Voices: Democrats go on the offensive over abortion as Republicans walk tightrope

Americans have erupted in protest at the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade (AFP/Getty)

For most of the past year Democrats have had to contend with voter dissatisfaction about rising grocery and gas prices, as well as the fact that the president’s party typically loses seats in the first midterm election.

But a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist national poll found that if the election were held today, 48 per cent of registered voters said that they would vote for Democrats compared to 41 per cent who would vote for Republicans.

There are, of course, reasons this does not automatically signal that Democrats will hold the House of Representatives.

For one, that 48 per cent just looks at registered voters, not likely voters. Similarly, what voters think nationally doesn’t take into account how specific congressional districts or states will vote. That means that what candidates choose to emphasise and how they choose to talk about abortion will matter.

Some Republicans, like Senate nominee Adam Laxalt, will try to take the issue off the table saying Nevada has already codified abortion rights, hoping that voters care about other day-to-day problems like rising prices or crime.

But the inverse of this played out in Virginia’s 7th District. Representative Abigail Spanberger won the seat in 2018 as part of the larger blue wave. Since then, she’s become an outspoken critic of left-leaning Democrats, specifically when it comes to rhetoric on “defunding the police.”

Coincidentally, last week, Republicans nominated former police officer Yesli Vega to challenge her. Vega’s profile matches that of Mayra Flores, the first Mexican-born woman elected to Congress, who flipped Texas’s 34th District and is part of a larger swath of Latina Republican candidates running in competitive districts.

But on Monday, Axios reported that an attendee at an event asked her about whether it was harder for a woman to get pregnant as a result of rape.

“Well, maybe because there’s so much going on in the body. I don’t know. I haven’t, you know, seen any studies. But if I’m processing what you’re saying, it wouldn’t surprise me. Because it’s not something that’s happening organically. You’re forcing it. The individual, the male, is doing it as quickly – it’s not like, you know – and so I can see why there is truth to that. It’s unfortunate.”

Vega’s comments bore a striking similarity to former representative Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri, who in 2012 said: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Akin’s comments essentially doomed his Senate race and led to Democratic senator Claire McCaskill winning re-election by double-digits despite the fact Mitt Romney won the state by almost nine points. That same year, Richard Murdock, the Republican nominee for Senate in Indiana, said in a debate that “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that’s something God intended to happen”, which led to him losing to Joe Donnelly despite the fact Romney won the state by 10.5 percentage points.

Many Democrats remember those victories, which helped them grow their Senate majority in 2012 and likely will force the issue in every toss-up district where Republicans are competitive. But, so do Republicans.

Earlier this year, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said he remembers how unelectable Republicans blew Senate races not only in 2012 but also in 2010 when the GOP was on track to win the majority but candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada (who described a pregnancy from rape as a “lemon situation into lemonade”) and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware (who famously said “I’m not a witch” in an ad).

This likely means Republican leaders will want to instill message discipline to make sure that candidates don’t say anything too far out. But that might be harder in an era of GOP Senate nominee Herschel Walker in Georgia (who has said he wants a total ban on abortion) JD Vance in Ohio (who called pregnancy from rape “inconvenient”).

In fact, after Republican stumbles on abortion cost them multiple Senate seats, one Republican woman consultant advised Republicans to stop talking about rape on the campaign trail. Her name? Kellyanne Conway.