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Opinion The great Republican abortion backtrack has begun

Former president Donald Trump with Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters at a rally in Arizona in July. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Do you want to know how frightened Republicans are by the sweeping turn abortion politics has taken since the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade in late June? Just look at what their candidates in swing states and districts are doing.

It amounts to a collective assertion that, well, maybe they didn’t really mean what they said.

A number of Republicans in tough races seem to have hit upon the same strategy to put them on the right side of public opinion.

Here are the new rules: First, stop saying you’re “100 percent pro-life.” That might be what Republican primary voters once wanted to hear, but now it’s radioactive.

Next, make the absurd and unsupportable claim that nothing has really changed when it comes to abortion. Instead, say that the realization of a decades-long Republican goal is less a legal revolution than an opportunity for some heartfelt, respectful conversation.

Then, stress your deep commitment to the welfare of all women. Stop talking about any particular pieces of legislation or constitutional amendments to ban abortion that you used to support. And if you have to say anything at all about policies and particulars, talk about the exceptions to abortion bans you support — even if you didn’t used to support them.

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Finally, say Democrats are the real extremists by pretending that they support babies being aborted literally during delivery, something that, by the way, never happens.

The award for fastest U-turn on abortion goes (so far) to Arizona Republican Senate nominee Blake Masters, who scrubbed his website of statements saying he’s “100 percent pro-life” and erased any sign of his advocacy of a fetal “personhood” amendment, which would effectively make all abortions at any stage of pregnancy an act of murder.

Under fetal personhood, there would be no exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the pregnant woman. And it isn’t entirely clear when an abortion could even be performed to save the life of the woman, because the life of the fetus would legally be of equal value to hers.

That and other specifics are now gone from Masters’s site. In an ad, he now says “I support a ban on very late-term and partial-birth abortion” — and says no more.

Masters isn’t the only one taking an eraser to his record. A Michigan Republican congressional candidate deleted his entire “Values” page, which used to contain information about his opposition to abortion.

And in Minnesota, GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen said in May that he would only support exceptions to an abortion ban in cases of rape and incest if the pregnant woman’s life was in danger. But now, Jensen has posted “A Plan to Support and Protect Women," which notes the “poignant conversations regarding abortion” Minnesotans are having and puts all its emphasis on helping women with things like contraception and counseling.

In the accompanying video, Jensen and his running mate claim that what they really want is “a system where abortion is not necessarily illegal, but it’s just not needed.”

As the Los Angeles Times reports, most Republicans in California’s congressional delegation, including three members in tough reelection races, are listed as co-sponsors of the Life at Conception Act, which would enshrine fetal “personhood” in law from “the moment of fertilization.”

But when asked about it now, the GOP incumbents are looking to hide: One says a nationwide abortion ban of the kind they support is “purely hypothetical at this point.” Another stresses that the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization “will not change access to abortions” for Californians. Two of the vulnerable members who answered the Times’s questions now say they support exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the pregnant woman — none of which would be allowed under the legislation they co-sponsored.

Other candidates haven’t actually changed their positions or scrubbed their websites, but they are taking pains to strike a more modest pose than they had during the primaries. Tiffany Smiley, the GOP Senate candidate in Washington, said on a podcast that she was “100 percent pro-life,” a clip incumbent Sen. Patty Murray plays in her ads. But now Smiley says, “I’m pro-life, but I oppose a federal abortion ban.” In other words: I’m pro-life, but don’t worry, I won’t do much about it.

It took no great insight to predict that once the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade there would be a political backlash; there were probably more than a few Republicans who hoped it would happen after the election so the threat to abortion rights wouldn’t seem so urgent. But those candidates often insisted to primary voters that their opposition to abortion was fundamental to their values and beliefs.

Now that those rights are being dismantled, they have to confront the fact that most voters never wanted abortion to disappear. They’ve chosen to do so by evading, distracting and misleading. But one suspects that voters will take them at their word — or at least what used to be their word.