Democrats are already running on abortion rights in battleground states

In some places, like Wisconsin, Democratic incumbents don't yet have any Republican challengers. But prospective candidates already face attacks over the issue.

Protesters make their way to the Wisconsin Capitol Rotunda in Madison on Jan. 22 during a march supporting overturning Wisconsin's near total ban on abortion.Morry Gash / AP file

In swing states with vulnerable Democratic senators up for re-election in 2024, the party is already hammering likely opponents over abortion rights — even though most of those Republicans haven’t yet decided if they're running.

The early attacks by Democrats on the issue signal that the party is ready to carry on with what, in the year since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, has been a clear winner for the party. And even at this early stage of the cycle, it's kept a spotlight on the struggles Republicans have endured in determining how to talk to voters about the divisive issue.

The strategy could lend a hand to Senate Democrats who face a brutal map in 2024: They must defend 23 seats, compared with 10 for Republicans. 

The issue will be particularly hard for Republicans to run from in the perennial battleground of Wisconsin, where a deeply unpopular abortion ban will be working its way through through the state court system. The law — enacted in 1849 (only months after Wisconsin was admitted into the union) — bans abortions in almost all cases.

“What we see in Wisconsin is also playing out nationally, which is that the GOP has built a machine around stoking up anger about Roe v. Wade but has never been able to do anything about it,” Ben Wikler, the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said in an interview. “But now that the dog has caught the car, they have no message and no answers to tens of millions of Americans who don’t think politicians should be jumping between them and their doctor in the moments when they’re making their most intimate and personal decisions.”

Democrats in the state haven’t wasted any time bringing the issue to the foreground. Incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin has already begun talking up her support for abortion rights. Last month, the Democratic National Committee, as part of a campaign across multiple battlegrounds, put up a huge billboard in Milwaukee and began running digital ads in the state, all focused on Democrats’ support for reproductive rights.

The state Democratic Party has also been aggressive on social media blasting the records of a growing list of prospective Republican challengers, including Rep. Tom Tiffany, businessmen Eric Hovde and Scott Mayer, and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. (Rep. Mike Gallagher, whom many national Republicans had encouraged to challenge Baldwin, opted against a run last month).

All four would face an uphill climb reconciling their stances on the issue in a state where polling released last week found that 66% of registered voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Tiffany, for example, co-sponsored a 2021 House bill that proposed implementing a ban on almost all abortions at around six weeks of pregnancy — before most women even know they’re pregnant.

Clarke has compared abortion to slavery and “genocide,” and he has characterized the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision as "similar to a stay of execution." Clarke has called for the government to ban abortion.

Hovde, who ran for Senate in 2012, has said he is “100% pro-life.”

Mayer, however, told NBC News in April that he was “absolutely pro-life” but also supported “what the people want … some access to abortion.”

As was the case for Republican candidates in races across the country in the 2022 midterms, the issue was a liability for the party’s candidates in Wisconsin and featured prominently in the strategy that helped Democratic Gov. Tony Evers win re-election last year and liberals win a seat on the state Supreme Court in April —  a race their candidate won by 11 percentage points, compared with Biden having won the state in 2020 by just 0.6 percentage points.

A suit filed by the state’s Democratic attorney general deeming the 1849 ban unenforceable is currently being heard in a state court. Conservative groups have vowed to appeal a ruling unfavorable to them, and the case is likely to end up being heard by the state Supreme Court during the heart of the Senate campaign, giving the issue ever greater stature. State Republicans have continued to back the ban; on Wednesday Republicans in the GOP-controlled state Senate voted unanimously against repealing it.

Interviews with Republicans in the state revealed that they still don't have a concrete strategy on how to tackle the issue, though most agreed that the party has fumbled its messaging in the year since the Dobbs ruling.

Tiffany, who said he’d make his decision on whether to run in August, said Republicans must talk more about opposing abortion in ways he said he believed independent and swing voters would relate to.

“We need to lean in to the issue and say, ‘We are the party that wants to protect life, both babies and mothers, that we want to do that and that’s where we stand as a party,’” he said, adding that the message could be based around “faith.”

“We can do a better job of saying, here’s why we are pro-life. It’s forward-looking, it’s done in a positive manner,” Tiffany added.

He signaled that another important play would be to counterattack Democrats — especially Baldwin — who, he and other Republicans said, haven’t adequately defined at what point in a pregnancy they believe abortion should no longer be legal.

“The other side has taken the most extreme position,” he said. “We have to show people across America and Wisconsin the position on the other side, and I believe the public will find that untenable.”

Tiffany was referring to Baldwin’s sponsorship of the Women’s Health Protection Act, an unsuccessful Democratic measure in Congress that sought to codify abortion rights protections into federal law. The 2023 bill proposed allowing abortion care after a fetus was viable in cases where the mother’s life was at risk — though many Republicans claim the legislation did not adequately define other circumstances that would allow for post-viability abortion care.

Wisconsin Republican Party executive director Mark Jefferson said that ambiguity “presented opportunities” — for the eventual GOP nominee in Wisconsin, and in other states — “to neutralize the issue.”

“I think we haven’t done a very good job of explaining just how radical the Democrats’ view is,” Jefferson said.

National Republicans suggested they could take the same approach.

“If Senate Democrats want to run on their record of supporting abortion without limits, a radical position that is out of step with voters across the country, that is their prerogative,” Tate Mitchell, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said.

Democrats in other battleground states, however, are already on the offensive, much like in Wisconsin. 

Over the past few weeks, Democrats in Montana, Nevada and Ohio held events designed to highlight the abortion rights records of Republicans who have expressed interest in running or announced a run for Senate.

Democrats also pounced on the issue in Pennsylvania, where the state party is already running digital ads against David McCormick — whom Republicans are encouraging to run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. They target McCormick’s position that life begins at conception and his statements during his unsuccessful 2022 Senate primary race that he supported exceptions for abortion care only in “very rare instances.

A spokesperson for McCormick told NBC News that he "supports exceptions in the cases of rape, incest and saving the life of the mother."

“In 2022, voters rejected the GOP agenda taking away women’s right to make our own health care decisions and making abortion illegal without exceptions — and we know this will continue to be a defining issue in 2024 Senate races,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Nora Keefe said in a statement.

It’s a strategy that Wikler, too, continues to bet on in Wisconsin, where he says any potential counter-messaging from Republicans won’t reconcile the public attitudes on reproductive care.

“The debate over who should make those decisions, whether women and their doctors, or Republican politicians, is a debate that Sen. Baldwin is ready to have,” he said.