Republicans across the country are trying to shift or paper over their more conservative positions on abortion, signaling some of the party’s nominees believe they need to moderate those positions as they pivot from primaries to the general election.
Their evolving rhetoric comes two months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in a decision that has since motivated Democrats, independents and even some voters who lean Republican. Following the ruling, voters in Kansas overwhelmingly decided to keep abortion protections in their state’s constitution and a few weeks later, a House candidate in upstate New York won a special election in a competitive district by making abortion the top issue of his campaign.
Those trends have put Republicans from Michigan to Iowa to Arizona on the defensive, forcing those in competitive races who have taken rigid stances against abortion rights to soften them or risk drawing the ire of a motivated segment of the electorate.
The latest example came from Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters, who recently scrubbed his website of his support of a “federal personhood law” and a host of other strict anti-abortion positions while also releasing a video in which he took a softer stance on the issue. Masters’ website previously said he was “100% pro-life” and noted his support for a constitutional amendment that “recognizes unborn babies are human being that may not be killed” and a slew of other legislation that would make it illegal to perform an abortion 20 weeks after conception.
He is far from alone, however.
Around the Supreme Court decision, Michigan congressional candidate Tom Barrett reportedly branded himself “100% pro life – no exceptions,” a position he touted on the “values” section of his campaign website.
“Protecting individual rights includes protecting the unborn,” the website read, adding that he and his wife had “been involved in the pro-life movement our entire lives” and pledging that as an elected leader, he will “always work to protect life from conception.”
The values section from the website was scrubbed later in the month and after the Kansas results, according to the same archive.
When asked on Monday, a Barrett campaign spokesperson directed CNN to the website where a “life” section, which calls out Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, Barrett’s opponent in November, was added. The section, which calls Barrett “a consistent pro-life state legislator,” accuses Slotkin of supporting “some of the most extreme abortion policies of anyone in Congress,” while not using the same language about Barrett’s abortion beliefs. Slotkin, along with scores of other Democrats, recently voted for the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2022, a law that would codify the protections that were provided by the Roe v. Wade decision.
“My opponent recently removed any mention of choice from his website, hiding his 100% pro-life stance,” Slotkin tweeted in response Barrett’s website changes. “According to him, it’s not an issue that’s important to voters, saying the update was likely ‘based upon the issues that were most salient right now.’”
“We regularly update the website,” said the Barrett spokesperson.
When Zach Nunn was asked during a primary debate in May whether “all abortions should be illegal in this country,” the Iowa Republican raised his hand. After Nunn’s Democratic opponent, Rep. Cindy Axne, ran an ad using the video, Nunn published an op-ed where he backed away from his position, accusing the Democrat of taking him out of context and saying that he supports exceptions for “rape, incest and fetal abnormalities, and to save the life of the mother.”
Lydia Hall, a spokesperson for Nunn’s campaign, responded to questions about the shift by turning the focus on Axne, saying her abortion rights views are “well outside the mainstream in Iowa” and accusing her of “trying to hide her position from voters.” Axne told CNN in a statement that she believes “the only people who should be involved in women’s health care decisions are women, their families, and their doctors. Not the government.”
And when Minnesota Republican gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen was asked about abortion by Minnesota Public Radio in March, he said he would “try to ban abortion” as governor. In another interview in May, he had said he didn’t support exceptions for rape or incest unless a “mother’s life is in danger.” Jensen has since backtracked, saying in a taped video that he supports allowing abortions for victims of rape or incest or if the life of the mother is threatened.
Jensen, who is a doctor, has said his previous comments about abortion were “clumsy,” and a spokesperson for the campaign told CNN that the candidate wanted to clarify his position because people “were repeating what we considered to be an inarticulation of the position.”
A potential change in the winds for Democrats
The abortion debate has shaken up a midterm cycle that, for months, looked like doom for Democrats. While anti-abortion organizations continue to urge Republicans to go on offense on the issue, Democrats have been invigorated by the wins in Kansas and New York, using them as proof points that running a race with abortion as a focal point can be a recipe for success, even at a time when polls show voters skeptical of the party’s leadership in Washington. A series of national polls that found the June Supreme Court decision broadly unpopular has backed up Democrats confidence in running on the issue.
So with only a few months before the November election, Democrats are eager to point out the Republican softening, believing, as operative Christina Reynolds put it, the party is “trying to mislead voters and hide their deeply unpopular positions on abortion rights.”
“They know that voters are willing to hold responsible the people who take away their rights and they are concerned about their elections,” said Reynolds, a top operative at Emily’s List, a Democratic organization that works to elect women who support abortion rights. “We believe voters have a clear understanding for who has stood with them and who opposes our reproductive rights.”
Democrats have rhetorically argued that abortion is an issue of freedom, while trying to turn it on Republicans by arguing they want to take away a right that women have had for years. More than 40% of likely voters said their vote for Congress would be to support abortion rights, compared to just 16% who said it would be to oppose those rights, according to a recent CBS News Battleground Tracker poll.
Democrats have also put significant money behind ads on abortions. According to AdImpact data, Democratic campaigns and groups have spent roughly $57 million on ads mentioning abortion, a significant portion of the $73 million spent on all political ads mentioning the issue.
Anti-abortion rights groups are eager for their candidates to not only hold the line, but go on offense on the issue, tying their Democratic opponents to what they view as extreme pro-abortion rights views.
“Our position hasn’t changed and how we are advising candidates after Kansas remains the same and that is: You have to go on offense and define your opponent’s positions rather than let them define you,” said Mallory Carroll, spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “The best defense is a good offense.”
Asked why she believes some Republican candidates are softening their positions, Carroll blamed other Republican operatives: “There are always going to be a class of political consultant that are not true believers on this issue, that advise candidates not to go on offense, to cross their fingers and hope that this issue doesn’t come up. That is not only morally wrong, it is politically stupid.”
But candidates in races across the country, including in some of the most competitive races, have shifted some of their rhetoric.
Amanda Adkins, the Republican candidate running against Rep. Sharice Davids in Kansas’ competitive 3rd Congressional District, wrote in an op-ed earlier this month saying she did not “support a federal ban on abortion, nor do I support any other federal policymaking related to contraception or fertility.” But while Adkins was chairwoman of the Kansas Republican Party, the organization supported “a Human Life Amendment to the U. S. Constitution,” as well as “legislation to make clear the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection applies to unborn children.”
Adkins campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
And Barb Kirkmeyer, the Republican running in Colorado’s competitive 8th Congressional District, responded with a firm “no” when a voter guide asked about allowing abortions “under extenuating circumstances.”
“As a County Commissioner, I voted to ban the Plan B abortion bill, and have been a proud and consistent supporter of the Personhood movement, unambiguously defending life from conception,” she said.
But in a National Journal piece published this month, Kirkmeyer equivocated. “If something’s presented at the federal level, I don’t know—I haven’t heard that it’s going to be; maybe it is; maybe somebody’s going to do something—then I will look at it and evaluate it at that time,” she said.
Attempts to appeal to a more moderate general election audience are difficult on an issue like abortion because of how contentious the fight over it has been and how front-of-mind it is after the Supreme Court decision.
“It’s not unusual for candidates to pivot more toward the center from a primary to a general election strategy,” said John Thomas, a national Republican strategist. “The second you win that primary, you have to change the electorate that you’re speaking to, which is more of those classic swing voters.”
He added: “The challenge is on some of these very hot issues … the other campaign keeps receipts.”