The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Pro-life Republicans can win by contrasting their views with opponents’

Republican candidate Marc Molinaro spoke during a GOP rally in Liberty, N.Y., on Aug. 13. (Cindy Schultz for The Washington Post)

Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.

To read the news following Republican Marc Molinaro’s defeat in New York’s 19th Congressional District, one would think abortion without limits has suddenly become a winning issue for Democrats, despite decades of polling and real-world experience pointing in the opposite direction.

Democrats’ special election victory suggests fresh strength heading into midterm elections,” one headline in a conservative outlet proclaimed. The chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) summed up his party’s interpretation: “Republicans can say goodbye to their ‘Red Wave’ because voters are clearly coming out in force to elect a pro-choice majority to Congress this November.”

But those of us who have long been part of the political arm of the pro-life movement would predict otherwise — if candidates are willing to learn from losses like this one. In a swing district that went for Joe Biden over Donald Trump by about 1.5 points in 2020, Molinaro’s Democratic opponent, Pat Ryan, spent weeks pummeling him on the abortion issue. Molinaro responded weakly, when he responded at all. He failed to define his opponent, letting himself be defined, and he lost.

To his credit, Molinaro seems to realize that. (And he’ll get another chance to prove himself this November when he competes again for a newly drawn district.) In a post-loss interview, he said, “Rather than avoiding the topic, we have to talk honestly, whether we are male or female candidates, about what we believe.” That is part of the equation. The other is explaining what the opponent stands for — and putting actual money behind the message. Specifically, if candidates support laws that permit abortion all the way up to birth, they are out of step with the American public, and Republicans should not be afraid to call them out on it.

Ryan released his first paid ad condemning the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision less than an hour after it came down. He immediately sought to cast his election as a referendum on the decision, rolling out bold-colored campaign signs declaring “Choice is on the Ballot.” Additional advertising by a liberal, outside group in the final week of the race suggested that, if Molinaro won, Congress would pass a nationwide ban on abortion “first chance they get.”

Molinaro, in contrast, appeared caught off guard by Dobbs: “I had thought, like most Americans, that this was settled.” He quickly assured the public that, while he personally opposes the brutal demise of millions of unborn children, he would stick to so-called kitchen table issues such as inflation and crime; that he views Congress as powerless in the matter, even though two U.S. Supreme Court justices specifically highlighted the authority of the people and their congressional representatives; and that New York — which has declared abortion a “fundamental right” and has one of the nation’s highest abortion rates — would not be affected.

To be sure, inflation and crime are salient issues that voters care about. However, the loss of winnable races in competitive districts reflects that the Republican consultant class is turning to an outdated strategy on this hot-button social issue. Let’s call it the opossum strategy: when threatened, freeze as though dead and hope the attacker goes away. Or the ostrich strategy: bury your head in the ground and refuse to talk about it.

Running away from the issue is a proven way to lose. The GOP has gotten better at talking about abortion, but consultants continue to resist putting it up front. In the new Dobbs era, when what was theoretical is now reality, it’s even clearer the old approach doesn’t work. Pro-life candidates who want a shot at winning need to go on offense and expose their opponents as having extreme views.

Ryan avoided specifics, couching his position in well-worn, vague terms such as “freedom to choose” and “controlling women’s bodies.” A sharp offense could have punctured this obvious vulnerability, challenging the Democrat to explain exactly what policies he wants and whether there is a single limit on abortion he would support: when the child’s heartbeat can be detected? If not then, what about a first-trimester limit, which two-thirds of Americans support? Or 15 weeks, when some new evidence indicates unborn children can feel pain — a limit 72 percent of Americans support and that sits within the European mainstream? Or like Biden and almost every congressional Democrat, does he advocate legislation that allows abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy as long as a doctor will say it’s for the woman’s health? Only 10 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal that late, and this broad loophole means the bill is far more radical than Democrats would have you believe.

One need not go back very far in time to find a model of success in a “purple” state. In Virginia in 2021, Democrat Terry McAuliffe spent millions on abortion-centered campaign ads and even campaigned at an abortion facility. Republican Glenn Youngkin hit back, declaring McAuliffe “the most extreme abortion candidate in the country” and outlining his own policy commitments, including advocating legislation to limit late-term abortions and stop taxpayer-funded abortions. The result: Exit polls showed 8 percent of voters named abortion as their top issue, and they backed Youngkin by 17 points.

If Republicans want to win elections and save lives, it is imperative they learn from past mistakes. There will be a political cost if they don’t. With just two months left in this pivotal election cycle, they must learn very quickly, lest the only “red wave” come from the bloodshed of countless innocents.