The tension among Republicans about how to message on abortion is handing over an opportunity for the White House and Democrats to pounce on the GOP over an issue they see as an advantage in the November midterms.
President Biden has sought to seize on the opportunity, showing that Democrats are the party of common sense when it comes to reproductive health care policy.
Since Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) proposed legislation that would impose a nationwide ban on abortions performed after 15 weeks, the GOP’s disputes over whether that power lies with the states or the federal government has been brought to the forefront.
That could help Biden appeal to more voters — and Democrats who once complained that the White House isn’t doing enough say it is finally taking advantage of a moment.
“For once, I think they’re actually doing it,” said Democratic strategist Christy Setzer, pointing to swing-state Democrats who are pouring an extensive amount of money into paid media, including contrast ads.
“On [Capitol] Hill, they’re not taking the bait on legislation like Lindsey Graham’s 15 week ban. They’re calling it out as a nationwide ban, which it is, rather than focusing on the policy details,” she said.
Graham this week created new headaches for Republicans when he appeared to make an about-face by arguing that abortion is not a states’ rights issue and acknowledged that his bill to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy goes against the typical Republican thinking.
“If the Republicans wanted to pick a policy that would cleave off important parts of their constituency, that’s the one. Yet they went ahead and did it,” said former Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.), a Biden ally.
“It was a huge fumble for Republicans,” said one strategist. “And I’m happy we’ve been able to capitalize on their mistakes.”
GOP strategist Doug Heye said that Republicans shouldn’t be making abortion an even more prominent topic this midterm cycle and should instead focus on issues like inflation, crime and the border to appeal to voters.
“The issue wasn’t going to go away. This just is another example of bringing it more prominence and it causes Republicans to focus on a topic that most of them don’t want to and allows Democrats to not focus on those issues that they don’t want to focus on,” he said.
Democrats were ahead of Republicans by 22 points in a recent poll that asked voters which party better handles abortion issues.
That advantage is huge for Democrats, but they remain consistently behind Republicans on issues like the economy and immigration policy.
“For once, Democrats seem to understand that the public is not only with us on this issue, they’re even more allergic to abortion bans than they were pre-Dobbs,” Setzer said. “Women who have miscarried, who use IVF, who understand they can get raped, who even just want access to Plan B, now understand they are all targeted by GOP abortion bans.”
White House officials held a meeting this week on reproductive rights and focused on the efforts in state legislatures to protect reproductive health care, while Republicans in some states have worked to pass extreme anti-abortion measures.
Jennifer Klein, the director of the White House Gender Policy Council, and Julie Chavez Rodriguez, a senior adviser, brought together state officials from California, Colorado, Maryland, New Mexico and elsewhere who have enacted bills to protect and expand access to the procedure.
Democrats from progressives to moderates appeared on the same page with their messaging on abortion even before Republicans were in the position they have recently found themselves, thanks in part to Graham’s bill, which the South Carolina Republican acknowledges does not have the votes to pass.
Democrats have doubled down on making abortion a top issue going into the midterms. The party has spent roughly $124 million on ads centered on abortion, which is more than twice what the party has spent on other issues.
“It is probably fair to say that Democrats have picked up a lot of ground in the midterms because of the Dobbs decision. And when it comes to messaging on the issue, the White House and Congress have been fairly united … in this case they have not behaved like Democrats,” said Carney, a senior policy adviser at Nossaman LLP.
When Roe v. Wade was officially overturned by the Supreme Court in June, Democrats saw it as another major issue that the White House was too slow to respond to, especially considering a draft opinion of the decision had been leaked a month earlier.
But just after Graham’s bill was officially introduced in the Senate, the White House issued a statement calling it “wildly out of step,” showing that it had worked to stay in step with the timing of Graham’s proposal.
Some Democrats, however, see the administration as having a long way to go before it catches up to how far it has fallen behind this year, especially when it comes to messaging and responding to multiple crises.
“It was an embarrassment,” said one Democratic strategist. “A complete and utter failure on our party’s part. They’re just now beginning to redeem themselves.”
“If Republicans can tap into the culture wars, so should we. We should play ugly,” said one Democratic strategist. “We should remind everyone every single day that what they’re doing is disgusting and vile. We should remind everyone that they’re not elevating women, they’re sending us back to the dark ages.”
When Graham dropped his bill last week, political watchers called it a lifeline for Democrats after data released earlier that day showed inflation continued going up in August.
And bad news for Republicans continued into this week with Graham’s apparent reversal in saying that abortion shouldn’t be a state issue, which is in opposition to others in his party like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who has since reiterated that abortion decisions should be left to the states.
Carney argued that one of the issues for Republicans is that abortion was a more effective political tool and talking point before Roe v. Wade was actually overturned this summer.
“Republicans raised a lot of money around overturning Roe, and gained a lot of support from their conservative base on that issue,” he said. “But now what? They are the dog that caught the car, what are they going to do now?”