Democrats say Republican effort to rebrand 'pro-life' won't persuade voters

WASHINGTON — Democrats and aligned groups on Friday criticized a new shift from Republicans to move away from "pro-life" messaging on abortion to boost their electoral prospects after a series of election losses when reproductive rights were on the ballot.

“It’s not really the phrase that’s the issue here,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer posted on X in response to NBC News’ exclusive reporting detailing the GOP-led effort.

The head of a super PAC closely aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell met with GOP senators behind closed doors this week and presented poll results from One Nation, a research group also aligned with the Kentucky Republican, that suggested voters are reacting differently to terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.

According to multiple senators who attended the meeting, the polling showed that “pro-life,” a term most commonly used by the anti-abortion movement over the last five decades, is no longer resonating with voters as dozens of GOP-led state legislatures enact restrictive bans on the procedure. Republicans briefed on the polling concluded they should be more specific when discussing abortion.

Demonstrators outside the Texas State Capitol during a Women's March in Austin, on Oct. 2, 2021.  (Sarah Karlan / Bloomberg via Getty Images file)

Democrats quickly piled onto the news, with members of Congress, pro-abortion organizations, and the Biden administration accusing GOP politicians of being hypocritical in their stance on abortion.

“If congressional Republicans are now interested in ‘pro baby policies,’ they should stop opposing @POTUS’s budget,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates posted to X, pointing to the president’s budget proposal to increase child care options.

“They are badly on the wrong side of the American public,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in an interview. “The only way for them to fix this political problem is for them to stop their efforts to ban abortion nationwide. … Their problem isn’t the terms or the words they use. The problem is that they are fundamentally trying to impact women’s rights and people are furious.”

Christina Reynolds, senior vice president of communications at Emily’s List, said voters know the track record of each party on abortion, no matter what terms are used.

“No matter how the Republicans try to say it, voters understand fundamentally who wants to take away their rights, who has worked for decades to do it, and who is continuing to try and take away their rights," she said. "And they understand who’s who’s trying to protect their rights, and they’re going to vote accordingly.”

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, argued on social media that Republicans cannot identify as “‘pro baby’” while simultaneously opposing policies like the “expanded child tax credit, paid family leave, high quality childcare, and universal pre-K.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, likewise said that “actions speak louder than words” when it comes to the abortion issue.

“The GOP’s obsession with banning abortion nationwide is clear as can be, no matter how they spin it,” Hirono added in a statement. “There’s nothing ‘pro-life’ about MAGA Republicans’ radical, anti-choice agenda, and the American people know it.”

Republicans were also critical of their party's messaging woes.

Congresswoman Nancy Mace, R-S.C., said her colleagues are “losing the messaging battle” on abortion because “people no longer believe we are being pro-woman and pro-life.”

“What are we doing to help women who’ve been raped or girls who are victims of incest? What are we doing to improve the foster care system for children who are unwanted when they’re born?" Mace said. "What are we doing to show we care about women and finding middle ground? Women are watching and right now they don’t like what they see.”

Abortion proved to be a core issue in the 2022 midterms, and recently in states where voters have had the opportunity to weigh in on abortion measures, they have rejected proposals that weaken protections in places like Kansas, Kentucky and Montana.

An NBC News poll conducted in June found that 61% of all voters said they disapproved of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 Dobbs decision, which left the legality and conditions of abortion up to the states.

Democrats, looking ahead to 2024, hope to once again capitalize on the abortion issue and catch Republicans flat-footed as the party struggles to coalesce around a single mainstream position.

“We’ll make sure voters see and hear what Republicans have said in their own words,” said Nora Keefe, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “And in 2024 voters will hold them accountable by rejecting them and their toxic agenda.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who led her party’s unsuccessful efforts in codifying access to reproductive rights into law, accused Republicans of trying to “deceive voters.”

“We are living through a horrifying new reality where in so many states, women are left bleeding and sick, begging for medical care,” Murray said. “Voters will not forget and they understand that Democrats are fighting to restore reproductive freedom while Republicans are hell-bent on a national abortion ban.”

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