Republicans begin to adjust to a fierce abortion response

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Abortion rights protesters in Topeka, Kan., July 30, 2022. (Arin Yoon/The New York Times)

Republican candidates, faced with a stark reality check from Kansas voters, soften their once-uncompromising stances against abortion as they head for the general election, recognizing that strict bans are unpopular and that the issue could be a major driver. are in the fall campaigns.

In swing states and even conservative corners of the country, several Republicans have shifted their speech on abortion bans, reiterating support for exceptions. Some have noticeably stopped discussing details. Fierce battles have erupted in Republican-dominated legislatures as the Supreme Court turns a long theoretical argument into reality.

In Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, the Republicans’ staunch anti-abortion candidate for governor, recently said that “the people of Pennsylvania” will “decide what abortion looks like” in the state, not the governor. In Minnesota, Scott Jensen, a primary care physician who said in March he was “trying to outlaw abortion” as governor, said in a video released before the Kansas vote that he supports some exceptions: “If I’ve been unclear before, I want be clear now.”

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Republican campaign advisers to the Senate and House said on Thursday that while they still believe inflation and the economy will drive voters to the GOP, candidates will need to talk about abortion to fend off the Democratic attacks that threaten the Democratic Party’s position. the party is extreme. They have begun advising Republicans to pass bans that allow exceptions for rape or incest pregnancies or those that threaten the mother’s life. They have told candidates to emphasize caring for women during and after their pregnancy.

“If we are going to ban abortion, there are things we need to do to ensure that the need for abortion is reduced and women are not endangered,” said RS.C. Representative Nancy Mace, who won an award. exemption from rape and incest in her state’s abortion law as a representative of the state. Now she says Republicans need to push to expand access to gynecological and obstetric care, birth control, including emergency contraception, and even protect women’s right to leave their state to have an abortion without fear of prosecution. .

Reports alone cannot rid the GOP of the drumroll of news following the Supreme Court’s decision, including the story of a 10-year-old rape victim who crossed state lines to undergo an abortion, and headlines about women facing serious health problems under new, far-reaching restrictions or prohibitions.

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On Thursday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has recently avoided talking about abortion, suspended a Hillsborough County state attorney who refused to prosecute people attempting abortions banned by the state’s new 15-week ban, which led to angry recriminations from Democrats.

The reassessment for some began before voters in very Republican Kansas overwhelmingly voted Tuesday against removing abortion rights from the state’s constitution. Ever since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which revoked the constitutional right to the proceedings, many Republicans have been slow to go into detail about what came next. As they rush to enact long-promised laws, Republican-led lawmakers have learned how difficult it can be to ban abortion.

“Not just the pro-choice movement, but the pro-life movement was taken by surprise” by the Supreme Court, said Brandon Steele, a West Virginia representative who, without exception, pushed for an abortion ban in a special session of the legislature that addressed this issue. ended. week with the Republican supermajority thwarted. “Without having the talking points, without being told what to do, lawmakers had to start saying what they were actually going to do. You could see the confusion in the room.”

“We’re finding out who’s really pro-life and who’s pro-life, just to get elected, not just in West Virginia but across the country,” Steele said.

In Indiana, a special session of the state legislature to consider a near-complete abortion ban has sparked heated debates about whether or not to include waivers and how far those waivers should go.

“For some, it’s very black and white: if you’re pro-life with no exceptions or if you’re pro-choice with no restrictions,” said Senator Kyle Walker, an Indiana Republican who said abortion should be legal during at least the first trimester of pregnancy. “When you’re in the gray area, you’re forced to reconcile in your own mind where your own limits are.”

For months, Republicans have maintained that abortion rights would be a footnote in a mid-term campaign fueled by the worst inflation in 40 years, crime, immigration and a Democratic president whose approval ratings are around 40%.

That is still the public opinion, even after the Kansas referendum, where voters were faced with a single problem, not the multitude of factors they will consider in November.

