Some pundits tried to pin the latest Republican election losses on former President Donald Trump, but the trouncing Tuesday was more likely tied to the party’s stance on limiting abortion, which it has struggled to define for more than a year since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Republicans’ muddled messaging on abortion could spell disaster for the party in 2024.
Republican losses in Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania indicate abortion is a leading issue among voters. Those driven to the polls Tuesday rejected the party’s efforts to limit the procedure, even at 15 weeks, which a slim majority of Americans support.
“Elections all around the country had one overriding message: The pro-abortion-rights majority is still angry about the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future,” University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato told newsfeedworld.
Democrats now see the Republicans’ abortion quandary as their path to victory in 2024, when the House, Senate and White House are up for grabs.
“Every time MAGA Republicans bring their abortion bans to the ballot box, they lose,” said Rep. James McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat. “Americans are making our voices heard, and we believe medical decisions are between a patient and doctor — not a patient and a GOP politician on a power trip.”
SEE ALSO: Biden campaign says Trump can’t have it both ways on abortion issue
The Supreme Court’s landmark decision to overturn Roe in June 2022 ended federally legalized abortion and sent decisions about the procedure back to the states. Two election cycles later, Republicans are beginning to see that their long-sought ruling is crushing them in elections.
A July AP/NORC poll found that 51% of adults support keeping abortion legal up to 15 weeks of pregnancy. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, campaigned on that limit as he sought to define the Democratic position as extreme and without any limits at all.
The proposed restriction didn’t sell with voters in Virginia, a once-conservative state that has leaned increasingly Democratic. It drove enough Democrats to the polls to dash Mr. Youngkin’s hope that Republicans would win control of the Statehouse.
Instead, voters flipped the Republican-led Senate and returned full control of the legislature to Democrats, blocking Republicans from implementing abortion restrictions and dimming Mr. Youngkin’s allure as a rising Republican star.
Republicans lost the governor’s race in Kentucky. Voters in Ohio easily passed a citizen-sponsored measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. In Pennsylvania, Democrat and abortion rights advocate Dan McCaffery won the open seat on the state Supreme Court.
Last year, Republicans suffered a similar thrashing in the midterm elections. The abortion issue helped sink Republican candidates in swing-state races. Pro-choice turnout helped keep the Senate under Democratic control and limited the House Republican takeover to just a handful of seats.
In October, Mr. Youngkin’s political action committee spent $1.4 million on an ad campaign to dispel Democrats’ claim that a Republican-controlled Statehouse would pursue an outright abortion ban, which under current Virginia law is permitted for up to 26 weeks.
In proposing the 15-week limit with some exceptions, Mr. Youngkin sought the middle ground — far from the six-week abortion ban pushed by the most conservative wing of the party, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Mr. Youngkin’s 15-week gambit “didn’t work either,” Mr. Sabato said.
The party may have to consider another option, he said: “Avoid talking about it and change the subject.”
Democrats won’t let Republicans duck the issue.
In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear overcame President Biden’s unpopularity in his conservative state to defeat Republican Daniel Cameron and win a second term.
Democrats in Kentucky made abortion limits a central campaign issue.
Mr. Beshear bashed Mr. Cameron repeatedly about the Republican Party’s anti-abortion stance. A Beshear campaign ad featured a woman who was raped by her stepfather at age 12. She questioned the state’s current abortion ban, which prohibits the procedure even in cases of rape and incest.
“I don’t think it’s a big secret, but in many states, abortion is not a winning issue for Republicans,” Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a former Republican presidential nominee, told newsfeedworld. “The winning issue relates to the economy and the cost of living. People are suffering high costs of food, gasoline, housing, health care, and they want to see people who can improve their lives. So focusing on abortion didn’t turn out to be a big winner. I think you would not find that as a surprise.”
The most ardent pro-life wing of the Republican Party on Wednesday rejected the notion of backing away from efforts to limit abortion.
Pro-life Republicans said the party did a poor job uniting behind a message of protecting the life of the unborn and failed to show voters that the Democrats’ position supporting limitless abortion is extreme.
“We have to unite our party together to fight their radical stance on abortion and win in 2024,” said Mercedes Schlapp, who worked as a communications director in the Trump White House and now hosts the nation’s largest annual conservative gathering, the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Sen. Cynthia M. Lummis, Wyoming Republican, said navigating the abortion issue may not be that simple for the party.
“I think that we need to acknowledge that Americans really value and cherish their individual constitutional rights regardless of whether they ever intend to use them,” she said. “We as Republicans need to take that and try to move forward, and not change our core values, but remember that the core values of the individual American also involve the freedom to be an American. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us.”
Mr. Trump has distanced himself from bans on abortion in the first term of pregnancy.
He blamed Mr. Cameron’s loss in Kentucky on his Republican nemesis, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentuckian who endorsed Mr. Cameron but whose approval ratings have dipped.
Mr. Trump took credit for the Republicans’ only big win: the reelection in conservative Mississippi of Republican Gov. Tate Reeves. He said Mr. Reeves “surged after my involvement.”
In September, Mr. Trump called the six-week ban endorsed by Mr. DeSantis, arguably his top but distant opponent for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”
The former president said he opposes abortion bans that do not include exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
“In order to win in 2024, Republicans must learn how to talk about Abortion,” Mr. Trump said in a September post on Truth Social.
Asked by NBC News how he would navigate the abortion issue if elected, Mr. Trump predicted he would come up with a successful solution that would allow the Republicans to finally put the issue behind them. “I’m going to come together with all groups,” Mr. Trump said. “And we’re going to have something that’s acceptable.”