Republicans May Not Run on Abortion, but They Can’t Hide From the Debate

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In the months since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, it has become more and more apparent that the Republican Party, which in the past won many elections by harnessing right-wing anger over the constitutional recognition of reproductive freedom, is utterly flummoxed by the new environment. In the past, Republicans successfully coalesced around a negative message: Roe and Casey were bad decisions, judicial overreach into policy decisions that should be left to lawmakers. What they lacked was any positive consensus on what sort of abortion regulation should replace them.

This lack of a party consensus has now become a serious problem, since voters are rejecting anti-choice politics. Thanks to the new salience of abortion, Democrats have been outperforming in special elections and polls. Drawing evidence from a new poll, The Wall Street Journal reports: “Voters have grown more supportive of legalizing abortion following the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, with a clear majority opposing restrictions, like bans at a certain point of pregnancy or barring women from traveling to get a legal abortion.” The newspaper adds, “According to the survey, 60% of voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, up from 55% in March.”

In response to this new environment, many Republicans who previously positioned themselves as proudly and adamantly “pro-life” are suddenly fleeing the issue. Washington Post columnist James Rohman provides a useful list of the flip-floppers. Major examples include Mark Ronchetti (senatorial hopeful in New Mexico), Blake Masters (senatorial hopeful in Arizona), and Tiffany Smiley (senatorial hopeful in Washington). In October, Ronchetti’s website said, “Life should be protected—at all stages.… He believes unborn babies have souls, can feel emotions, and are every bit a human being; they just happen to be living inside their mother.” Now, as Rohmann reports, “the updated page says [Ronchetti would] ‘seek a middle ground’ and would permit abortions in cases of rape and incest and to protect the mother’s life. Ronchetti acknowledges he’d support banning the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy but points out that he couldn’t pass such a bill without the approval of New Mexico’s Democratic state legislature and promises that he’d protect access to contraception.”

Ronchetti is, in effect, trying to kick the issue down to the state level—a diversionary tactic more and more Republicans in federal politics are using.

J.D. Vance, GOP senatorial hopeful in Ohio, has undergone an even more dramatic shift. In January, he told a podcaster,

Let’s say Roe v. Wade is overruled. Ohio bans abortion in 2022—let’s say 2024. Then every day, George Soros sends a 747 to Columbus to load up disproportionately Black women to get them to go have abortions in California. Of course, the left will celebrate this as a victory for diversity…. If that happens, do you need some federal response to prevent it from happening because it’s really creepy? I’m pretty sympathetic to that, actually.

This bizarre statement, conjuring up a fantasy scenario not free from anti-Semitic and racist stereotypes, was his justification for a federal solution. Now, Vance emphasizes that he wants to leave the matter to the states.

The fact that so many Republican elected officials are trying to run away from legislating on abortion makes it all the odder that Lindsey Graham decided to give a press conference rallying the party behind a new set of harsh proposals. As Politico reports, Graham’s bill would ban “the procedure nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a priority of many prominent anti-abortion activists who have been demanding a far more aggressive response from the GOP. It includes exceptions for rape, incest and pregnancies that threaten maternal health.”

Graham’s proposed bill, like all the anti-abortion bills currently being enacted or considered, was written in ignorance of the real medical complexity of the issue. An ordinary citizen named Ashbey Beasley, who was actually in the Senate to meet a lawmaker about gun control, sat in on Graham’s news conference and raised an important objection: “What would you say to somebody like me who found out that their son had an anomaly that was incompatible with life at 16 weeks?” Commenting on the exchange, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg observed, “Graham would condemn every single woman who gets disastrous news from her amnio or her anatomy scan to carry a doomed pregnancy to term, unless she could prove that it was going to kill her. Whether thoughtless or deliberate, the cruelty of this is almost unfathomable.”

Graham had hit upon a putative compromise that was not just horrifying to pro-choice advocates like Goldberg but also unacceptable to many congressional Republicans, who are praying with all their heart that the issue will just go away so they can score points on immigration and inflation without alienating swing voters. While Graham was hoping to reward anti-choice activists, who are among the GOP’s most enthusiastic supporters, he ended up providing a perfect attack ad for Democrats.

Politico notes that “some fellow Republicans said they were highly perplexed at Graham’s decision to introduce a new abortion ban—more conservative than his previous proposals—at a precarious moment for the party.” Leading Republicans, including, notably, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, were quick to distance themselves from Graham. “I don’t think there’s an appetite for a national platform here,” Capito told Politico. “I’m not sure what he’s thinking here.”

What could Graham have been thinking when he gave that disastrous press conference? Vanity might be one answer: The Senate is a notorious house of peacocks—but few love showing off their feathers as much as Graham does. The limelight is his natural habitat.

On a more practical level, Graham might be worried about shoring up the GOP’s base with the religious right. Those voters are essential for the GOP coalition. If the Republicans are seen as abandoning the abortion fight, they could easily sit out elections.

Republicans are now caught in abortion bind: If they take up the issue, they will alienate the pro-choice majority. If they abandon the issue, they will anger the activist core of their party. Graham’s news conference was ill-conceived, clumsy—and a likely political fiasco. But it reflects on more than just Graham’s political ineptitude. The Republicans have created a political and policy disaster on abortion, one that will almost certainly hurt them in many elections to come.

There’s nothing positive about the pain and suffering Republicans have unleashed by riding the tiger of anti-choice politics. But there is at least the grim consolation that the tiger might eat them too.