Ethics & Public Policy Center

Abortion Zealots and the GOP’s Empty Playbook

Published in The Federalist on November 12, 2013



When it comes to women and abortion, the GOP hasn’t a clue.

Ken Cuccinelli had barely conceded the Virginia Governor’s race to Democrat Terry McAuliffe before pundits pronounced the lesson learned: Cucinnelli’s defeat in Virginia, and Chris Christie’s win in New Jersey, prove that the Republicans’ winning strategy in 2014 and beyond will be to avoid the “hot button social issues such as abortion, contraception, and gay marriage.”

That’s what Christie did, the thinking goes, and it worked. Cuccinelli, on the other hand, “came to the party nomination as a hero to an ideological fringe,” said Mark Rozell, a George Mason University professor and political analyst, and failed to “overcome a socially conservative record.”

Labeled an anti-abortion zealot, Cuccinelli played the villain in Terry McAuliffe’s fear-mongering commercials that warned of a Republican campaign to outlaw contraception and deny women’s rights. The commercials worked: Cuccinelli lost big time among unmarried women (67% to 25%) and abortion supporters (58% to 30%), although he did win married women (50% to 41%).

For some Republicans, the take-away is clear. As former Virginia Congressman Tom Davis put it, Republicans can win elections only if their candidates “handle” the abortion issue “appropriately.”

It’s an easy, and rather lazy, conclusion. And it betrays little understanding of either abortion zealots or women voters.

It’s been a year and a half since the Democrats launched their ‘War on Women’ rhetoric and the Republican Party is still fumbling around trying to figure out how to counter it (short of jettisoning the pro-life position, although some quarters surely favor that approach).

In the wake of Christie’s victory—and Cuccinelli’s defeat—the Republican establishment seems eager to believe that they can avoid the abortion issue entirely. If Republicans don’t bait the left with Tea Party candidates from the “ideological fringe,” then surely all the reasonable Democrats in the pro-abortion camp will play nice and quit running those ominous—and very effective—‘War on Women’ commercials.

It’s a serious miscalculation.

In their disdain for the Tea Party, establishment Republicans fail to see the need to counter the abortion zealots on the left—the same abortion rights groups that rained cash down into Virginia to secure McAuliffe’s win. Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice together spent $1.675 million to defeat Cuccinelli, who received only $22,530 from pro-life groups. Christie, on the other hand, was not targeted by expensive ‘War on Women’ ads only because his race was already won, not because he is more palatable to the pro-abortion zealots. Christie’s pro-choice challenger received paltry sums from Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, and other abortion rights advocates because she was a sure loser.

Governor Christie is broadly pro-life and repeatedly vetoed state funding for Planned Parenthood. Do Republicans seriously think that Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice, and the like will table the ‘War on Women’ ads in a contest between Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton? Not a chance.

The abortion-rights zealots know no middle ground. No Republican who votes pro-life—on anything—will escape the ‘War on Women’ rhetoric, no matter how ‘nuanced’ he or she is in opposing abortion. Not even Chris Christie.

Unless the GOP plans to run up the white flag of surrender on the abortion issue, and nominate only pro-choice politicians acceptable to Planned Parenthood and NARAL, it needs an effective strategy to counter the Democrats’ abortion zealotry.

And that’s the real problem: the GOP establishment has an empty playbook when it comes to women, especially unmarried women, and the issue of abortion. It has no strategic response to ‘War on Women’ attack ads, except for pointless ads that picture male candidates surrounded by women, as if to say, ‘See. I actually like women and they like me.’

Has the Republican Party done the research to find an effective counterpoint? Has it listened to women, especially unmarried working class women, to learn what kinds of messages resonate with their self-interest, their real life worries? (Pause for a second: this isn’t pandering. It’s basic sales. It’s not about “us.” It’s about “them.” Stop talking about GOP policies and the “why” behind them and start talking about the real-life benefits to voters from those policies.)

Has the GOP sought to understand—and speak to—the interplay between economic desperation and women’s attitudes towards abortion and free contraception? Or is the automatic assumption that the ‘single women’ demographic is a bunch of Sandra Fluke clones? (By the way, Sandra, how “free” is contraception if a woman’s monthly premium spikes $300 a month under Obamacare?)

Maybe we should take a few lessons from the Democrat playbook.

Back in May 2012, the Democrat research team found that disengaged, unmarried female voters reacted to ‘War on Women’ messaging with “blank stares.” The idea that Republicans were hostile to women did not resonate at all with these outside-the-Beltway women.

But the Democrats learned quickly that ‘War on Women’ rhetoric would engage (and enrage) these voters if Democrats paired it with pocketbook messaging (Republicans say insurers get to “charg[e] women higher rates than men”) or with specific “intrusive,” “anti-women” legislative proposals (such as the infamous vaginal ultrasound bill).

The take-away for Democrats is that women see reproductive issues not in isolation, but through the twin lenses of economics and personal respect, magnified by the fear factor. Democrats gin up hostility towards Republicans by scaring women into thinking that Republican policies will deprive women of ‘resources’ that they (mistakenly) believe will save them from economic disaster.

Similarly, Democrat research in September 2012 showed that Democrat-leaning, unmarried women responded favorably when Mitt Romney talked about the economic squeeze on the middle class and when he argued that his policies would bring more jobs and a better future. Again, Democratic strategists identified “women’s health care and equity” as “totally framed by economic issues.”

Republican actions to defund Planned Parenthood draw the ire of unmarried women less because of Sandra-Fluke-entitlement feelings and more because these women perceive that “if you limit a woman’s health care then you limit her economic status.”

The GOP can speak to those concerns—if it understands them.

In 2012, Republicans lost this demographic, partly because GOP candidates failed to convey genuine empathy for women’s specific vulnerabilities. Republicans proved unable to allay the financial fears of unmarried women or to communicate the tangible economic benefits of Republican policies. And women who perceived Republican contempt for women and working Americans in Mitt Romney’s “47%” comment wrote Republicans off entirely. (Cuccinelli’s supposed comparison between rats and immigrants similarly killed his chances with Hispanics.)

The Republicans must face facts: the abortion zealots are on the other side and they’ve twisted Republican positions to create an unanswered, winning narrative.

The GOP playbook is likely to remain empty when it comes to women voters and issues like abortion unless the GOP takes some serious steps to prove it’s not congenitally tone-deaf to women’s concerns. That means doing a better job of listening to women, treating them with respect, and proposing solutions in concrete, personal language—while holding fast to fundamental principles like the right to life.

The next election cycle is almost here. The GOP needs to face the zealots courageously and work hard to add some winning plays to the GOP’s disturbingly empty playbook on women and abortion.

Chris Christie—and the rest of the field—are going to need them.

Mary Rice Hasson is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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