IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Republicans tried to sidestep the issue of abortion. Now they're seeking a reset.

For some, that has meant walking back support for a total ban, embracing more limited restrictions on abortion and trying to reverse the tide by painting Democrats as the radicals.
Abortion-rights protesters at a rally outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing after the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24.
Abortion-rights protesters at a rally outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing after the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24.Paul Sancya / AP file

Republicans’ first step was admitting they had an abortion problem. Now, GOP candidates are racing to limit self-inflicted damage — and trying to blunt Democrats’ edge on the issue — before November’s midterm elections.

For some, that has meant walking back support for a total ban, embracing more limited restrictions on abortion and trying to reverse the tide by painting Democrats as the radicals. 

“We’re starting to see that happen, and, for all intents and purposes, I think this is a good thing,” said Mallory Carroll, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion-rights group Susan B. Anthony List, “because pro-life Republicans have to be realistic about what is achievable.”

The adjustment, which became evident when some GOP candidates began backtracking on abortion, comes as Republican pollsters warn that the issue has serious traction in competitive races for the House and the Senate after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and that GOP candidates have been too slow to address Democratic attacks. 

By 51% to 32%, battleground state voters say Republicans are more extreme on abortion than Democrats, according to polling exclusively provided to NBC News by WPA Intelligence, a GOP political consulting firm. The poll showed 41% of likely voters surveyed said the Dobbs decision, which did away with constitutional protections for abortion, made them more likely to vote for a Democrat; 24% said it made them more likely to back Republicans.

Asked which group they identified with in the abortion debate, 54% said “Pro Choice,” compared to 39% who identified as “Pro Life.” 

The findings are consistent with those of another recent survey shared with NBC News, conducted by the firm OnMessage Inc., which consults for Senate Republicans. It suggests “Pro Choice” voters outnumbered “Pro Life” voters by a similar margin of 17 percentage points, triple what it was before the Supreme Court’s ruling.

In a slide deck prepared in late summer for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and presented to Republican candidates, OnMessage advised a three-part messaging strategy for GOP candidates to rebut their opponents: “forcefully dismiss Democrat lies,” “your opponent is the extremist” and “you are the compassionate reasonable person.”

“DO NOT ALLOW THIS TO HAPPEN,” the slide deck, obtained by NBC News, reads in an all-caps red typeface on a page about Democrats’ seeking to paint Republicans as extreme. “MUST FIGHT THIS TO A DRAW.”

That’s a marked shift from earlier in the campaign cycle, when Republicans were far less likely to spend time and money talking about abortion. In the wake of the Dobbs decision, GOP operatives at the national and state levels advised candidates to stay focused on the economy rather than get drawn into battles over abortion. Democrats and their allies filled the airwaves in support of abortion rights: From the day the ruling was handed down in June through Sept. 8, the service AdImpact tracked $69 million in abortion-related ads from the Democratic side and $11 million on the GOP side. 

At the same time, the percentage of Americans who say abortion will be very important to their midterm votes rose from 43% to 56% from March to August, according to Pew Research, a change driven by Democrats motivated by the issue.

Those numbers and the survey data from WPA and OnMessage, which echo the findings of pollsters for both parties and independent groups, help explain the urgency of the GOP’s effort to recalibrate. So do the results in recent House special elections in New York and Alaska, where Democratic candidates emphasizing their support for abortion rights won upsets over self-described “pro life” Republicans. 

Most Republicans cheered then-President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court justices, who tipped the high court against the abortion protections provided by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. That ruling, handed down in June, opened a path for states — and potentially Congress — to enact abortion bans.

While voters are splintered over whether abortion should be restricted and under what circumstances, they are mostly united in their view that the procedure should be legal in some cases, according to pollsters and operatives across the political spectrum. Just 9% of battleground state voters back a complete ban on abortion without exceptions, according to WPA. 

Democrats and abortion-rights groups say that’s why voters see Republicans as too extreme, and they say election-season reversals won’t fool voters.

“To describe these Republicans as flip-floppers is to be overly charitable to them,” said Ben Ray, a spokesman for EMILY’s List, a group that backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. “What they are doing is nothing short of a politically motivated lie.”

On the campaign trail, Republicans have started to coalesce around a 15-week ban — which polling suggests could draw more public support. A July survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 52% of Americans, but just 21% of Republicans, opposed legislation that would bar abortions after 15 weeks. Legislation that would ban abortions earlier than 15 weeks was opposed by a significantly larger proportion of Republicans and the overall electorate.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., will introduce abortion-related legislation on Tuesday, according to his office. It's expected to call for a 15-week ban nationwide, with exceptions for rape, incest and safeguarding the life of the mother, three sources said. That will give candidates a more popular position to point to when they are pressed about the issue, the sources said. Graham’s office declined to comment on the legislation, which was first reported by The Washington Post.

