Published October 13, 2022
Facing adverse political headwinds, Democrats’ best hope for maintaining control of Congress has been the US Supreme Court’s correct but unpopular decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and return the ability to restrict abortion to the states.
Democratic incumbents in tough Senate races, like Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, have sought to paint their Republican challengers as extremists on the issue of reproductive rights. Gubernatorial elections in Michigan, Minnesota, Georgia and Pennsylvania have likewise seen millions of dollars in ads painting Republicans as seeking to ban abortion without exception.
So far, most Republican candidates have sought to dodge the topic or change the subject. But in these final weeks of the campaign, it’s not too late for a more deliberate counterattack to win over moderate voters.
We know that abortion is a huge motivating force for voters who identify as Democrats. But for independents, the dynamic is more complex. A recent KFF Health Tracking Poll found one-third of Democratic women want to hear candidates talk about abortion, but only 16% of independent women share this sentiment.
In fact, polling by FiveThirtyEight suggests abortion has begun to fade from some voters’ minds, as inflation remains stubbornly high, crime rates stay elevated and fears of an economic downturn continue to grow. In the immediate wake of the Dobbs ruling in June, 29% of women aged 18 to 44 listed abortion as one of their top three political priorities. In a poll conducted in September, that number had dropped to 12%.
This suggests the possibility for a renewed opening for Republicans to compete for middle-of-the-road voters who are conflicted about abortion but like the GOP’s economic agenda. There is no question that Republicans’ greatest political liability continues to be their lack of preparation for a post-Roe world. And if they are interested in swaying gettable voters, they should prove their seriousness about being authentically pro-life, not just anti-abortion.
Republicans running for office have largely tried to downplay the issue. Blake Masters, the GOP Senate nominee in Arizona, clumsily scrubbed his website of stridently pro-life language, while Adam Laxalt, running for Senate in Nevada, has run ads stressing his lack of interest in changing the status quo.
But proactively seeking to neutralize progressive attacks on abortion could be much more effective than trying to hide the ball. When the subject comes up, Republicans should remind voters not just of Democrats’ extreme stance on abortion, but stress the importance of addressing the economic and cultural factors that push women to consider it in the first place.
Imagine a voter who feels conflicted about the legality of abortion – personally opposed, maybe, but knows someone in their life who got an abortion because of economic pressures. Pledging to champion expanded funding for safety net programs – like the special supplemental nutrition assistance program for women, infants and children (WIC) and programs that aim to reduce maternal mortality – could help them feel more comfortable voting for a candidate who would support greater abortion restrictions.
Some elected Republicans have already pivoted in that direction. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, locked in a closer-than-expected reelection campaign, responded to the Dobbs ruling by unveiling a package of safety-net proposals that would boost resources available to pregnant mothers and catalyze on-the-ground programs that give moms and their babies the support they need.
Red states like Tennessee, Florida and South Carolina have opted into a federal program that provides postpartum Medicaid coverage for a year after birth, up from the previous standard of 60 days; it should be a no-brainer for every state that advances restrictions on abortion to follow suit. Texas and Indiana also passed new spending aimed at supporting low-income moms at the same time as passing restrictions on abortion, demonstrating their commitment to being pro-life both during and after pregnancy.
There is obviously a strong moral case to be made that Republicans should make life easier for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. But there is a political case as well. An agenda that puts parents first would recognize the importance of a new emphasis on pre- and post-partum support in a post-Roe America. And many moderate voters are turned off by the extreme position on either side of the abortion debate. They could be won over with sensible exemptions around rape and incest, coupled with meaningful support for new moms. Inroads among those voters could be enough to tip the scales in a close race.
This flies in the face of traditional GOP politics. Abortion is “not an issue that you want to be talking about,” longtime Republican strategist Doug Heye told CNN. But ducking the issue lets Democrats’ strongest attack this cycle go unanswered – and calls into question the GOP’s sincerity in being authentically pro-life.
In the unsettled political environment of our post-Roe midterms, Republicans have little to lose sketching out a proactive vision rather than just hunkering down on defense. An explicit stance in favor of supporting women through stronger safety net spending and improving maternal health would soften the hard-edged image the left would love to paint and could influence key races that could decide the balance of power in Washington, DC, and state capitals.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.