At a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans this week, the head of a super PAC closely aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., presented poll results that suggested voters are reacting differently to commonly used terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, said several senators who were in the room.
The polling, which NBC News has not independently reviewed, was made available to senators Wednesday by former McConnell aide Steven Law and showed that “pro-life” no longer resonated with voters.
“What intrigued me the most about the results was that ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ means something different now, that people see being pro-life as being against all abortions ... at all levels,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said in an interview Thursday.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said the polling made it clear to him that more specificity is needed in talking about abortion.
“Many voters think [‘pro-life’] means you’re for no exceptions in favor of abortion ever, ever, and ‘pro-choice’ now can mean any number of things. So the conversation was mostly oriented around how voters think of those labels, that they’ve shifted. So if you’re going to talk about the issue, you need to be specific,” Hawley said Thursday.
“You can’t assume that everybody knows what it means,” he added. “They probably don’t.”
Abortion is now banned in 14 states, and several others have pursued restrictions. Eleven states, including Missouri, have enacted abortion bans with no exceptions for rape and incest.
Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., summarized Wednesday’s meeting as being focused on “pro-baby policies.”
Asked whether senators were encouraged to use a term other than “pro-life,” Young said his “pro-baby” descriptor “was just a term of my creation to demonstrate my concern for babies.”
Senators who attended Law’s presentation said he encouraged Republicans to be as specific as possible when they describe their positions on abortion, highlighting findings that he said could have a negative impact on elections. Many senators in attendance represent states where Republican-led legislatures are pursuing abortion restrictions.
“People require more in-depth discussions; you can’t get away with a label anymore,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo. “What we’ve learned is you have to dive in and talk to people about very specifically where you are on that subject if you’re running for public office.”
Senators in the room stressed that the meeting was more conversational and not a political strategy session, emphasizing that Law, the head of the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, was not trying to persuade any lawmakers about their own messaging.
“I think it was purely informational depending on what state you’re from, because it’s different every state,” said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind.
The Senate Leadership Fund did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A national strategist who worked on Senate races last year said: “The issue of abortion was problematic for Republicans last cycle, so it’s no surprise [the Senate Leadership Fund] is polling public perception of the issue. It’s the smart thing to do.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, “is encouraging Republicans to clearly state their opposition to a national abortion ban and support for reasonable limits on late-term abortions when babies can feel pain with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother,” a source familiar with the organization’s strategy said.
The NRSC, the source said, is “encouraging candidates to contrast that position with Democrats’ support for taxpayer-funded abortion without limits.”
Christina Reynolds, a spokesperson for Emily’s List, an organization that promotes female candidates who support abortion rights, said Republicans’ shift in messaging is “underestimating” voters’ understanding of the issue, adding that “wrapping it up nicely” would not change voters’ minds about abortion.
“I think their messaging was not the problem. Their position is the problem, and they’re going to be stuck with those positions,” Reynolds said. “At the end of the day, voters are clear in poll after poll and in election results after election results that they believe that people should have the right to make their own health care decisions, that they support abortion rights, that they supported Roe v. Wade.”
An NBC News poll conducted in June found that 61% of all voters said they disapproved of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 Dobbs decision, which left the legality and conditions of abortion up to the states.
Abortion is shaping up to be a potent issue on the presidential campaign trail. At last month’s GOP debate, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said her opponents were not being honest with Americans about what would be legislatively feasible when it comes to potential federal restrictions on abortion.
“Can’t we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion? Let’s treat this like the — like a respectful issue that it is and humanize the situation and stop demonizing the situation,” she said.
Asked about potentially abandoning the term the anti-abortion movement has used for decades, a spokesperson for the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List Pro-Life America used the descriptor that is part of the organization’s name and swiped at abortion-rights groups.
“The pro-life movement serves both mother and child. We recognize the need to love and support them both. Today, the pro-abortion side opts to cut women from their communication entirely, choosing instead to speak to ‘pregnant people.’ Now more than ever, the pro-life movement needs to continue emphasizing its commitment to both women and children,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Cramer, asked what terminology senators should use instead of “pro-life,” said: “I think it’s more of a ‘I’m pro-life, but … .’ Or it’s ‘I care deeply about the mother and the children, and we should always have compassion. But I believe that after 15 weeks where the child can feel pain, they should be protected.’
“Whatever your position is, articulate it; don’t try to fool anybody. That’s where you get in trouble,” he added.