Earlier this week, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio stood his ground on a debate stage at the Lake Worth campus of Palm Beach College. His opponent is seasoned Democratic lawmaker Val Demings, a black congresswoman and former police chief, and the discussion had turned to abortion rights – terrain that Democrats believe favor them and give Demings and other Senate candidates a chance to alter the expected outcome of the 2022 midterms.
“I’m 100% pro-life not because I want to deny anyone their rights but because I believe that innocent human life is worthy of the protection under the law,” Rubio said. While noting he has supported legislation that includes exceptions for rape, incest, and the mother’s health, he then went on offense, arguing that “the extremist on abortion in this campaign” is his opponent.
Like Democrats around the country, Demings had been running ads hitting her Republican opponent on abortion for more than a month. During their debate, Rubio delivered his rebuttal. “She supports no restrictions, no limitations of any kind – she’s against a four-month ban, she voted against a five-month ban,” he said. “She supports taxpayer-funded abortion on demand for any reason any time up until the moment of birth.”
Demings, the former chief of police in Orlando who investigated rape and incest cases while in uniform, was equally forceful in her response. She accused Rubio of being dishonest with Florida voters because he had previously said he personally opposes all abortions without exceptions, including for victims of rape and incest. “How gullible do you think Florida voters are?” she retorted.
Both sides strongly articulated their points and defended their views. But Rubio’s decision to come out swinging won rave reviews from pro-life groups. For months, these advocates have pressed Republicans to fight fire with fire when it comes to abortion because, they argued, Americans’ positions on the issue are much more nuanced than many topline poll results have shown.
“It’s a basic rule of politics that you identify the contrast with your opponent, and you leverage it to your advantage,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told RealClearPolitics. “I think that after a little bit of clearing of the throat, our candidates are doing an excellent job. And in places where they don’t do that the abortion issue may get the better of them, but in places where they do, they’ll gain the advantage.”
Yet, if this summer’s headlines were to be believed, Republicans were doing far more serious faltering than minor throat-clearing.
“In sprint to November, Democrats seize on shifting landscape over abortion: No issue has upended the battle for Congress and state races so abruptly,” the Washington Post proclaimed in early September.
“‘Pink Wave’ Poised to Upend Republican Midterm Prospects,” proclaimed U.S. News & World Report, citing a surge in women planning to vote in November.
In the weeks following the Supreme Court’s late June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Democrats aggressively took the fight to Republicans, many of whom either downplayed their anti-abortion stances or sought to avoid the topic altogether. Democrats were especially jubilant in late August after Republicans lost a special election in a swing New York district in which their candidate laid out clear battle lines on abortion.
“Republicans can say good-bye to their ‘Red Wave’ because voters are clearly coming out in force to elect a pro-choice majority to Congress this November,” declared Sean Patrick Maloney, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. .
In the final sprint toward November, however, Maloney himself is in a more competitive race than expected, against GOP Assemblyman Mike Lawler in a newly redrawn district. Nearly every poll shows that voters’ concerns over inflation and the economy are greatly surpassing any other issue in the race, including abortion.
A few weeks ago, the political dynamic shifted as inflation continued to climb, and many economists predicted that the economy is on the brink of a recession. Several prominent voices on the left, including veteran strategist James Carville and Sen. Bernie Sanders, started warning fellow Democrats that their hyper-focus on abortion could backfire.
“It’s a good issue. But if you just sit there and they’re pummeling you on crime and pummeling you on cost of living, you’ve got to be more aggressive than just yelling abortion every other word,” Carville told the Associated Press.
There was plenty of criticism on the right too, as anti-abortion groups griped that GOP candidates were overreacting to the Dobbs decision by cowering in fear and hoping the issue would somehow just go away.
Dannenfelser and others pointed to what they cast as encouraging data from a late June Harvard CAPS/Harris poll on the question of where Americans stand on late-term abortions. Even amid the huge media outcry over the overturning of Roe, 72% of Americans agreed that abortion should be banned no later than 15 weeks, while only 10% said it should be allowed up until viability, when the fetus can live outside the womb – or approximately 24 weeks.