The Graham bill would be more stringent than current law in most states but less restrictive than the wave of new abortion laws passed in deep red states this summer post-Dobbs. Only a small fraction of abortions take place more than 15 weeks after conception. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that roughly 93% of all abortions took place within 13 weeks.

A Republican strategist working on races across the country said the Graham legislation is “exactly” what Republicans need, adding that the response to Dobbs makes it clear that most voters want first-trimester abortions to be legal and for there to be exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the woman thereon.

“We got to do something,” this person said. “Because if we don’t, then we just are sacrificed at the altar of the Democrats’ saying that we’re with the most radical elements of our base, which are no abortions ever, shoot the abortion doctors and set up patrol guards at the borders for people trying to leave the state to go to a pro-abortion state.

“Our electorate doesn’t align with that, and the general election electorate certainly doesn’t,” this person added. “And that’s where they put us. And that’s why this election cycle has gotten squirrelly. It’s because Republicans are trying to talk about inflation and gas prices while Democrats are making us extreme and unelectable.”

This person said the Graham bill will help Republicans go on offense against Democrats, pointing to their lack of support for any restrictions while offering voters a concrete policy for where they stand. Much of the post-Dobbs political landscape for Republicans had, up until recently, been colored by GOP candidates’ simply refusing “to accept that we had to talk about it.”

“People won’t trust you on gas prices if they think you’re a whack job,” this person said. “So you at least need to make the Democrat as wacky as you.” 

Wes Anderson, who conducted the research for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and also consults for the Susan B. Anthony group, said the legislation the Dobbs decision upheld — Mississippi’s prohibition on abortions after 15 weeks — was a popular model as long as voters knew there were exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the woman and that women would not be criminally charged.

“Sixty percent of voters are for that. We win with that,” Anderson said. “Our biggest liability is no exceptions and prosecuting women. Their biggest liability is an extremist position on abortion.”

Specifically, he said, his polling showed that by 70% to 30%, voters opposed candidates who supported abortion without restrictions up until the moment of birth.

Democrats, however, say that misconstrues their position in supporting failed congressional legislation this spring called the Women’s Health Protection Act. It sought to block state restrictions on abortions before fetal viability — generally considered around 24 weeks — but would have allowed late-term abortions “when, in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health.”

Republicans argued that the language was too vague with too many loopholes and that it would have allowed more abortions than people generally support. 

Asked what restrictions he would support, Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., said the debate Republicans want to have is “not the debate we’re having in the country right now.”

“Roe v. Wade allowed for restrictions,” said Malinowski, who is running for re-election in a district the Cook Political Report rates as leaning Republican. “The Republicans shredded Roe v. Wade. Not because they wanted to ban some incredibly rare late-term abortion procedure, which they could have done under Roe v. Wade, but because they want to ban abortion period. And that’s what’s happening in state after state after state. … They’re not going to succeed in making this about anything other than it is.”

Of a potential 15-week federal ban, Malinowski said: “Any effort by the federal government to change that status quo in New Jersey and to start criminalizing any decisions made by women and doctors in our state would go over very badly.”

Some Republican candidates who now emphasize support for more limited abortion restrictions were once in the camp of a full ban. They include Arizona’s and Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate nominees, Blake Masters and Mehmet Oz, who are in two of the nation’s most competitive races. 

GOP candidates have been coached by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to soften their positions on abortion — and to hit Democrats back. Masters called a 15-week ban “reasonable” last month while criticizing his Democratic opponent, Sen. Mark Kelly, for backing abortion rights. At the same time, Masters scrubbed his webpage of hard-line abortion stances he took in the primary. 

“What’s important is to fight on our terms, not the Democrats’ terms,” said Chris Wilson, the CEO of WPA Intelligence.

His firm’s poll showed that Democrats are roughly tied in popularity with Republicans nationwide, with independents evenly split. But, he said, the dynamics of the election look similar to comparable junctures in the 2010 and 2014 midterm cycles, when Republicans won big. And the economy still remains a top issue for voters and an advantage for the GOP.

Yet, while President Joe Biden’s favorability ratings remain under water, Trump’s scores are worse, Wilson said, and Democrats have so far benefited from the abortion debate.

Not only did Masters reinvent his position on abortion in Arizona; GOP candidates in Michigan and Minnesota have removed or rewritten abortion positions on their webpages, as well.

But the newfound hesitance on abortion policy as the general election closes in has not been music to the ears of a GOP activist class that fought for decades to overturn Roe.

“How’s the GOP doing on abortion these days?” Rachel Bovard, the senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute, asked at the National Conservatism Conference in Miami on Monday. “Just a few months after the greatest conservative policy victory in a generation, party leaders are afraid to talk about the right to life. They have no plan, no goals. They don’t even have intelligible talking points. This is what elite political improvisation looks like.”