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Who’s The Extremist?
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Who’s The Extremist?

Can the GOP turn the tables on abortion?

Blake Masters has moderated his messaging on abortion, and some fellow Republicans have followed suit. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Whom do you like in a contest between the irresistible force and the immovable object?

Asked last week on The Dispatch Podcast which party he thinks will take the Senate, my colleague David French threw up his hands. Public anxiety over crime and inflation is real, he noted, and those problems aren’t abstractions the way so many policy issues are. They hit you where you live. If you’re looking over your shoulder when you walk down the street, if you’re having to substitute beans for meat at the supermarket, you carry your unhappiness with the status quo in your knotted gut.

Crime-flation is an irresistible electoral force and there isn’t much Democrats can say about either part of it.

The COVID relief bill they passed last year is widely understood to have catalyzed rising prices. Hopes for a reprieve from inflation before Election Day are fading as gas prices begin to climb again, reminding voters of the White House’s ludicrous beg-the-dictators-for-help energy policy. Presidents get blamed by voters for poor prevailing economic conditions even when they haven’t left many fingerprints on the economy, and Joe Biden has left plenty.

As for crime, the party has done its best to disgorge the baggage of “defund the police” left over from 2020. Biden has held public events to celebrate new funding for police departments and some vulnerable House Dems are doing photo ops with local cops to signal toughness on crime. But in moments when fear of civil disorder is salient, a party of bleeding hearts is at a disadvantage. (That the other party is led by an insurrectionist prone to making barely veiled violent threats seems not to affect the calculus much.) There are many data points that inform suspicions that Democrats aren’t equal to the task—crime rates in liberal strongholds, progressive DAs in the Chesa Boudin mold, viral videos of organized shoplifting rings in San Francisco, the questionable positions taken by some Democratic Senate candidates on criminal justice matters.

In a normal midterm one would expect the irresistible force to wash away Democrats across the country. But this isn’t a normal midterm, French pointed out. This time there’s an immovable object awaiting the irresistible force, outrage at the end of constitutional abortion rights in the United States after 50 years as the status quo. How does the pro-choice majority respond when a half-century of expectations, the only abortion regime most Americans have ever known, is flipped upside down overnight by five unelected Republican-appointed judges?

The backlash to Dobbs is real and occasionally spectacular. The pro-choice position won easily in a ballot referendum held in Kansas. Democrats hammered the issue in special elections this summer and ended up overperforming. Polling on the generic ballot tightened considerably in the months following the Dobbs ruling. Republican candidates began moderating their positions on abortion.

We may be headed for what Nate Silver has described as an “asterisk election,” a midterm that defies modern expectations of a wave for the out-party because of a black-swan event that shifts the tectonic plates of American politics. Or we might not: An electorate that’s nervous about inflation and about crime sounds like an electorate poised to run a buzzsaw through the ruling party.

The strategic question for Republicans is whether there’s anything they can do to dislodge the Democrats’ immovable object before it meets the irresistible force. Not all Democrats believe that it’s immovable, notably. “A lot of these consultants think if all we do is run abortion spots that will win for us. I don’t think so,” James Carville told the Associated Press this week. “It’s a good issue. But if you just sit there and they’re pummeling you on crime and pummeling you on the cost of living, you’ve got to be more aggressive than just yelling abortion every other word.”

Is there a way for the GOP to make abortion less of a “good issue” for the left? Democrats have placed their electoral eggs in the abortion basket. Smash those eggs and they’ll have nothing left.

Some Republicans are trying.

***

There’s no way for the GOP to turn abortion to its advantage, I think. The polling is too daunting. For instance, when Americans are given a menu of three broadly described abortion regimes, the least popular by far is a no-exceptions ban.

Not only is “illegal in all circumstances” the minority position, it’s the lowest it’s been since Gallup started polling the issue in the mid-1970s.

When the menu is expanded to include more nuanced options, the cohort that supports a no-exceptions ban remains a tiny minority, less than half the size of the no-limits left.

Still, there’s a lot of statistical acreage between those deep blue and bright orange poles, a fertile political middle ground for an opportunistic political party to occupy, potentially.

Republicans might not be able to turn abortion into a winning issue, but is there enough in those numbers for them to turn it into a not-losing one?

Strict restrictionist pro-lifers may be a negligible group but no-limits pro-choicers are pretty negligible too, nearly as incongruent with the preferences of the majority as no-exceptions righties are. Sixty-two percent of Americans are willing to entertain some restrictions on abortion at 14 weeks. And at 24 weeks gestation, a near-majority of 48 percent are willing to make abortion illegal with some exceptions. Toss in the “Depends” and “Legal with some exceptions” cohorts and you’re up to 73 percent who oppose abortion on demand at that stage of pregnancy.

