There’s a specter haunting the Republican Party — the specter of abortion. While it’s difficult to say that an issue that is important to so many voters and that has been talked about in politics for decades is still underrated as a driver of recent political outcomes, that somehow manages to be the case. Debates over transgender rights, “parents’ rights,” crime politics and inflation drive more headlines. But abortion is turning the tide in more elections.
The American political class got an early heads up in the Kansas abortion referendum blowout less than six weeks after the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision on June 24, 2022. We saw it again in Wisconsin on Tuesday, as the liberal Supreme Court candidate, Janet Protasiewicz, trounced the conservative, Daniel Kelly, in this consistently 50-50 state by 11 points. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used her prodigious political talent and a host of issues to drive Republicans from power in all three branches of state government in Michigan. But the core issue has been abortion rights. Of course, abortion was likely the single, central issue — coupled with a broader rejection of Republican extremism — which turned the 2022 midterm election from a GOP rout to a Democratic upset. Abortion is now acting like an electoral riptide or a shark, especially across the northern tier of the country, unseen at the surface but pulling one Republican after another under the waves.
This state of affairs led to this remarkable tweet thread by right-wing policy activist Jon Schweppe, policy director for the American Principles Project, a group founded in 2009 by right-wing gender traditionalist legal scholar Robert P. George, and a fellow at the Trumpite Claremont Institute.
He concludes the thread by writing: “Please listen to me. The death of the pro-life movement is at hand — we have no time to waste on disagreements over strategery. We need to give GOP politicians a winning message on life NOW. If we don’t, they will abandon us and embrace ‘no federal role.'”
It all sounds rather dire. And that’s because it is quite dire — from the perspective of Republican elected officials.
Schweppe puts the matter squarely if unintentionally. Independent voters think Republicans like Schweppe support abortion bans with no exceptions because they do support bans with no exceptions. We’ve seen in the last year what abortion rights advocates have told us for decades — that rape, incest and life-of-the-mother exceptions on paper have little to no meaning in practice, with doctors and hospitals extremely reluctant to perform abortions for fear a local prosecutor will bring them up on felony charges until a pregnant woman faces almost the certainty of imminent death.
But the real issue is the one you can feel coursing under the verbiage of Schweppe’s tweet thread, even though it remains studiously unstated: most Americans do not want abortion bans at all. In the thread, you see someone waking up to the reality that the GOP is locked down on a policy which has high salience and is opposed by roughly 2/3rds of the population. Even in the reddest states, abortion rights seldom poll at less than 50%. In a state like Mississippi or Alabama, the firm commitments of the political class is enough to withstand that break-even support. But in purple and even some red states it’s a political killer. There’s simply no way for abortion-rights opponents to message their way out of their support for banning abortion when a sizable majority wants it to be legal.
Some commentators have said that the energy around the abortion issue has ebbed and the public has grown acclimated to Dobbs. But that misreads the signs. It’s true that it has generated fewer headlines than in the summer and fall of 2022. But that’s mostly because there aren’t as many live and kinetic news events to discuss. The potency of the issue itself has not diminished.
For decades the backstop of Roe allowed pro-life advocates to politic on the margins of public discomfort with abortion. It was a political winner for the GOP and allowed abortion opponents to whittle away abortion rights in much of the country. Along the way many managed to convince themselves that opposition to abortion was a majority position. Dobbs clarified that the issue: The choice is a right to a safe and legal abortion or a ban. Along the way, generational change and the extremism of anti-abortion activism has managed to increase support for abortion rights even beyond the binary choice between the two options.
For all the talk about Biden and Trump, trans rights, drag shows, crime and a possible recession, abortion is highly likely to be the issue that drives the outcome of the 2024 presidential election. If it is, it won’t go well for the GOP.