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Republicans' muddled message on abortion complicates election path

GOP candidates are struggling to find a winning strategy two years after Dobbs.

Associated Press
April 2, 2024, 8:18 p.m.

Two years after the Dobbs decision overturned a constitutional right to an abortion, Republicans are still struggling to formalize their message on abortion rights as Democrats leverage the issue to win elections all over the map.

Abortion rights has long been a winning issue for Democrats, reaching its zenith in the 2022 midterms. Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate and minimized losses in the House, stymieing a red wave that was expected before the election. Post-mortems of the cycle said Republicans underestimated the Dobbs decision's effect on voters. Republicans believed economic issues and President Biden’s unpopularity would be a larger motivator for voters than reproductive rights.

GOP strategists who spoke to National Journal admitted that Democrats were able to portray Republicans as extreme on the issue and they lost the messaging war. The National Republican Congressional Committee hopes to change that this cycle.

The NRCC has in recent weeks advised its candidates to talk about abortion more—not less. The strategy is a pivot from last cycle, when the issue lacked concrete polling and election data to craft the most effective message.

The committee issued messaging guidance in March advising candidates to “confidently articulate” their views and “stake out a clear position.” The guidance says members should promote empathy for women and “common sense” solutions, but it does not state a preferred policy position.

Moreover, NRCC Chairman Richard Hudson and his associates do not advise their members on how to vote, out of a belief that candidates know the needs of their districts better than the committee.

Because of the ideological divide within the House GOP on the issue, the NRCC has avoided putting its thumb on the scale. No specific policy guidance has been made public. Multiple GOP sources have noted that Hudson may need to appeal to a wide range of opinions with the Republican Conference if he tries to run for a higher leadership post.

A source familiar with the committee’s messaging efforts denied that rumored leadership aspirations impacted the NRCC's messaging.

"Democrats spent hundreds of millions of dollars lying about Republican candidates’ positions in 2022, but Republicans are not going to let Democrats lie any longer,” NRCC spokesman Jack Pandol said in a statement when asked about the committee’s approach to abortion rights this cycle.

The NRCC’s counterpart across the Capitol Rotunda, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is more clear in its guidance. The Senate committee encourages candidates to clearly state their opposition to a national abortion ban and their support for reasonable limits on late-term abortions with exceptions for rape, incest, and risks to the life of the mother, according to a source familiar with the NRSC’s strategy.

Hudson and the NRCC have insisted that the party has a “brand” problem, not a “policy” problem, and that candidates can win by clearly articulating their views. But the majority of Americans say abortion should be legal for any reason, according to a November Wall Street Journal survey.

Because House races are hyper-local, some GOP groups are trying to push the issue to the states, as is the case for the Congressional Leadership Fund, the main super PAC for House Republicans.

“Candidates should clearly communicate empathy, compassion and nuance on abortion,” CLF communications director Courtney Parella told National Journal in a statement. “In blue states where it is legal, they can also note that it’s a state’s rights issue.”

The ambiguity has left Democrats and their deep-pocketed allies an opportunity to define their GOP counterparts on paid media. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has taken notice of the House Republicans’ vagueness.

“Self-awareness is key—and House Republicans have none. GOP Leadership and the NRCC Chair have failed to recognize that the public unquestionably disagrees with their anti-abortion, anti-freedom agenda,” DCCC spokesman Viet Shelton said in a statement. “By taking the NRCC’s ill-conceived advice, vulnerable Republicans are going to hand back the House majority to Democrats.”

The legal knock-on effects of the Dobbs decision have created further headaches for House Republicans, as state court rulings and GOP-dominated state legislatures could complicate their messaging.

An Alabama Supreme Court ruling in February held that stored embryos had the same legal protections as children. The decision meant that fertility treatments such as in-vitro fertilization could potentially be banned in the state.

On Monday, the Florida Supreme Court cleared the way for the state to implement a six-week ban on abortion, with certain exceptions. The court also allowed a proposed amendment to appear on the November ballot that would overturn that law and enshrine abortion protections.

The Alabama decision left many antiabortion politicians scrambling to clarify their position on IVF. In the House, there are two competing bills related to the issue, and GOP activity on both demonstrates the dilemma many vulnerable centrist Republicans face.

Republican Rep. Alex Mooney of West Virginia introduced the Life at Conception Act at the beginning of this Congress, after the Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs but before the Alabama ruling on IVF. The bill would enshrine a right to life at the moment of fertilization, but it would not have a carve-out for IVF, meaning that embryos created in a lab could get the same protections.

Mooney’s bill currently has 126 cosponsors, mostly members in safe GOP districts. But that’s one less than its peak, after Rep. Michelle Steel of California withdrew her support in early March, saying on the House floor that the measure could create confusion about her position on abortion.

Other vulnerable Republicans, such as Reps. Mike Garcia of California, Don Bacon of Nebraska, and Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, didn’t sponsor the bill this year after having backed it in the previous Congress.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Democratic Rep. Susan Wild of Pennsylvania introduced the Access to Family Building Act in January. The measure would create federal protections for IVF. So far, the bill has 158 cosponsors, including four swing-district Republicans: Reps. Marc Molinaro, Mike Lawler, Brian Fitzpatrick, and Anthony D’Esposito.

Democrats have hammered Miller-Meeks over her past cosponsorship of the Life at Conception Act. The DCCC announced an ad launch Tuesday aimed at the Iowan and other vulnerable Republicans over their past support of the legislation.

Another group targeting Miller-Meeks is the Democratic-affiliated 314 Action, which supports candidates with backgrounds in science. The group launched a $200,000 digital campaign on Monday targeting 14 Republican physicians in the House and Senate over their opposition to abortion, though not all are in competitive districts. Miller-Meeks is the only GOP female medical doctor in Congress.

And Democrats are taking the abortion issue on the road to Florida, which could emerge as one of the nation’s front lines on the issue. On Tuesday, members of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which makes committee assignments and appoints panel chairs and ranking members, met in Florida to hold a field hearing on reproductive rights.

Advocates are trying to get abortion rights on the ballot in other states with competitive races, such as Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.

And the challenge for congressional Republicans is compounded by the fact that the presumptive presidential nominee is searching for a workable position as well.

Former President Trump writes his own messaging guidelines, and the rest of the GOP is left to play catchup. Trump has at times taken credit for the Dobbs decision, but he has also held off on endorsing a specific federal policy and has called Florida’s six-week ban “a terrible mistake.”

On Tuesday, Trump teased an announcement on abortion during a press event.

“We’ll be making a statement next week on abortion,” he said when asked by a reporter about the Florida decision.

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