How the GOP Hopes to Make Abortion a Winning Strategy

The Republican plan may appease the party’s base, but whether it can win elections is another story.

Anti-abortion demonstrators protest in front of the US Supreme Court and US Capitol during the 41st annual March of Life in Washington, DC, January 22, 2014. Held around the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, the march draws thousands from around the country for a rally on the National Mall before marching up Capitol Hill to the US Supreme Court. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB
National Journal
Sophie Novack
Jan. 23, 2014, 8:07 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans are risk­ing the next Todd Akin to go on the of­fens­ive on abor­tion.

After their failed 2012 bid to re­take the Sen­ate, Re­pub­lic­ans vowed to talk about Obama­care, jobs, and the eco­nomy — and to keep abor­tion out of the spot­light. It’s easy to see why. Talk­ing about abor­tion doomed Re­pub­lic­an runs in two states: Mis­souri, where Akin’s “le­git­im­ate rape” ver­biage ig­nited a na­tion­al firestorm; and In­di­ana, where can­did­ate Richard Mour­dock sealed his fate with con­tro­ver­sial com­ments about rape and preg­nancy.

And so while Re­pub­lic­an-led state le­gis­latures have worked ag­gress­ively — and suc­cess­fully — to push state-level abor­tion re­stric­tions, the na­tion­al party has pre­ferred to fo­cus its rhet­or­ic else­where.

2014 isn’t 2012, however, and na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans are now wad­ing back in­to the fray. But this time, they hope to talk about the is­sue in a way that paints their op­pon­ents — rather than their can­did­ates — as the ex­trem­ists.

With a com­plete over­turn­ing of Roe v. Wade un­likely, Re­pub­lic­ans’ mes­saging shift aims to high­light some of the more con­ten­tious as­pects of abor­tion, in a bid to ap­pear mod­er­ate on the is­sue, and to de­pict Demo­crats’ po­s­i­tion as ex­treme and harm­ful to wo­men and young people — two groups the GOP has struggled to hold.

“Pro-life can­did­ates should be mak­ing voters un­der­stand that their op­pon­ent who has a pro-choice po­s­i­tion prob­ably wants to use tax­pay­er money for abor­tions, would sup­port late-term abor­tions, and does not think par­ents should be in­volved,” says Car­ol To­bi­as, pres­id­ent of Na­tion­al Right to Life. “They are the can­did­ates that are out of step with the voters.”

To en­cour­age Re­pub­lic­ans to frame the is­sue this way, the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee is in­tro­du­cing a res­ol­u­tion at its meet­ing this week that cites pub­lic polling on some of these lim­it­a­tions. The au­thors call on GOP can­did­ates to “re­ject a strategy of si­lence” and fight back against what they call the Demo­crats’ “de­cept­ive rhet­or­ic” that is “de­mon­iz­ing them and ma­nip­u­lat­ing voters.”

And Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship is de­clar­ing abor­tion an im­port­ant fight to have this cycle. “I can make this prom­ise,” Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor said in a ser­mon-like speech at the March for Life rally Wed­nes­day. “The people’s House will stand for life.”

Can­tor an­nounced that the House will vote on the No Tax­pay­er Fund­ing for Abor­tion Act next week, which would pro­hib­it Obama­care sub­sidies from go­ing to any health plans that in­clude abor­tion cov­er­age. Al­though the law pro­hib­its the tax cred­its from go­ing to abor­tions spe­cific­ally, the fact that ex­change plans of­fer­ing abor­tion ser­vices can re­ceive this fund­ing has giv­en House Re­pub­lic­ans an­oth­er av­en­ue of at­tack.

Abor­tion-rights sup­port­ers ar­gue that this bill is not where law­makers should be spend­ing their time.

“It’s of­fens­ive to the Amer­ic­an people that when we’re fa­cing so many genu­ine needs in this coun­try, that this is the first thing they’re do­ing — that takes up time and en­ergy and tax­pay­er fund­ing and is not aligned with the pri­or­it­ies of Amer­ic­an voters and not go­ing any­where — rather than have an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion about what mat­ters to wo­men,” says Ilyse Hogue, pres­id­ent of NARAL Pro-Choice Amer­ica. Hogue names ac­cess to fam­ily plan­ning and paid leave as im­port­ant is­sues to fo­cus on.

However, the GOP mes­saging strategy on abor­tion aims to put Demo­crats on the de­fens­ive by sug­gest­ing they are ac­tu­ally the ones wa­ging the war.

“This war on wo­men has wrongly been called; the real war today is ac­tu­ally the war on moth­er­hood,” March for Life Pres­id­ent Jeanne Mo­n­ahan said at the rally. “Abor­tion is an­ti­wo­man. It’s an­ti­fam­ily, it’s an­ti­man, it’s ob­vi­ously anti-baby. Not only does it suck out the life of the baby, but it hurts mom, phys­ic­ally and emo­tion­ally.”

The March for Life this year em­phas­ized ad­op­tion as the mor­al al­tern­at­ive to abor­tion. The rally high­lighted fe­male speak­ers, from politi­cians to stu­dents to an OB/GYN. One wo­man spoke with deep re­gret about her own abor­tion years earli­er.

The RNC will in­creas­ingly use fe­male mes­sen­gers to dis­cuss the party’s po­s­i­tion on abor­tion as well, ac­cord­ing to Kirsten Kukowski, a spokes­wo­man for the com­mit­tee.

“Ex­treme ideas com­ing out of a wo­man’s mouth doesn’t make them less ex­treme,” says Hogue, who ar­gues that the GOP’s fo­cus on abor­tion is a bad strategy for win­ning elec­tions or gov­ern­ing the coun­try. “This is still sig­ni­fic­antly out of the main­stream of what Amer­ic­an voters are look­ing for.”

For Demo­crats, it’s dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand why the GOP would be em­phas­iz­ing an is­sue that ul­ti­mately cost the party two Sen­ate seats in the last cycle, but for many Re­pub­lic­ans it is too im­port­ant to ig­nore.

“There is a sig­ni­fic­ant por­tion of the Re­pub­lic­an base that holds pro­tect­ing in­no­cent life as the most im­port­ant is­sue,” says Rep. Trent Franks of Ari­zona, who in­tro­duced a bill earli­er this year that would ban all abor­tions after 20 weeks. “In terms of an is­sue that cer­tainly is the best pos­sible kind of is­sue for our party, the idea that we would not take hard-earned tax­pay­er dol­lars in a time of fisc­al crisis and spend­ing it on the tak­ing the lives of in­no­cent, un­born chil­dren — that doesn’t seem like a hard case to make to me. So to sug­gest that some­how this is bad for us polit­ic­ally is just an ef­fort on the oth­er side to in­ject whatever res­ist­ance they can in­to a de­bate they can­not pos­sibly win on the mer­its.”

Of course, de­vo­tion to the cause is one thing, polit­ic­al strategy is an­oth­er, and wad­ing deep­er in­to is­sues of wo­men’s re­pro­duct­ive rights ahead of midterm elec­tions is def­in­itely risky for the GOP. Yet To­bi­as says she is con­fid­ent that can­did­ates will re­ceive train­ing and talk­ing points on the is­sue, to avoid an­oth­er Akin-like de­bacle.

“The party plat­form for 30 years or more has been very strongly pro-life,” she says. “This is a way to en­cour­age the pro-life base to work even harder.”

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