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But the reality on the campaign trail is different. Sarah Longwell, a Republican pollster, said in her focus groups that swinging voters bring up inflation and the economy when asked what issues are on their minds. But when asked to discuss abortion, the real passion flares up. That indicates that if Democrats can pursue a campaign to keep the issue center stage, they will find an audience, she said.

Mace agreed, saying abortion is on the rise and Republicans need to respond.

In Minnesota, Jensen, the Republican candidate expected to take on Governor Tim Walz, suggested that it was the interaction with voters after Roe’s fall that prompted him, he said, to clarify his stance on abortion.

“When the Roe v. Wade decision was overturned, we told Minnesota and basically told everyone we were going to have a conversation,” he said. “During that conversation I learned that I have to explain my point of view.”

That elaboration included embracing a family and maternity leave program, promoting a $2,500 adoption tax credit per child, and improving access to contraception, including the provision of no-price-cap oral contraceptives. And, like Adam Laxalt, the GOP Senate candidate in Nevada, Jensen pointed to abortion protections already in place in Minnesota to consider the matter resolved this year rather than on the ballot.

Walz said he would remain on the offensive and would not accept any relaxation of the Republican line.

“I take them at their first word,” he said of Jensen and his running mate, Matt Birk, a former NFL player and anti-abortion rights advocate. “If given the chance, they will criminalize this while we try to protect it. So it’s become a central theme, of course, I think that flip on their part was a response to that.”

The Kansas vote means about 65% of voters nationwide would reject the rollback of abortion rights, including a majority in more than 40 of the 50 states, according to a New York Times analysis.

Republicans believe their party can take the mantle of moderation from the Democrats, in part by conveying empathy for pregnant women and offering waivers to abortion bans, portraying the Democrats as the extremists when it comes to regulating abortion. . If Democrats insist on making abortion the center of their campaigns, they argue, they risk losing touch with voters in an uncertain economy.

But Republicans who moderate their stances still have to contend with a core base of support that remains adamantly anti-abortion. Abortion opponents said on Thursday Republican candidates shouldn’t read too much into the Kansas ballot, a single-issue referendum with language criticized by voters on both sides as confusing.

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“Regardless of what the consultant class tells candidates, they would be wise to recognize that the right to life community is an important constituency and an important demographic of voters,” warned Penny Nance, chief executive and president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative organization that opposes abortion rights.

Following the Kansas vote, Democrats stepped up efforts to squeeze their opponents between a conservative base eager to take swift action to ban all abortions and a broader electorate that doesn’t want such a thing. Rep. Elaine Luria, a moderate Democrat who operates in a Republican-leaning district in southeastern Virginia, released a new ad against her Republican opponent, Jen Kiggans, portraying her as “too extreme” about abortion. Luria had initially said she would campaign for her work for the district and her support for the navy, a major force in the region, but the landscape has changed. Kiggans campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

A group affiliated with the Democratic Governors Association is already advertising abortion-related comments from Michigan’s Tudor Dixon, who won the Republican nomination for governor this week.

“If you take Tudor Dixon at her word when it comes to banning abortion, she told us exactly who she is,” the ad, titled “No Exceptions”, features clips of Dixon opposing a series of abortion-related exceptions. . Dixon was unequivocal about her position earlier this summer, writing on Twitter, “My only exception is to protect the LIFE of the mother.”

In a lengthy statement highlighting her opposition to an expected Michigan ballot measure designed to protect abortion rights, Dixon also insisted that her race would be defined by jobs, schools, crime and “being able to get your gas and groceries.” to pay”.

For Republicans, one problem could be the extensive trail of issue they left during the primary season.

In May, Mastriano was unequivocal in Pennsylvania when he courted Republican primary voters: “That baby deserves the right to life, whether it’s incest or rape, or there are other concerns for the mother.”

Last month he said it wasn’t his fault. “You decide on exceptions. You decide how early. And that’s in the hands of the people,” he said on the Philadelphia talk radio. “That’s a fact. That’s not dodging.”

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