Yet the stubborn 19 percent that’s willing to grant carte blanche to abortionists through the second trimester just so happens to include virtually every prominent Democrat in the country. Voters might be interested to know that. Increasingly Republicans are making sure they do.

The GOP spent most of July and August lying low on the subject, hoping the uproar after Dobbs would blow over. American voters have short attention spans in the best of times, and in an era of crime-flation it wasn’t unreasonable to think an abortion backlash might peter out after a month or two. That theory was abandoned after the NY-19 special election, though, when Democrat Pat Ryan ran hard on abortion and Republican Marc Molinaro ran hard on the economy—and Ryan won by 3 points. Within 48 hours of the result, Republican Senate candidates like Blake Masters were airing ads highlighting their new moderation on matters of life and choice.

That’s the same guy who compared abortion to genocide during the Republican primary. Language on his website highlighting his absolutism on the matter, including support for a federal personhood amendment, quietly disappeared to the exasperation of some pro-lifers.

Cynical though it was, the strategy evinced in Masters’ ad made sense. He was making a play for the acreage between the deep blue and bright orange poles. If Republican candidates can drive home to voters how extreme Democratic orthodoxy on abortion has become, they might be able to neutralize the issue. If you’re a swing voter, finding out that the left is as hostile to compromise on abortion as the right may lead you to treat the subject as a wash. If you’re a casual voter who wasn’t planning to turn out this fall until Dobbs was handed down, finding out might keep you on your couch.

You might even be a right-leaning populist, someone who’s not very religious and was left cold by the social conservatism of the pre-Trump GOP. Many of those voters warmed up to the party after Trump took over but haven’t shed some of their social liberal preferences. Nearly a third of Republicans disapproved of the Dobbs ruling in the weeks after it was handed down, after all. Having those voters cross the aisle to support Democrats would be especially lethal to the party. Highlighting Democrats’ abortion extremism is a way to keep them onside.

Above all, Republicans need a way to either flip women voters or make them unmotivated to vote. Turnout among women has topped turnout among men in every election cycle since 1984; the last two cycles saw the highest turnout among women (and men) in decades. At the moment women are making the difference for Democrats in swing states like Pennsylvania, where John Fetterman owes what’s left of his shrinking lead over Mehmet Oz to them. Anything Republicans can do to reduce the Democratic edge on abortion among women is worth trying.

Increasingly they’ve settled on the Masters strategy.

***

The Masters strategy became a wider party strategy in mid-September when a memo circulated encouraging candidates to “turn the issue back on Democrats.” Put the left on defense by drawing a contrast, highlighting the relative moderation of the Republican candidate’s position while noting that the entire Democratic Party establishment supports abortion up to the moment of crowning.

The media noticed. In races across the country, reporters have begun to press Democratic candidates on their uncompromising pro-choice positions. In the Arizona gubernatorial race:

In the Georgia gubernatorial race:

In the Wisconsin Senate race:

For all the hype about conservative radicalism on abortion, it’s telling that Masters felt comfortable pivoting to a more centrist position for the general election while Hobbs, Abrams, and Barnes remain unyielding. (If Georgia Republicans will tolerate Herschel Walker paying for an abortion, they’ll tolerate anything in the name of victory.) Even firebreathing Kari Lake, the rootin’-est tootin’-est populist this side of Doug Mastriano, sounded moderate-ish and noncommittal when asked this past weekend about banning abortion in Arizona.

Not coincidentally, 15 weeks was also the limit proposed by Lindsey Graham in the federal abortion ban he offered last month. Graham’s Republican colleagues were unhappy that he foisted that topic upon them when they’d rather be discoursing upon crime-flation, but you can see what he hoped to accomplish by doing so. It was a variation of the Masters strategy, planting the Republican flag on a position which most voters would deem reasonable and daring Democrats to attack him, and them, for it.

If the left wants to tell the majority of American voters they’re nuts for thinking a European-style ban after 15 weeks sounds like a sensible compromise, let ‘em. That was Graham’s hope.

But we haven’t heard much from him or, lord knows, from his Senate colleagues about his bill since then. Why not? If turning the issue back on Democrats to highlight their abortion extremism is the smart play, why won’t the party tout Graham’s legislation?

It’s a matter of trust. Senate Republicans suspect voters don’t trust their gestures toward compromise. I suspect they’re right. And absent that trust, those gestures will do more harm than good.

