority in the House. A post-election analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the Supreme Court ruling had a significant impact on the choices of nearly half of voters, including 64% who picked Democratic House candidates. Republicans ended up with a five-seat majority.
Many Republican candidates dodged the issue entirely on the campaign trail and tried to focus their messages on inflation and gas prices, which were top voter concerns.
Pro-life advocates say Republican candidates failed to articulate the party’s position on abortion, leaving them at a disadvantage in the face of Democratic attacks.
“Instead of fighting back and exposing Democratic extremism on abortion, many Republican candidates failed to remind Americans of our proud heritage of challenging slavery, segregation and the forces eroding the family and the sanctity of human life, thereby allowing Democrats to define our longtime position,” the RNC resolution declared.
Republican strategists and pollsters aren’t so sure that the party’s candidates can win over swing-state voters in 2024 by doubling down on campaign messages against abortion. They say conservative Republicans might support the most restrictive abortion bans, but a majority of voters do not.
Campaigning to end abortion would draw support from evangelical Christian voters in the Republican Party base, but it likely would again galvanize Democrats and independent voters, particularly women.
In Pennsylvania, a pivotal state in the presidential race, Republicans lost a critical Senate seat and the governor’s race in November, partly because of threats to abortion access, polls suggest.
A Franklin & Marshall College Poll found that the abortion issue topped the economy in importance among Pennsylvania voters 17% to 11% in the Senate race and 14% to 10% in the governor’s race.
Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz and gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano had difficulty articulating their positions on abortion in the wake of the high court’s ruling, which sent the issue to state legislatures.
Mr. Mastriano said he opposed abortion at any stage of pregnancy and did not favor exceptions for rape or incest. He pledged to sign a ban on abortion at six weeks of pregnancy if elected governor, basically promoting the position that the RNC is asking candidates to embrace.
Democrat Josh Shapiro clobbered Mr. Mastriano by nearly 15 percentage points in the election.
Mr. Oz stumbled during the only Senate debate when asked about abortion. He told the audience, “I want women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive, to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves.”
Democrats quickly cut a political ad showcasing Mr. Oz’s blunder as an assertion that politicians should have a say in a woman’s decision to have an abortion. The celebrity heart surgeon lost the election by 5 percentage points to Democrat John Fetterman, whose campaign was overshadowed by his struggle to communicate after a serious stroke.
“I have no doubt that the abortion issue played an important role in helping the Democrats win the Senate and governor races,” Franklin & Marshall College Poll Director Berwood Yost said. “Whether that was solely based on abortion, or amplified because Doug Mastriano’s position on the issue was so outside the mainstream for the state, is unclear but important.”
The Pennsylvania results should serve as a lesson to the party, particularly in swing states, Republican strategist Doug Heye said.
National and state polls show that voters cast ballots to limit restrictions on abortions.
An AP/NORC poll in June found that 61% of adults nationwide said abortion should be legal in the first trimester, which is 12 weeks of pregnancy. Those opposed to a first-trimester ban included 55% of independents and 41% of Republicans.
Support for abortion dropped for all political groups in the second and third trimesters.
“A combination of where the parties were a generation ago is where most voters remain: They want abortion to be rare, safe and legal, with restrictions and exceptions,” Mr. Heye said.
Republican candidates should stop endorsing all-out bans on abortion, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother, or punishing women who obtain abortions in violation of state laws, he said.
“Failure to do so will mean more disappointing election nights in the future,” Mr. Heye said.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said Republicans who lost in November simply failed to draw a sharp contrast with Democrats who support no limits at all on abortion, which is also out of step with public opinion.
She said Republican candidates “put their heads in the sand, pretended the issue of abortion didn’t exist, and let Democrats spend hundreds of millions of dollars distorting their pro-life positions and defining them as extremists.”
Candidates in 2024, she said, “must stay on offense” and draw a contrast with Democrats.
Pro-life advocates point to political victories in Georgia, Florida and other states that have implemented limits in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
In Georgia, incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican who signed a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, easily won reelection. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is eyed as a 2024 Republican presidential contender, trounced his Democratic opponent by 20 percentage points after signing a less-restrictive ban on abortions that prohibits the procedure after 15 weeks.
Mr. DeSantis has not said specifically whether he will push for more restrictions on abortion, such as a six-week ban, in his second term.
Support for abortion bans hurt Republicans in Michigan, another key swing state. The issue ranked at the top of voter concerns, helping incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, defeat Republican challenger Tudor Dixon, who supported abortion restrictions and was backed by groups opposing abortion, including Right to Life of Michigan.
Voters in Michigan also voted to enshrine the right to abortion in their state constitution.
In Minnesota, Republican Scott Jensen said he believes the abortion issue contributed to his 5-percentage-point loss to incumbent Gov. Tim Walz, even though he raised more money than any other Republican candidate for governor in state history and ran a competitive race.
Mr. Jensen tried salvaging his campaign by softening his position on abortion. At first, he pledged to institute an abortion ban if elected and opposed exceptions for rape. He later said there should always be exceptions to abortion bans and the procedure could not be limited at all without a constitutional amendment supported by state voters.
Minnesota polls showed that a majority of voters opposed the Supreme Court ruling and two-thirds said they did not support a ban on the procedure.
Mr. Jensen’s pivot didn’t save his campaign. The abortion issue ultimately cost him the race, further eroding Republican advantages on economic issues and concerns about rising crime, he said.
“For so many Americans across the country, this election was about an intrusion into a person’s autonomy,” Mr. Jensen said in a post-mortem discussion of his defeat on Facebook. “If you infringe on someone’s freedom … you’ll probably lose.”
• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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