Republicans Need to Adjust to Post-Dobbs World
For years, it was assumed that overturning Roe v. Wade wouldn’t really change the dynamic of abortion politics. It’s baked into the cake, pundits would say. We now know that this assumption was wrong.
One of the first signs that there had been a seismic shift was just over a year ago when Kansas voters shot down a proposed amendment that would have heavily restricted abortion in the state. The 20-point landslide was larger than Donald Trump’s margin of victory over Joe Biden in the deep red state.
The next indication that the post-Dobbs world was different came a few months after the Kansas vote in the 2022 midterms. By most accounts, the Dobbs decision contributed to a disappointing result for Republicans who had hoped for a strong anti-Biden mandate. Republicans won control of the House but by the skin of their teeth.
An Associated Press survey of 2022 voters found that Democratic voters were strongly motivated by the Supreme Court decision with more than half saying that it was either the most important factor in their vote (24 percent) or a major factor (38 percent). State ballot issues protecting abortion also fared well while restrictive measures did not, notes the Guttmacher Institute.
The pattern repeated itself in Ohio this week as voters again killed a measure that would have made it more difficult to enact pro-abortion ballot measures. Issue One was not specifically an anti-abortion measure, but the voting was centered around the abortion debate. The amendment would have raised the threshold to enact constitutional amendments to 60 percent of the vote from the current simple majority. In effect, this would make it more difficult for voters to override the state legislature on any issue, but abortion was front and center in the campaign.
WKYC, an NBC affiliate in Cleveland, points out that the debate was largely couched in terms of supporters of the measure framing it as a “defense against out-of-state meddling” while opponents said that the amendment would give “special interests the winning advantage.” In reality, both sides were fueled by out-of-state organizations. The biggest donor to the pro-amendment forces was an Illinois billionaire, Richard Uihlein, while opposition was funded largely by progressive interest groups such as the Sixteen Thirty Fund and the Tides Foundation.
In the end, it wasn’t close. Approximately three million Ohioans voted, killing the measure by a 57-43 margin.
The odds were stacked against the measure from the beginning with many advocacy groups representing issues other than abortion lining up against the amendment. Few interest groups are going to favor making it more difficult to pass constitutional amendments that could benefit their cause. And a special election in August where politically savvy and interested voters would be turning out was probably bad timing for an attempt to limit voter power.
As Sarah Isgur sarcastically put it on the “Advisory Opinions” podcast, “Hey voters, come vote for whether you’d like to have less power in voting!”
But abortion was the big issue with the amendment as even Republicans admit.
“Number one, it was about abortion. That’s the most immediate thing,” Ohio-based Republican strategist Bob Clegg told The Hill.
“They had good messaging on the other side about democracy and majority vote,” he noted, adding: “It was about abortion. Everybody knew that.”
I am pro-life. I’m also a conservative. That will surprise a lot of my readers who assume that I’m a liberal Democrat since I’m very critical of Trump and the Republican Party. It will probably also dismay a lot of my readers who lean toward the pro-choice faction.
I have learned, however, that it is possible to be good person and argue in good faith on both sides of the issue. I don’t hold to either the view that all pro-choicers want to kill babies or that all pro-lifers want to regulate the womb and keep women in bondage. There is a middle ground and it’s where you’ll find a lot of America.
At this point, I think that several truths are evident about the abortion issue. The first and most obvious truth is that a lot of pre-Dobbs pro-lifers were only nominally pro-life and would vote for pro-life measures and politicians with the assurance that the Supreme Court would never let restrictive abortion laws take effect. A lot of these people remain Republican, possibly with closeted views on abortion, but they aren’t voting for restrictive ballot measures. There is a large subset of the Republican Party that is not going to vote for pro-life legislation that has a real chance of becoming the law of the land.
Further, Republicans don’t know know how to capitalize on their victory. Like the proverbial dog that caught the car, the party doesn’t know where to go next. So far, the answer for many Republican politicians is to attempt more of the same with ever-tighter bans. The problem is that majorities typically oppose more restrictive abortion laws. The more restrictive the law, the more likely that voters will oppose it.
For a long time, the majority of Americans have been in the middle. Gallup’s historical trend shows that the majority opinion (51 percent) on the abortion issue favors legal abortion with restrictions. For a long time, the camps favoring total legalization or total bans each comprised roughly 20 percent of the electorate. Gallup’s numbers show a sharp decline in ban proponents and an increase in legal-in-all-circumstances voters that coincides with the arrival of a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. The most recent survey found 34 percent now oppose all abortion restrictions and only 13 percent favor abortion bans.
Even though the majority favors abortion restrictions, where to draw the line is the issue. Every voter has a different opinion (only a slight exaggeration) on when abortion should or shouldn’t be allowed. When the Overton window moves towards a ban, voters shift toward a pro-choice stance in response. When the window shifts towards unfettered abortion, voters look for politicians who will rein in the practice.
The message here for the Republican Party is that abortion is played out. You’ve won. Abortion is heavily restricted in states that want it restricted. Pushing for more restrictive state laws or national bans is going to yield diminishing returns at best or be counterproductive at worst. If single-issue abortion voters are no longer voting based on that one issue, they are more likely to cross the aisle to vote Democrat n issues such as healthcare, immigration, or an aversion to Trump.
Having said that, being pro-life is not the kiss of death for politicians. In 2022, two Republican governors in Georgia and Florida that signed restrictive abortion laws were re-elected, but Republicans also failed to unseat Democratic incumbents in Kansas, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Republicans also lost two battleground races in Arizona and Pennsylvania. If you remember these two races, you may also remember that Republicans Kari Lake and Doug Mastriano had a lot more problems than just being pro-life.
I think the lesson here is that being pro-life isn’t going to destroy a strong candidate, but in a close race, the few percentage points that can be attributed to revved-up pro-choice voters can absolutely make a difference. If a Republican candidate is mainstream on other issues (and not a MAGA cultist), voters can overlook some differences on abortion.
The bottom line is that the abortion issue is a dead end for Republicans. It isn’t necessary for conservatives to turn in their pro-life cards and become pro-choicers, but playing up the issue is not going to be to their benefit in most cases.
And that’s okay. The pro-life cause has achieved what it can from bans. It’s time to shift gears.
Rather than more bans and restrictive laws, pro-lifers need to work at the grassroots level to attack the root causes of abortion. We need to make it easier for people to afford to have and raise children and make adoption a more attractive option for mothers who don’t want to keep their children. And yes, we need to make birth control inexpensive and easy to access and use in order to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.
Republicans used to be able to count on the pro-life faction as reliable voters. No longer. To some extent, the GOP is a victim of its success on the issue, but now it needs another source of loyal voters.
To make matters worse for the party, the loss of the pro-life faction comes at a time when the party is facing an existential crisis. Having abandoned it’s conservative principles, Republican candidates are losing winnable races as voters jettison its new MAGA persona.
The Republican Party must reinvent itself – and quickly – if it hopes to avoid another electoral disaster in 2024. That’s not going to be easy with Republican officeholders doubling down on the old anti-abortion formula on one hand and Donald Trump dominating the party on the other.