WASHINGTON — A weak performance for Republicans in Tuesday’s elections has sparked new waves of anxiety in the party, and strategists are now urging their candidates to change course on how they discuss the issue in order to win competitive races next year.
Three GOP sources told NBC News that party operatives fighting to win control of Congress are making a concerted push Wednesday to encourage Republicans to make clear to voters, in speeches and TV ads, that they don’t favor a national ban on all abortions.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee “is encouraging Republicans to clearly state their opposition to a national abortion ban and their support for reasonable limits on late-term abortions when babies can feel pain with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother,” said a source familiar with NRSC strategy. “They are encouraging candidates to contrast that position with Democrats’ support for taxpayer-funded abortion without limits.”
That means in campaign speeches and TV ads, the source added.
Republicans are defending a wafer-thin majority in the House in 2024 and are also looking to recapture the Senate. Democrats have a 51-49 majority in the upper chamber and Republicans need a net gain of two seats (or one seat if they capture the presidency) to seize control. They have multiple opportunities against vulnerable Democratic incumbents in red states like Montana and Ohio, which voted Tuesday for a ballot measure to protect abortion rights.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, immediately sought to capitalize on the vote late Tuesday.
“My three opponents, there are three Republicans running for the Senate seat … all of them have said they want a national abortion ban,” Brown said on MSNBC. “We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen. And that’s really my mission for the next 12 months.”
Steven Law, the president of the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, sounded the alarm on Fox News that Democrats have blitzed the airwaves with “unrelenting advertising” to falsely accuse Republicans of “supporting no abortion access whatsoever.”
“And there wasn’t a lot of response on the airwaves pushing back on that,” Law said Wednesday. “It’s something that you have to dig into. You have to say where you are and why you stand for it, and that didn’t happen enough to be able to turn back those attacks.”
Democrats say GOP candidates are simply being held accountable for their own comments and positions.
“On the record and on video, Republican Senate candidates have already staked out dangerous positions that would make abortion illegal without exceptions — and we’ll make sure voters see and hear them in their own words,” said Tommy Garcia, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who added that the candidate contrast in Senate races will power Democrats.
Republicans have also tried — and largely failed — to flip the script by accusing Democrats of supporting abortion without limits and with taxpayer money.
Law’s group commissioned a deep dive of polling and focus groups on abortion by Axis Research earlier this year that found that the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision overturning the national right to abortion has sharply changed voter perceptions.
The term "'pro-life' is perceived as support for a flat ban on abortion without any exceptions, the most restrictive anti-abortion position," Axis Research President Brenda Gianiny wrote in a Sept. 6 memo that was recirculated by Republican operatives Wednesday and viewed by NBC News.
By contrast, “pro-choice” is seen as more middle-of-the-road, Gianiny wrote in the memo, adding the following warning: “Considering this shift, it is critically important for U.S. Senators to clearly communicate their position on abortion. Simply stating that an elected official is ‘pro-life’ will result in a distorted impression, and that official maybe viewed as extreme.”
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said GOP candidates need to address abortion head-on during an appearance on NBC’s “TODAY” show.
"What I do think is our candidates have to talk about this. We can’t put our head in the sand. We can’t let Democrats define us," McDaniel said. "We need to show humanity and compassion. ... I want more pregnancy centers. I want to make sure that there’s less and less regulation and more viable ability to adopt."
Mike Johnson's House
A GOP strategist working on House races said vulnerable members in the party should “handle abortion with nuance, compassion, and empathy.”
“It’s not a black-and-white issue,” the strategist said.
Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin tried to present his 15-week abortion ban as a moderate position — and Democrats swept control of both houses of the state Legislature.
“Voters just rejected that in Virginia,” DelBene said. “And they all just elected an extreme speaker who wants to see in place a national abortion ban with no restrictions — even has supported criminalization. So they all just voted for Mike Johnson.”
Johnson, an outspoken conservative Christian who has said the Bible guides his political views, has endorsed legislation that would make it a crime to perform an abortion on a fetus with a heartbeat, with a lone exception to save the mother’s life. House Republicans elected him speaker two weeks ago.
Democrats insist that the GOP’s problem on abortion is the product, not the message. But Republicans believe they can neutralize the weakness if they present their view as reasonable.
“Democrats right now are really defining the narrative in terms of the abortion issue. Republicans just need to talk more about what they believe. You have to state your support for exceptions,” said a national Republican strategist who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. “It’s very evident that it’s not getting through where Republicans actually stand on this issue.”
Still, while abortion is a strong motivator for reliable voters who turn out in off-year elections, it may not be a panacea in the 2024 presidential election, which will include scores of irregular and disaffected voters whom President Joe Biden is struggling with.
“The abortion issue is a losing one for Republicans, particularly in these Rust Belt states that have trended towards Trump,” said David Wasserman, an election analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“The voters are really up for grabs in the presidential election in the states next year are nonchurchgoing voters, nontraditional blue-collar voters who are pro-choice, but also hold fairly conservative views on immigration and trade,” he said. “Trump succeeded with those voters by downplaying abortion. He wants to downplay abortion in 2024. But the Supreme Court may not allow him to sidestep the issue at hand.”