May 10, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The great GOP divide on abortion

Red line drawn in front of woman

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Republicans are deeply split on their abortion strategy, with top officials pushing restraint, even silence, while activist GOP candidates demand an all-out campaign for a national ban and harsher penalties. 

Why it matters: Republicans' confidence in landslide victories this fall was shaken by the leaked abortion ruling — in part because they know the topic invigorates their base, while rattling many swing voters. 

A top adviser to House Republican leaders tells Axios their polling shows that in races that matter, voters aren't "hip to this kind of seismic change."

  • The adviser said lawmakers are asking for guidance on how to talk about issues like abortion in cases of rape or incest — knowing a hardline view is wildly unpopular. 

The GOP establishment's initial marching orders, in an NRSC memo leaked to Axios' Alayna Treene, counseled caution and even silence. 

  • But activist candidates and voters couldn't care less what the establishment wants — and see this as the moment to fulfill their lifelong dream of strict abortion bans, with few exceptions, and penalties for those carrying out abortions. 

What we're hearing: Tony Perkins — president of the Family Research Council, who's been fighting on the issue for 30 years — told me in a phone interview that there's "some caution about overreach" among GOP leaders.

  • But they're privately promising to help push America to be a "predominantly pro-life nation," Perkins said.

What to watch: Cook Political Report's Dave Wasserman points to swing state Nevada, which has toss-up Senate and governor's races. The GOP needs suburban voters in the Silver State — but the party's base is pushing hard for more abortion restrictions.

The takeaway ... One thing is certain about modern politics: Rarely does moderation or restraint prevail — especially on cultural, religious or identity issues. In fact, one truism of modern conservatism is: The more the establishment pushes something, the more the base recoils. 

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