Remember the context. Since Dobbs was decided, 13 Republican states have banned abortion while another, Georgia, permits the practice only through the first six weeks of pregnancy. In other states governed by Republicans, like Florida, the current compromise regime of 15 weeks is clearly being eyed for further restrictions once Ron DeSantis is safely elected.

Meanwhile, 50 years of Republican rhetoric about abortion and federalism has begun to erode, just as quickly as some of us predicted. A month before he offered his federal 15-week ban, Graham told a national television audience that states should decide the issue of abortion. Marco Rubio also held that position until suddenly, and very recently, he didn’t. National Review published an editorial blessing the idea of federal abortion restrictions to the dismay of some of its more federalist contributors. Mike Pence has lately endorsed a total national ban.

Republicans are moving aggressively to capitalize on the Dobbs decision, in some cases by ditching principles they’ve claimed to hold for decades. In that context a swing voter might view Graham’s legislation not as an invitation to compromise but as a further act of aggression to change the status quo on abortion before the policy dust has settled. Amid the onslaught of new restrictions, they might look past the debate about when it’s proper to begin limiting pregnant women from aborting and opt to vote Democratic simply to stop the onslaught.

As Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent said recently of the GOP’s abortion strategy, “an incremental strategy only works if the public accepts the last thing you did, so it can then be persuaded to agree with the next thing.” The “last thing” for these purposes is the end of Roe, a decision most Americans oppose. To the extent voters are treating their vote this fall as a comment on abortion policy, I suspect it’ll reflect their feelings about Roe and the Republican restriction push that followed, broadly speaking, more so than whether a Republican-proposed compromise a la Graham or Masters is preferable to whatever Democrats are offering.

That’s why Senate Republicans don’t want to talk about Graham’s bill. In the abstract, 15 weeks is a smart place for GOP policy preferences to settle. But in context it reminds the majority of Americans that they prefer the pre-Dobbs status quo to what Republicans have been doing this summer. Democratic extremism on when abortion should be regulated is a second-order question; the threshold question, the one Americans are still stuck on, is whether abortion should be allowed at all.

And Republicans, or at least an influential minority of Republicans, are the extremists on that one.

***

Democrats are exploiting that asymmetry in numerous ways.

For one, it’s no wonder that Hobbs, Abrams, and Barnes won’t propose any limits on abortion when asked about it. It’s not just that they’re radicals on the subject, although they are. They’ve made a strategic choice not to play the GOP’s game by getting into the weeds of what constitutes sound limits on abortion. They want voters believing that their choice this fall on abortion is, very simply, “Legal or banned?” They can’t win if the question is “15 weeks or no limits?” but they can win that one.

Some of the new legislation Democrats have offered to legalize abortion is also more aggressive than the Roe regime. At National Review Madeleine Kearns looked recently at the language of the upcoming ballot initiative in Michigan and found that, in practice, it would permit abortion on demand through all nine months of pregnancy via an exception for the “mental health” of the mother. Kearns wonders why Republicans in the state haven’t made more of a fuss about that since it means the new law would blow past the “viability” standard made famous in Roe. Why not follow the Masters strategy by arguing that Democrats are the real extremists?

Well, for one thing, the Republican nominee for governor has suggested that she supports banning abortion with few exceptions, among the fringiest of possible positions on the issue. It’s become such a liability for her and the party that she took to asking voters to set the issue aside entirely when considering how to vote in November.

I assume they’re following the Senate Republican strategy, which holds that if you’re a Republican talking about abortion right now instead of crime-flation, you’re losing. If voters were approaching the Michigan initiative as an earnest attempt to set optimal policy, pro-choicers might have overreached. But, amid the aftershocks from Dobbs, they’re more likely to approach it as a simple litmus test of whether abortion should be legal, a de facto referendum on the Roe regime, and to rubber-stamp it—even though it means a more permissive abortion policy than they’d prefer on the merits. Voters will focus on the threshold post-Roe question rather than the second-order questions no matter what pro-lifers say.

One wonders whether any American state will end up with an abortion policy located between the deep blue and bright orange polls, reflecting their residents’ actual preferences. Ain’t democracy grand?
As for the question with which we began, the answer likely has less to do with the immovable object than the irresistible force. Abortion politics are baked in at this point but big economic news is coming later this week. If it’s good for the White House, with inflation finally easing, swing voters might feel comfortable enough to give more weight to abortion in their vote. If the news isn’t good, the buzzsaw is coming out.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.