Nov 10, 2022 - Health

Republicans' abortion silence backfires in midterms

Illustration of two ballots creating the shape of a medical cross

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The blame game has begun around what led to Republicans' disappointing results in the midterms, with some outside groups zeroing in on the party's lack of an abortion message.

Driving the news: Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a large anti-abortion organization with close ties to GOP leaders, slammed Republican candidates who distanced themselves from abortion bans and failed to clearly communicate their stance on the issue, calling it "political malpractice."

  • The group said in a memo that to "win in competitive races," candidates needed to focus on defining their opponents as "abortion extremists" and "contrast that with a clearly defined pro-life position centered around consensus such as pain-capable or heartbeat limits."

State of play: They specifically praised Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Sen.-elect J.D. Vance of Ohio, and Georgia Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, whose closely watched race is headed for a runoff.

  • SBA Pro-Life America criticized Mehmet Oz, who lost Pennsylvania's Senate race, and Adam Laxalt, who is leading in Nevada's still undecided Senate contest, for not explicitly stating their anti-abortion stances.
  • They also called out several GOP House candidates without revealing names. Among the GOP candidates who lost in battleground states after scrubbing their campaign websites of anti-abortion rhetoric were Tom Barrett in Michigan and Christian Castelli in North Carolina.

Zoom in: Republicans are typically outspoken on abortion, particularly during the primaries. However, they went quiet following the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision and the Kansas abortion referendum, even as talking points from major GOP committees recommended the opposite.

  • Republican leadership — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — largely ducked the issue, except to emphasize that decisions about the procedure rest with the states.

What they're saying: SBA Pro-Life America president Marjorie Dannenfelser said on Wednesday that GOP candidates were afraid to address abortion.

The other side: Republicans were cautious "because they saw the backlash that they were experiencing" after Roe v. Wade was overturned, said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

By the numbers: Six in 10 Democrats believe abortion should be legal "in most cases" and nearly four in 10 Republicans agree with that stance, according to a national exit poll conducted by Edison Research.

Between the lines: There is a "mismatch between policies about abortion and attitudes about abortion at the state level," said Shana Gadarian, a professor of political science at Syracuse University who specializes in American politics and public opinion.

  • While opinions around abortion are "relatively nuanced," even "Republican voters tend to be more pro-choice than the policies that we're seeing in Republican states," Gadarian added.
  • Candidates are walking a "fine line" because they know they are associated with extreme anti-abortion views, and so they choose to not take "a position on what would happen on the federal level."

Zoom in: Kentucky — a red stronghold with abortion bans in effect — was one of the states that sent conflicting signals on Tuesday.

  • Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who is openly anti-abortion, easily won re-election, even as voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have made it impossible to protect abortion access in the state.

Zoom out: In other states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, Democrats who ran on protecting abortion access won tight state and federal races after polls predicted Republican wins.

What we're watching: Dannenfelser said her groups already is exploring how to improve its odds in 2024.

  • "We can do better," Dannenfelser said, adding that the group will look to support candidates who will stand against abortion rights — out loud.

Go deeper: Midterms bring major constitutional wins for abortion rights

Go deeper