Anti-abortion advocates argue that the findings directly undermine the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would enshrine Roe v. Wade protections into law and make abortion legal until the point of viability. Every House Democrat except one voted for the bill in the wake of Dobbs, but the measure sank in the Senate, where Republicans opposed it.
After the poll results were released, abortion opponents pressed Republicans to turn the tables and force Democrats to define precisely when during pregnancy they would draw the line and say abortion should be barred. “If candidates support laws that permit abortion all the way up to birth, they are out of step with the American public, and Republicans should not be afraid to call them out on it,” Dannenfelser wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in late August.
Over the last month, J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, as well as Rep. Ted Budd, GOP candidates running for Senate in Ohio, Arizona, and North Carolina, respectively, have been doing just that – vigorously defended their pro-life positions while calling on their Democratic opponents to define theirs more precisely.
“[Ryan] says he wants to codify Roe … he voted for a piece of legislation that would have overturned Roe and required abortion on demand at 40 weeks for fully elective reasons,” Vance said during his debate with Democrat Rep. Tim Ryan in mid-October. “He also voted for a piece of legislation that would have prevented doctors from providing medical care to babies who survived botched abortions.”
All three – Vance, Masters, and Budd – have remained ahead by roughly the same margin or have strengthened their standing in the polls. Other GOP candidates – from those running for governor to others trying to knock off Democratic House incumbents – have also sharpened their anti-abortion rhetoric in recent weeks. In some key battleground states, however, the abortion issue has put Republican candidates at a disadvantage.
During the Georgia Senate debate last week, football great Herschel Walker took Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock to task for what he cast as extreme abortion positions. But the issue was already causing Walker trouble after a former girlfriend accused him of asking her to have an abortion and paying for it. Walker has denied the story, but his standing in the polls has ticked down a few points from when the story first broke.
Adam Laxalt, Nevada’s former attorney general who is trying to unseat Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in the decidedly pro-choice Silver State, is running a careful, focused campaign on the economy. Instead of pressing his opponent to define her limits on abortion, he’s accusing Democrats of mistakenly using all their energy and resources to make the midterms an abortion referendum when voters are far more worried about the skyrocketing cost of living.
Laxalt has promised to oppose a national abortion ban and said Nevada will remain a pro-choice state, arguing that the state level is where abortion should be decided. Aside from a few races, however, most Republicans appear to be finding their footing on abortion, while Democrats show no indication of taking their foot off the gas.
Three weeks ahead of the election, President Biden promised to codify Roe v. Wade if Democrats win the midterms – a pledge he could only keep if the party wins several more seats in the Senate and avoids the off-year midterm losses that so many of his predecessors have suffered. Ahead of his speech, Planned Parenthood, EMILY’s List and NARAL sent out a press release reminding reporters that they had pledged to spend an unprecedented $150 million mobilizing and energizing voters around the country “at levels never seen.”
Abortion rights activists argue that Republicans like Rubio and other unabashedly pro-life conservatives are throwing up smokescreens by focusing on late-term abortions to distract from their previously stated beliefs that there should be no exceptions for rape, incest, or the mother’s health.
“What they’re doing now is a clever political trick to try to change the subject and say a little bit about abortion and just move on,” Christina Reynolds, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, told RCP. “I hope that voters see through it and understand that, and we’re working to make sure they understand the real positions of people [in office or campaigning for office] and what they actually plan to do.”
Late-term abortions occur in a very small number of cases that usually involve “incredibly tragic medical issues and decisions that women need to make on their own with their doctors,” she said, adding that the decision comes down to whether you want the government involved in those decisions. Even if economic issues are front and center in voters’ minds, Democrats say they will keep fighting on abortion because it helps turn out the vote in an election year when their party is facing severe headwinds.
“We were facing a significant enthusiasm gap, and the Dobbs decision changed that almost overnight,” Reynolds said. “It’s energized people who maybe wouldn’t have otherwise turned out … it reminded us that you’ve got to get out there and fight in every election. People were talking about a huge Republican wave, and I don’t think we’re going to see that.”
Only the election returns – and the exit polls – will tell us for sure, but for now, both sides are using whatever abortion ammunition they have at their disposal. While Democrats up and down the ballot continue hammering away on the issue in television ads and debates, many Republicans are finally standing their ground, firing off their salvos with new confidence.