In the new post-Roe landscape, Pennsylvania Republican Doug Mastriano seems to have strayed from what he once described as his “number one” focus.
As the GOP nominee for governor navigates one of the most closely watched contests this year, there has been a noticeable drop off in his public comments on abortion – both in the intensity with which he speaks about the issue and the frequency. Mastriano even cast the issue as a potential distraction following the Supreme Court’s ending of federal abortion rights in a 5-4 ruling on June 24, declaring in a statement that it “must not take our focus away from the key issues facing Pennsylvania families.”
He’s not the only Republican nominee for this year’s midterms making that argument.
The deliberate attention on pocketbook issues at a moment when abortion access is at stake in a growing number of states is a strategy that Republican candidates across the midterm battlefield have adopted – not to mention some who may be eyeing the White House in 2024.
In Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp has long been an unequivocal ally of anti-abortion conservatives, the incumbent governor has resisted pressure from anti-abortion activists wanting him to call a special session for legislation that would essentially enshrine abortion restrictions in the state’s constitution. In Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson, who is widely considered the most vulnerable Republican senator this cycle, hasn’t mentioned abortion on Twitter since releasing a statement on June 24 responding to the Supreme Court decision. He has tweeted, however, about energy prices, inflation, immigration and crime rates. And in Nevada, Republican Senate hopeful Adam Laxalt recently accused the Democratic incumbent of focusing too much on abortion.
The unofficial strategy adopted by these Republican campaigns has pleased some party strategists who think the GOP is primed for a red wave this fall as long as economic woes remain top-of-mind for voters. One adviser to a top Senate candidate this cycle, who asked not to be identified to discuss strategic decisions, said he recently counseled his client to only mention abortion restrictions in response to questions from the media or attacks by his Democratic opponent.
“Frankly, I don’t want to hear about abortion until you’ve made it to Washington,” the adviser recalled telling his client after the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade.
A majority of Americans in multiple polls have disapproved of the Supreme Court’s overturning of the landmark 1973 ruling, including two-thirds of women in a CBS News/YouGov poll conducted in the immediate wake of the decision.
“There is a fearfulness some Republicans are having on this issue. They are very well poised for a big November because of [President Joe] Biden’s unpopularity and inflation, so they don’t want to take their eyes off the ball,” said longtime Republican strategist Doug Heye.
CNN has reached out to Laxalt, Johnson and Mastriano’s campaigns.
A CNN review of several Mastriano campaign trail appearances following the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision shows just how much the GOP nominee has changed his tune publicly since winning the nomination and after the Supreme Court’s decision. The deeply conservative candidate focuses heavily on economic issues and deploys common Republican refrains on non-economic ones – from blaming Democrats for soaring inflation and rising energy prices to promoting school choice programs and condemning Covid-19 closures.
But before he won the nomination on May 17, he would frequently espouse religious views on issues like abortion that left Republicans feeling concerned about his electability. When Mastriano was asked during an April 27 primary debate whether he would back new abortion restrictions as governor, he wasted no time burnishing his conservative credentials.
“I am pro-life. It’s the number one issue,” said Mastriano, noting that one of his first moves as a state senator in 2019 was to introduce a bill requiring that physicians determine if a fetal heartbeat is present prior to an abortion and prohibiting the procedure if a heartbeat is detected. “I don’t give way to exceptions either,” Mastriano added at the time, opposing common exceptions for rape, incest or risks to the life of the mother.
Only on his campaign’s Facebook page has Mastriano continued to share various videos and photos carrying anti-abortion messages, though one person close to his campaign said that could change in the coming weeks if his opponent, Democrat Josh Shapiro, ramps up his focus on abortion in a gamble that would likely be aimed at energizing Democratic voters.
“Most Pennsylvanians want some reasonable restrictions on abortion, so this gives [Mastriano] a chance to show how truly radical some of the progressive left is on the abortion issue,” said the person close to Mastriano’s campaign. As Pennsylvania attorney general, Shapiro has pushed repeatedly to expand abortion access while criticizing bans in other states.
Still, Republican strategists warn that the best approach GOP candidates can take is to avoid the divisive topic unless and until they are directly asked about it.
“Most people, when they are waking up in the morning, are far more concerned about how they are going to pay for gas or groceries than they are about cultural issues,” said Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based Republican strategist who was defeated by Mastriano in the gubernatorial primary.
Heye suggested there is even a way for candidates – like Mastriano, who are backed by former President Donald Trump and may be tempted to mimic his provocative style – to do so without focusing too much on a hyper-polarizing issue like abortion.
“If you want to be Trumpy, you can just tee off on Biden and the economy all day long with over-the-top rhetoric,” Heye said. “Even in very conservative states, families have the same inflationary pressure and gas prices are still the number one issue.”
Another Trump endorsee who is toeing the line on abortion is Laxalt, who appeared with Trump at a pro-law enforcement event in Las Vegas last weekend. According to The Nevada Independent, Laxalt described the constitutional right to an abortion established in Roe v. Wade as “a total, complete invention” at a campaign stop in the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision, which he later described as a “historic victory for the sanctity of life.”
But in the weeks since the landmark ruling, Laxalt has trod carefully on the subject. In his statement celebrating the overturning of Roe, he noted that the legality of abortion is “settled law” in Nevada. He has also stated openly that Nevada is “not a pro-life state” and released a digital ad on Twitter immediately after the Supreme Court decision using his opponent’s participation in public protests against it to argue she was giving the issue more attention than pocketbook concerns.
