‘A wakeup call’: more Republicans are softening staunch anti-abortion stance

<span>Photograph: Ted S Warren/AP</span>
Photograph: Ted S Warren/AP

A growing number of Republicans are changing their positions on abortions since the fall of Roe v Wade as midterm elections approach in the US, signaling a softened shift from their previously staunch anti-abortion stances.

Since the supreme court overturned the federal right to abortion in June, many Republicans are adopting more compromised positions in attempts to win votes in key states through a slew of changes in messaging on websites, advertisements and public statements.

The moves come amid a ferocious backlash to the decision that has revived Democratic hopes in the midterm elections, as a solidly red state like Kansas voted in a referendum to keep some abortion rights.

With midterm elections approaching, abortion has also served as a prime motivator for female voters across the country, especially among Democrats, and driving striking special-election successes for the party seeking to hold both houses of Congress.

According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, 56% of voters say that the issue of abortion will be “very important” to them at the polls this fall, marking a significant increase from 43% in March.

Additionally, an increasing number of states, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, are seeing growing gender gaps among new registrants since the supreme court’s Dobbs decision, according to the Democratic data services firm TargetSmart.

As a result, Republicans are increasingly recognizing that the issue of abortion could cost them dearly at the polls as they attempt to gain control of the House and Senate.

The difficulty of shifting from gung-ho anti-abortion rhetoric to a more complicated reality for a lot of Republicans was starkly illustrated by Kansas’s referendum. The usually reliably Republican state voted to keep abortion protections in its state constitution, thus providing an unprecedented boost in red state America to the abortion rights movement.

“The vote earlier this summer in Kansas is a wakeup call to Republicans that not only are the most extreme abortion restrictions non-starters with voters but the whole issue has flipped as a Democratic motivation to head to the polls,” Republican strategist Barrett Marson told the Guardian.

“Over the years, it’s been OK to advocate for the strictest abortion regulations in a Republican primary because abortion generally was protected by Roe v Wade. Now it’s no longer theoretical. So now the most restrictive policies have real-life consequences. And suburban women are giving a candidate’s position on abortion greater weight as they consider who to vote for,” he added.

Earlier this week, a Republican Senate nominee in Washington state said that she was against abortion – but supported a state law that guarantees the right to abortion until fetal viability.

“I respect the voters of Washington state,” said Tiffany Smiley, who previously said she was “100% pro-life”. “They long decided where they stand on the issue,” she added, referring to the state law that was passed in 1991.

In an ad released last week, Smiley told viewers she was “pro-life but I opposed a federal abortion ban”. The ad came in response to an ad from Patty Murray, Smiley’s Democratic incumbent opponent, which called Smiley “Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked candidate”, referring to the Senate Republican leader known for his anti-abortion views and push to stack the supreme court with conservative justices opposed to abortion.

Murray’s ad claimed that if elected, Smiley would support federal abortion bans.

“Murray is trying to scare you, I am trying to serve you.” Smiley said, “I made it clear in my ad that … I am not for a federal abortion ban. You know, the extreme in this race is Patty Murray. She is for federalizing abortion.”

Nevertheless, earlier this year, Smiley’s campaign accepted the endorsement of Tennessee Republican senator Marsha Blackburn, a staunch anti-abortion activist who previously introduced a bill to the Senate that sought to strip all abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood, of federal funding.

Another Republican whose position shift was more apparent than Smiley’s is Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters.

In an interview in March with Catholic news outlet EWTN, Masters said, “Every society has had child sacrifice or has had human sacrifice in some form, and this is our form. And it needs to stop,” referring to abortions.

Since then, Masters has appeared to soften his abortion views. In August, the Donald Trump-endorsed candidate released an ad that said, “Look, I support a ban on very late-term and partial birth abortion. And most Americans agree with that. That would just put us on par with other civilized nations.”

Moreover, Masters has made changes to his campaign website which once stated that he supported a “federal personhood law” and that he was “100% pro-life”. His website now says, “Protect babies, don’t let them be killed,” followed with, “Democrats lie about my views on abortion.”

According to his current campaign website, Masters would support a third trimester federal abortion ban. Previously, his website said that he supported a constitutional amendment that “recognizes unborn babies are human being[s] that may not be killed”.

The anti-abortion group Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America has come to the defense of Masters’ shifting position. “Blake Masters has rightfully centered his position on what is achievable now at the federal level: a limit on abortions at a point by which the unborn child can feel excruciating pain,” said the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser.

Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen has signaled a softening in his abortion position.
Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen has signaled a softening in his abortion position. Photograph: Steve Karnowski/AP

Minnesota Republican gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen has signaled a similar softening in his abortion position. In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio in March, Jensen said, “I would try to ban abortion. I think that we’re basically in a situation where we should be governed by … there is no reason for us to be having abortions going out.”

However, Jensen backtracked on his words a few months later. In a video released in July, Jensen said that he supports abortions in cases of rape or incest or if the life of the woman is in danger.

Jensen described his previous comments as clumsy, saying, “I never thought it necessary to try and identify what those exceptions might be in regards to legal abortion or not, because I always thought when I uphold the pregnant woman’s life, and if her mental and physical health is in danger or jeopardized, that’s all that needs to be said.”

Despite Jensen’s amended comments, not everyone is convinced that he is genuine about his position. Minnesota Democratic party chairman Ken Martin said that if Jensen is elected, he will still try to pass an all-out abortion law that would not make exceptions for rape or incest.

“There is no reason to assume that Governor Scott Jensen would not attempt to pass the abortion ban – without exceptions for rape and incest – that he has repeatedly supported,” he said in a statement.

In May, Iowa Republican candidate Zach Nunn raised his hand during a primary debate when asked if “all abortions, no exceptions” should be illegal.

Nunn also previously voted for a measure that required women seeking an abortion to wait 72 hours. The measure included an exception to protect the mother’s life but did not mention cases of rape and incest.

Nunn’s Democratic opponent, Representative Cindy Axne, released a political ad against him that used footage of him raising his hand at the primary. “Even in the case of rape, even in the case of incest, even if a woman’s life is in danger – who will take away a woman’s right to make her own decisions, regardless of the circumstances? Zach Nunn,” the video said.

In response to the video, Nunn changed his tune in an op-ed he published last month, saying, “I’m pro-life, and I support protecting the life of the mother and the baby.” He accused Axne of taking his comments out of context and went on to say, “This issue is too important: Iowans deserve to have their voices heard.”

In the op-ed, Nunn said that he supports abortion in “exceptions for horrific circumstances like rape, incest and fetal abnormalities, and to save the life of the mother”.

With many Republicans looking to secure votes from moderate and independent voters, some political strategists worry that all this effort spent on reconfiguring their abortion positions could negatively affect their political momentum, especially as Democrats are making the issue a cornerstone in their own campaigns.

“While the economy and inflation should be the most important issue this cycle, Republican candidates are now having to defend their stances on eliminating all or most abortion options,” said Marson.

“Any time they aren’t talking [about the] economy and inflation, they are losing opportunities.”