Why Republicans Think They've Finally Cracked the Abortion Question

Virginia Governor Glen Youngkin, whose 15-week abortion ban proposal is at the center of Virginia's Nov. 7 elections, speaks at an event at the Marriott Marquis on September 26, 2023 in Washington, DC. Credit - Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

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In the immediate wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling that ended a federally protected right to abortion, many of the Republican Party’s smartest strategists darkly said that their colleagues had shed their iconic symbol for a different, more fitting zoo creature: less an elephant, more an ostrich. Republicans up and down the ballot were doing their best to pretend their side hadn’t just won the biggest victory in a generation on one of their signature issues.

Some of the party’s sharpest pollsters sent out messaging memos last year urging candidates to focus on the economy and inflation, spaces where the GOP stood a chance, especially with voters who didn’t strongly identify with either party. “Democrats and the national media are determined to try and make abortion the top issue ahead of the midterms, however, the media is not on our side, and we do not answer to them but to voters,” the Republican National Committee advised candidates and campaigns last September. (Abortion was the top issue for 27% of all voters in last year’s exit polls, trailing only inflation and outpacing gun policy, crime, and immigration by 2-to-1 margins. So, no, it wasn’t just the media looking at candidates’ positions.)

Quite simply, abortion without Roe’s national protection has turned into a clunker of an issue for Republicans, and they know it. It was one thing to promise a grand reversal on a cornerstone of the culture wars. It was quite another to see state legislatures quickly ban or restrict abortion in 21 states and counting. Instead of a Red Wave predicted last year, it was pink at best. When put explicitly on the ballot, abortion rights prevailed in all seven states since Dobbs. They’re not all California-style states, either; Kansas, Montana, and Kentucky have rejected anti-abortion rights groups’ efforts. Even local races are hinging on this; just ask the mayor of Lincoln, Neb.

Which brings us to Virginia, where early voting started on Sept. 22 and campaign commercials are popping up in nearly every break in the D.C. media market covering Northern Virginia. All 140 seats in the Virginia legislature are on the ballot; it will be the first time voters will have a chance to make changes to the House of Delegates since 2021, and the Senate since 2019. And while national Republicans are trying to keep the conversation centered on pocketbook issues and Joe Biden’s deep unpopularity, Republicans in Virginia think they’ve cracked the code for talking about abortion and not losing elections.

Gov, Glenn Youngkin has convinced his slate of GOP candidates to unite behind his proposal for a ban on abortion after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. He’s ponied up more than $1 million on ads to educate the public on his plan.

Virginia is the lone Southern State that has not taken advantage of the Dobbs latitude to limit access to abortion. That inaction is solely because Democrats have a narrow majority in the Senate, by a 22-18 margin. (Democrats are in the minority in the Lower Chamber, 46-48.) Next week’s state legislative elections will be, as they always are in Virginia, off-year affairs that draw lower turnouts than federal, even-year campaigns. That means even a handful of voters in swing districts could decide if Youngkin’s vision is seen as a prototype for a GOP comeback after a shaky first at-bat after Dobbs.

Polling consistently shows abortion to be a more popular idea than some conservatives like to believe. At the broadest level, 54% of Americans think abortion care should be easy to have, according to the Pew Research Center. The same survey found 62% of Americans think the procedure should be legal in all or most cases. Drilling down, it gets worse for Republicans. By more than a 2-to-1 margin, Americans say abortion by medicine should be legal in their state.

To be clear, Virginia Republicans are not completely sold with Youngkin’s strategy.

Republican ads mentioning abortion total a little less than $600,000, according to an analysis from The Washington Post. Among Democrats, that figure reaches at least $4.5 million. Inside the Republican ad firms, crime is drawing far more ad dollars than abortion.

Still, the Virginia reboot on abortion rights is catching a lot of attention from candidates across the nation. More than Youngkin’s own political fortunes—and no one thinks the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond is his end goal—the pivot on reproductive rights is already being tested in high-profile Senate races. There can be no escaping questions about abortion and cut-off dates for the procedure, the thinking goes, so these candidates might as well soften their hardline positions and keep their consultants and donors in Washington mollified. And for the data-driven nerds who treat campaigns like Moneyball, there are reasons to think this might actually work: Gallup finds Americans support first-trimester abortion to the tune of 69%, but that dips to 37% in the second—right about that 15-week marker. In separate research, Youngkin’s political arm brought together female swing voters over the age of 30 for a focus group to workshop how to sell the 15-week ban, a signal of where next week’s elections may hinge.

To be sure, there’s a reason why most supporters of abortion access would prefer codifying Roe into federal law. Journalists and advocates around the country haven’t had to look hard to find a stream of stories of women (and in some cases, girls) in states with new abortion restrictions who were unable to be granted exceptions for emergency medical situations, or lacked the means or opportunity to prove that their pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

The excruciating details in some of those stories may be why many voters may not be able to back a candidate touting any new ban at all, even a 15-week one with exceptions. Or why even some in the GOP base are wary of their candidates talking too much about the issue. Exhibit A would be the presidential race, where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis faced a mix of praise and apprehension from his followers for signing a ban on abortion care after six weeks.

If Youngkin beats expectations in Virginia next Tuesday, he will have delivered a playbook his fellow Republicans can adopt. He also may make waves on Capitol Hill by offering Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina evidence that his colleagues mightn’t need to be terrified of his proposal for a national 15-week abortion ban. If nothing else, Republicans may finally feel comfortable ditching the ostrich poses and going back to being elephants—or at least RINOs.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.