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.”