Leading lights in the Republican Party are doubling down on abortion, despite mounting evidence of the political dangers of doing so.
On Thursday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill that would ban most abortions in his state after six weeks.
DeSantis, if he enters the presidential race, will be the most serious rival yet to former President Trump for the Republican nomination.
On Friday, Sen Tim Scott (R-S.C.) told NBC News, “If I were president of the United States, I would literally sign the most conservative, pro-life legislation that they can get through Congress.”
Scott on Wednesday launched an exploratory committee, usually a precursor to a fully-fledged presidential campaign.
The problem is that there is a growing body of evidence suggesting strident positions on abortion are an electoral liability.
Earlier this month, liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz won a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a hugely expensive race where abortion rights were a central issue.
Several ballot measures on abortion have also been carried by the liberal side since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June 2022. Advocates of abortion rights have won even in ideologically inhospitable territory such as Kansas, Kentucky and Montana.
Abortion plainly also played a role in the Republicans’ disappointing performance in last November’s midterms. Exit polls showed the issue was a priority for many voters, and that those voters broke heavily for the Democrats.
Now, watching Republicans barrel past the warning signs, Democrats are convinced their opponents are over-reaching.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who was one of two lead pollsters for President Biden’s 2020 campaign, said that there were at least three downsides for the GOP if it continues on its current course.
“One, they will mobilize young people to vote Democratic, particularly younger women,” Lake said. “Two, it will alienate swing suburban women and cause them, I think, to also vote Democratic. And three, they risk a permanent realignment, given other issues like climate change and transgender rights where younger voters are really opposed [to the GOP].”
Biden and his party have moved to drive home their perceived political advantage on the issue.
After the Florida legislature passed the six-week ban and sent it to DeSantis’s desk, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre released a statement blasting the measure as one that “flies in the face of fundamental freedoms and is out of step with the views of the vast majority of the people of Florida and of all the United States.”
The Democratic National Committee responded to Scott’s remarks about signing the most restrictive legislation possible with a statement that alleged the South Carolina senator would “continue using his extreme anti-choice agenda to try to out-MAGA the rest of the 2024 field.”
Interestingly, the two major declared candidates — Trump and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley — have been somewhat more circumspect on the issue.
Trump, who nominated three of the Supreme Court justices who struck down Roe v. Wade, said in a Truth Social post in January, that it was not his “fault” that the GOP had a disappointing performance in the midterms.
“It was the ‘abortion issue’, poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on no exceptions, even in the case of rape, incest, or life of the mother, that lost large numbers of voters,” he wrote.
Haley, campaigning in Iowa on Wednesday, struck a notably conciliatory tone, saying that while she was herself “pro-life…I don’t judge anyone who is pro-choice.”
According to a Des Moines Register report, she added: “What I mean is this is a personal issue for women and for men. It needs to be treated with the respect that it should. I don’t want unelected judges deciding something this personal.”
Some Republican strategists are alert to the dangers of playing the abortion issue poorly — but they tend to also think Democrats are exaggerating the electoral repercussions.
Texas-based GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser acknowledged that abortion “definitely played into the midterms” and caused Democratic voters to be “fired up.”
But, he added, “There are a lot of issues being debated, so you would have to convince me that this issue alone is going to turn a Senate race or the presidential race. There is just too much going on: border security, Ukraine and Russia, China — and everything related to the economy and jobs.”
Democrats, for their part, are sure those kinds of views underestimate the potency of the issue.
“In election after election, they are taking a thumping because of the issue,” said Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh. “This issue is mobilizing voters across the board and this is just an example of what’s wrong with today’s Republican Party: Their goal is to outdo each other to be most extreme.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.