Why are Republicans doubling down on abortion?

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In the wake of the 2022 midterms, Republicans, puzzled by their lackluster showings, offered plenty of theories for why the purported "red wave" fell short: It was poor candidate quality! It was Donald Trump's toxic influence on the party! It was establishment hacks who watered down the GOP's true conservative message!

But "the fundamental reason why" Democrats "defied the laws of political gravity" was the successful completion of a decades-long conservative effort to overturn the federal right to abortion under Roe v. Wade, McKenzie Wilson, communications director for Data for Progress, told Time magazine. One exit poll showed that 60 percent of voters said they were unhappy with the Supreme Court's Dobbs ruling, Politico noted; abortion nearly tied soaring inflation as "the most important issue" for voters.

Rather than acknowledge the broad public opposition to abortion restrictions, Republicans have taken a seemingly counterintuitive lesson and and are leaning into their efforts to curb access to reproductive health care.

What's happening?

In late January, the Republican National Committee passed a party-wide resolution at its winter meeting pushing for conservative lawmakers and advocates to "go on offense" over abortion access, as well as "expose the Democrats' extreme position." The resolution reads, in part:

The Republican National Committee urges Republican lawmakers in state legislatures and in Congress to pass the strongest pro-life legislation possible – such as laws that acknowledge the beating hearts and experiences of pain in the unborn – underscoring the new relics of barbarism the Democratic Party represents as we approach the 2024 cycle.

"We urge all Republican candidates to embrace our party's proud pro-life heritage and expose the Democrat Party for their abortion extremism," Tamara Scott, the Iowa Republican who sponsored the resolution, said in a statement released by the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America group. "This is a key ingredient for GOP victory in 2024," Scott concluded.

"In 2022, too many GOP candidates used the 'Ostrich Strategy' in which they put their heads in the sand, pretended the issue of abortion didn't exist, and let Democrats spend hundreds of millions of dollars distorting their pro-life positions and defining them as extremists" SBA Pro-Life America president Marjorie Dannenfelser added in the same press release.

Party platforms and resolutions are hardly ironclad, enforceable rules in the sense that there will be top-down consequences for GOP lawmakers who don't "go on offense" over abortion. Rather, think of this resolution more as a statement of purpose, and a summation of the general mood of a large swath of the Republican Party. In this case, it comes as the GOP grapples with an intra-party schism over how best to move forward (or not) on reproductive health — both as legislation, and broader party messaging — now that Roe has been overturned.

What schism?

The Republican Party is struggling with whether to address the issue of abortion head-on, as hardline pro-life advocates like SBA Pro-Life America have urged, or to take a more nuanced position designed to appeal to moderates looking for restraint from the party of small government.

"It wasn't my fault that the Republicans didn't live up to expectations in the Midterms," former President Donald Trump lamented on his Truth Social platform in early January. "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."

South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace (R) seemingly agreed, calling her party "tone deaf" on the issue to reporters. "We buried our heads in the sand … We didn't have any policy alternatives."

"I'm here waving my hand, being a very vocal person on this, saying: 'I'm pro-life, but I'm willing to sit down and talk about how do we balance the rights of women and the right to life?'" she added during an interview with Meet The Press host Chuck Todd.

On the other end of that spectrum are those like anti-abortion group March For Life president Jeanne Mancini, who recently told The Hill that "heading into 2024, it is essential for any pro-life candidate to embrace the issue head-on, clearly defining their own position and contrasting it with the unpopular, extreme, abortion up-until-birth position of their opponent"

In part, there is some natural overlap between the two Republican sides of this debate; both seem to agree that a large portion of the blame for their 2022 losses stems from the fact that Democrats were able to successfully label the GOP as the extreme absolutists on the issue, and that the party needs to be more proactive in responding to those charges. Speaking with radio host John Catsimatidis in December, RNC chair Ronna McDaniel acknowledged that point of agreement with the same turn of phrase that would later be used by SBA Pro-Life's Dannenfelser to celebrate the newly passed resolution, saying "we can't just do an ostrich method and pretend that it doesn't exist when Democrats are spending $30 million on that message."

What happens next?

Expect both parties to use abortion as a mechanism to activate their respective bases. For Democrats, that means largely continuing with the same framing as they've done previously, and which 2022 demonstrated can result in significant political gains. In a statement to The New RepublicDCCC spokesperson Nebeyatt Betre made that dynamic clear, writing that "as Democrats fight to protect reproductive freedom, House Republicans are moving in lockstep to rip it away — voters will certainly have something to say in 2024 when they vote Democrats back into the majority."

For Republicans, however, the key is to bridge the divide within the party that has often seen candidates with less accommodating positions win primary races, only to be defeated in the more moderate-leaning general election. In an interview with PoliticoSen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) outlined that challenge in regard to the upcoming presidential election, and his own proposal for a federal bill to ban all abortions after 15 weeks.

"Each person running for the White House will have to come up with an answer to the question, post-Dobbs: 'Should we consider this a states rights issue or a human rights issue?'" Graham said. "The pro-life community is still a strong component of the Republican Party and if you're running for president, I think in certain states, like South Carolina, the position that the unborn have no voice in our nation's capital will be a tough sell for the pro-life community."

For the time being, however, the RNC's passage of a decidedly aggressive resolution suggests that the party is embracing the hardline call to push forward on more anti-abortion measures, no matter the lessons of 2022.

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