Published November 10, 2022
Democrats are already arguing that last night vindicated the party’s position on abortion, that abortion absolutism is a winning message, and that the end of Roe was a major boon to their candidates. Similarly, Republicans who are disinclined to talk about abortion and even more disinclined to examine the systemic flaws and disunity within their party — and, by consequence, the weakness of candidates on the ballot in key swing-state races — will attempt to pin the GOP underperformance on Dobbs and abortion.
There is little evidence for these assertions. The results suggest that the poor Republican performance was due primarily to a slate of poor candidates, not the unpopularity of any particular element of the GOP platform. I’ll put it plainly: Donald Trump continues to be a significant drag on the GOP. Nearly every single one of his handpicked candidates failed or underperformed relative to other Republicans, in an economic climate highly favorable to the GOP. That’s the story of last night’s midterms.
And there isn’t much reason to think that Dobbs backlash played a significant role in that story. Consider this: In Florida, Ohio, Georgia, and Texas, Republican governors who signed strict pro-life laws won reelection handily. In Georgia and Ohio, meanwhile, lackluster GOP Senate candidates ran far behind the Republican governors. The problem isn’t abortion; it’s the candidates.
Even if some part of last night’s GOP underperformance had to do with abortion, this shouldn’t be attributed to Dobbs or the GOP’s position on the issue. We need to recognize that voters are regularly lied to about abortion policy, and Republicans don’t do enough to counter those lies. Consider Michigan, where Proposal 3 succeeded in codifying an absolute right to “reproductive freedom for all” in the state constitution. The full language of the ballot measure didn’t even appear on the ballot, and what did was airbrushed to make it seem far less radical than it is. Despite valiant efforts by Michigan pro-lifers, the falsehoods won out. Might it have turned out differently if the state GOP had zealously embraced a popular, incremental abortion policy in contrast to the amendment’s extremism?
As I wrote in National Review last week, the Republican position on abortion — for the most part, a willingness to embrace the most pro-life policy that lines up with public opinion — is far more popular than that of Democrats. Democratic politicians wholeheartedly reject incrementalism and continue to embrace abortion on demand throughout all nine months of pregnancy, a policy that only 10 percent of Americans and 20 percent of their own voters support. If the GOP isn’t appealing enough on the issue, it is because of the disconnect between the parties’ positions on abortion and what voters believe those positions to be. It’s a messaging problem, and it won’t be solved by hastily scapegoating the pro-life movement.
Meanwhile, nearly the entire abortion debate since Dobbs has focused on the claim that pro-life laws will prevent women from being treated in health-care emergencies. Despite ample evidence that this is not the case, Democrats have succeeded in convincing voters with this fearmongering, in part because Republicans haven’t done enough to push back. Given these imagined stakes, no wonder voters with abortion on their minds might fear the GOP. Such a landscape doesn’t suggest that the GOP needs to equivocate on abortion policy; it indicates that Republican politicians must get better at fighting messaging battles on the issue, something they have been loath to do for decades.
Take, as an example, the way the national abortion conversation shifted briefly after Senator Lindsey Graham introduced his 15-week abortion ban, which is well within the scope of what public opinion considers sensible. For the first time in my memory, reporters actually asked several Democratic candidates if they support any restrictions whatsoever on abortion, and their answer, when they gave one, was a resounding, “No.” Imagine an entire campaign in which Republican candidates continue to proclaim that all unborn human lives have dignity while hammering home their support for abortion restrictions consistent with what public opinion generally favors — against Democratic candidates who refuse to accept a single limitation on abortion. What a different debate that would be.
Republicans who hope to be more successful during the next election cycle will view last night’s results not as a repudiation of Dobbs or of the pro-life movement but as an exhortation. Especially in contrast to Democratic extremism, abortion can be a winning issue for Republicans. They just have to try.
EPPC Fellow Alexandra DeSanctis writes on culture and family issues, with a particular focus on abortion policy and pro-life advocacy, as a member of the Life and Family Initiative.