Over video footage of Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto addressing demonstrators outside the Supreme Court with a bullhorn, Laxalt’s campaign flashed text across the screen: “Where was Cortez Masto and her bullhorn when you couldn’t find formula for your baby? When gas prices soared past $5/gallon?”
Democrats are on offense on abortion
The strategy of avoidance might not be foolproof, however. Some Republicans who have weighed in minimally on the issue since the Supreme Court’s decision have still come under intense attack for their previously touted views on abortion.
In Ohio, GOP Senate nominee J.D. Vance said the overturning of Roe v. Wade “gives us an opportunity to live up [to] our founding creed – that all of us are truly created equal.” In television and campaign appearances since, he has spent the bulk of his time discussing rising crime rates, economic decline in Ohio, Big Tech, and law enforcement. When briefly asked if he would support a federal ban on abortion if elected – something Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has openly discussed pursuing if Republicans retake the chamber this fall – he stopped short of endorsing the move in a recent interview with NBC News.
“Not right now. I think right now we need to let the states figure this stuff out,” Vance said. “The ruling is new, the laws are new, the legal regime is new and what I think the Supreme Court really gave us an opportunity to do is to focus on the substance.”
Still, the Ohio Republican has faced a torrent of criticism from Democratic groups about his positions on abortion following the Dobbs ruling. The Ohio Democratic Party has slammed Vance’s “out-of-touch comments cheering on the largest rollback of women’s rights in half a century,” highlighting in a news release past statements he has made suggesting he opposes rape and incest exceptions. While the Ohio Democratic party has yet to attack Vance over his position on the airwaves, the progressive outside group Future Forward PAC has reportedly launched a new ad attacking Vance over his position.
Meanwhile, Vance’s Democratic opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan, said of Vance on Twitter following the Supreme Court decision, “We cannot let him anywhere near the Senate.” Ryan, who had cast himself as an anti-abortion Democrat before announcing in a 2015 op-ed that he supported abortion rights, has not said whether he supports any limits on the procedure.
One Ohio-based Republican strategist said Vance’s position on abortion “doesn’t reflect how most Americans feel,” adding that the “Hillbilly Elegy” author “would be wise to avoid the topic as much as possible over the next four months.” A spokesperson for Vance declined to comment.
While recent polling from CNN and elsewhere has found broad opposition to Roe v. Wade being overturned, the public tends to be more split on how permissive or restrictive abortion laws should be.
“One of the challenges on this issue in particular is you can find polling that backs up almost whatever your position is,” said Heye.
Just how potent Democrats believe the issue of abortion can be as their party works to improve its midterm chances was illustrated in their spending in the recent Illinois GOP gubernatorial primary. Democratic outside groups spent millions in the June contest to sink the campaign of moderate Republican Richard Irvin in favor of Darren Bailey, a Trump diehard and Illinois farmer who opposes abortion exceptions for rape or incest.
“I don’t think a lot of Democrats are willing to say this, but we could have been in big trouble if Republicans didn’t choose Bailey,” said one Illinois Democratic county chairperson, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “I know I breathed a sigh of relief [after the primary]. He just can’t compete in the suburbs and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.”
But Gerow, the Pennsylvania GOP strategist, pushed back on suggestions that pending abortion rights battles could give Democrats a boost in suburban pockets.
“The prevailing thinking is that suburban women are going to vote with Democrats because of the Dobbs decision and I don’t buy that. Pro-choice suburban women are far more concerned about the economy right now,” Gerow said.
A recent Monmouth University poll, however, and several other surveys, reveal a slight uptick in support for Democrats on the generic ballot since the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs was handed down last month.
2024 GOP hopefuls embracing anti-abortion message
As the role abortion will play in the midterm elections remains uncertain, some prospective Republican presidential hopefuls seem to believe it can work to their advantage in 2024.
Most notable among them is former Vice President Mike Pence, who delivered a keynote speech on the topic last November at an event hosted by Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent anti-abortion group whose president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, remains a close friend of Pence. The former vice president, who tweeted that anti-abortion activists “must not rest and must not relent until the sanctity of life is restored to the Center of American law in every state in the land” following the overturning of Roe, will deliver another speech on abortion in the early voting state of South Carolina later this month, he announced on Monday.
A person familiar with the event said Pence’s speech will feature a new policy blueprint for conservatives to follow in the post-Roe environment and respond directly to an executive order signed by Biden last Friday directing the Department of Health and Human Services to safeguard access to medicated abortion pills. Pence also discussed the topic in an appearance last week with the Ronald Reagan Institute, and his group Advancing American Freedom released a video highlighting his record of promoting anti-abortion policies and judges – both as governor of Indiana and in the Trump administration.
Unlike the liability it could present to some Republicans competing in tight races this cycle – something that Trump has expressed concern about – a person close to Pence said the former vice president views the issue of abortion access, which he has long spoken out against, as an asset for him in a potential Republican primary where religious conservatives are likely to play an outsized role in choosing the party’s next presidential nominee. While Trump has celebrated the Supreme Court decision by taking credit for bolstering the court’s conservative majority, he has quietly told advisers he is worried that it could weaken Republican chances in the midterms if it becomes a major focus, according to two people familiar with his thinking.
“He’s not afraid to own it now because he’s already been doing that for decades,” the person close to Pence said, noting that the former vice president nevertheless understands why Republican midterm candidates are choosing to focus on other issues.