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

Democrats were once afraid of the A-word. Now they're running on it.

At the peak of the midterm elections’ race, the political landscape around reproductive freedom has massively shifted.
Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks ahead of a House vote on the Women's Health Protection Act and the Ensuring Women's Right to Reproductive Freedom Act on July 15.Andrew Harnik / AP file

As recently as April, Democrats were sharply divided on whether to make abortion a headline campaign topic, driven in part by longstanding fears that Democratic candidates enter a danger zone by even mentioning the A-word. President Joe Biden himself received frequent criticism from the left for his seeming inability to say the word “abortion” without carefully hedging his words. 

Republicans historically showed no such restraint. For years, abortion served as an ideal line of attack for the GOP. Republicans could lambast Roe v. Wade as a societal ill during campaign season while the likelihood of repealing it appeared slim. This allowed them to rally the more extreme and active parts of the base without alienating too many moderate voters, who could overlook the bellicose rhetoric because they believed their reproductive rights were secure. 

A wave of new polling indicates even self-described conservatives are getting nervous about the full sweep of anti-choice legislation.

Flash-forward to today, at the peak of the midterm elections’ race, and the political landscape around reproductive freedom and abortion rights has massively shifted.

The Supreme Court’s stunning decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June swept away abortion rights, allowing the GOP to start making good on the draconian abortion measures they’ve long been cheerleading. But it’s also meant that voters now understand Republican threats were sincere — and they are recoiling. 

As a result, Republicans are scrambling to talk about anything else. The GOP’s retreat from abortion, labeled by Axios as “The Big Scrub,” is an unprecedented change in what was once a foundational Republican messaging tactic.

The latest indication of how the tables have turned came Tuesday, when NBC News reported on audio from 2019 of Doug Mastriano, now the Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial candidate, telling Pennsylvania radio station WITF that women undergoing abortions at 10 weeks should be charged with murder

Today those comments are unlikely to play well for Mastriano. He seeks to lead a purple state where a majority of voters support legal abortion. His comments only strengthen messaging from his Democratic opponent, Josh Shapiro, who has painted Mastriano as dangerously extreme. Multiple recent polls seem to agree: FiveThirtyEight’s average gives Shapiro a 10-point margin over Mastriano, with no sign of the race shifting.

Out of the post-Roe gate, Republicans leapt to impose new fetal personhood laws that effectively end access to abortion from six weeks of pregnancy, as well as crack down on exceptions in cases such as rape or incest. But those extreme actions quickly provoked an equally powerful reaction from voters across the country

Data collected in August by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that abortion has been vaulting up the rankings of major political issues. The organization found that 56% of voters now consider abortion a “very important” issue in deciding their vote. That’s up from just 43% back in March. 

And those voters are increasingly in the abortion rights camp. One recent survey found the margin between those identifying themselves as pro-choice versus pro-life has tripled (to 17%) from what it was before Roe was overturned. 

It’s also impossible to separate the sudden Republican about-face from a wave of new polling that indicates even self-described conservatives are getting nervous about the full sweep of anti-choice legislation. Nearly half of those Republicans are women, a weak spot for Republicans in recent elections. ​​According to Gallup, women support abortion rights by a nearly 30-point margin.

It’s no coincidence that the flight of conservative women from the GOP over its abortion stance has led to a paired concern about Republicans losing critical support among suburban conservatives — losing votes from both of those groups would be disastrous for the GOP in closely contested midterm races. 

After a summer during which party bigwigs including former Vice President Mike Pence salivated over the possibility of soon banning abortion nationally, much of that post-Roe zeal has run dry. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, once a fan of forcing performative but futile floor votes on abortion restrictions, is now advising candidates to talk about anything else or risk blowing Republicans’ chance to retake the Senate in November.

Even the Trumpiest of Trump-aligned candidates are getting the message loud and clear. After months championing a fetal personhood law, Arizona Senate hopeful Blake Masters scrubbed mentions of the issue from his website at the end of August. 

In April, Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen flatly promised Republican voters that “we’re going to ban abortions — that’s not really news.” As of early September, Jensen shifted to noting that abortion is a protected constitutional right in Minnesota and has wiped tough anti-abortion language from his campaign website.

At the same time, Democrats have become more confident in defending abortion outright in their campaigns and messaging. Since Roe, Democrats have couched discussion of abortion in language that made clear they reluctantly supported the concept. President Bill Clinton preferred to discuss abortion as “safe, legal and rare,” a catchphrase that many Democrats adopted later. That position dominated the party for decades, allowing politicians to claim support for Roe’s principles while classifying abortion as something to be avoided, if possible. 

The post-Roe political landscape has turned that logic on its head. In New York, Democratic House candidate Pat Ryan won a bellwether special election victory over Republican Marc Molinaro by anchoring his campaign on abortion issues. In ruby red Kansas, voters stunned political watchers in August after defeating an anti-abortion referendum by 18 points. And Democratic candidates in states from Arizona to Pennsylvania have blanketed the airwaves with ads slamming their Republican opponents for a host of extreme abortion-related positions. 

These unexpected political shifts are possible because of a nationwide surge in voter registration driven, many experts argue, by Americans’ anger over the Supreme Court’s decision and deep concern at some of the staggering anti-abortion language working its way into Republican legislation.

The old GOP hard line on abortion is also hurting Republicans in another way: by dividing conservative state legislatures.

In Kansas, over 70% of new voters were women. Texas added over 300,000 new voters since the Dobbs ruling, boosting Texas Democrats to a surprising 10-point advantage over the GOP in total registered voters. 

The old GOP hard line on abortion is also hurting Republicans in another way: by dividing conservative state legislatures. Over the summer, the unpopularity of a Louisiana bill to define life as beginning at egg fertilization became such a drag on Republicans that the right-wing Louisiana House ultimately gutted the offending bill of its most authoritarian provisions. 

But that didn’t sit well with Louisiana’s vocal anti-abortion activists, who occupied the House gallery and shouted down GOP lawmakers for “lying” about their commitment to ending abortion. While the fight divided the right, it unified pro-choice activists. Fights like this have put Republicans on the defensive nationwide and helped tip November’s election predictions back toward Democrats. 

What Newsweek described at the right’s “wild pivot” on abortion is actually a garden variety miscalculation. Republicans have grown so distant from what voters actually want that they didn’t notice their political misstep until far too late. Mastriano can’t undo his past radio interviews, and the rest of the party can’t rewrite their records, either. Voters should hold them accountable for their extremism in November.