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Opinion Republicans retreat on abortion, for now

New Mexico Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti campaigns in Carlsbad, N.M., on Aug. 14. (Jessica Onsurez/Carlsbad Current Argus via AP)

A good weatherman knows when the winds have shifted. But it is getting late for New Mexico’s Mark Ronchetti to save himself from a surprise late-summer storm.

Ronchetti gave up his job as the longtime chief meteorologist for Albuquerque’s CBS and Fox affiliates to run as a Republican for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2020. After falling only six points short that year, he decided to challenge incumbent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this year in what everyone assumed would be a more favorable moment for the GOP.

Ronchetti’s aides said internal polling gave him a one-point lead in mid-June, but that was the week before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and rattled American politics from top to bottom. An Albuquerque Journal survey conducted Aug. 19-25 puts Ronchetti down seven points and finds that 57 percent of likely voters say abortion should always or mostly be legal.

The New Mexico contest is just one more example of how Republicans are scrambling to dial down their extreme views on women’s reproductive rights.

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Ronchetti recently deleted language on his website that described him as “strongly Pro-Life” and cast him as a “champion” on the issue. The updated page says he’d “seek a middle ground” and would permit abortions in cases of rape and incest and to protect the mother’s life. Ronchetti acknowledges he’d support banning the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy but points out that he couldn’t pass such a bill without the approval of New Mexico’s Democratic state legislature and promises that he’d protect access to contraception.

“I’m personally pro-life,” Ronchetti says in a recent television commercial, “but I believe we can all come together on a policy that reflects our shared values.”

Compare that to what Ronchetti’s website said in October 2020: “Life should be protected — at all stages. … He believes unborn babies have souls, can feel emotions, and are every bit a human being; they just happen to be living inside their mother.”

Thank goodness for the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, a site that constantly downloads content across the web and makes it easy to track when GOP candidates edit their webpages to minimize references to Donald Trump or, as many have done lately, abortion. In recent days, all kinds of Republicans have been busy whitewashing their records on the procedure and trying to sound more moderate, more conciliatory and — in short — more anything but antiabortion.

Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters garnered the most attention for no longer describing himself as “100% pro-life” and deleting a plank from his platform that endorsed a federal personhood law. But he is far from alone.

Tiffany Smiley, the GOP challenger to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), says in a new commercial: “I’m pro-life, but I oppose a federal abortion ban.”

To win a crowded primary this spring, North Carolina congressional candidate Bo Hines campaigned for a federal abortion ban with “no exceptions.” His website has gone silent on the issue.

Colorado state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, running in a new district that includes the Denver suburbs, touted her opposition to the Plan B morning-after pill during the GOP primary. After securing the nomination, she deleted language about defending the “Sanctity of Life” and stopped featuring a video of her speech to a March for Life rally.

Scooting to the middle is an age-old tradition for politicians in the homestretch, but the rush by Republicans away from the extremes on abortion is more cynical than usual. There’s little indication that any of these candidates actually changed their views; most are just adjusting their makeup.

Ronchetti is Exhibit A in this case. Steve Smothermon, the senior pastor of Legacy Church in Albuquerque, said in a July sermon that Ronchetti told him he wouldn’t be able to get elected if he ran on banning abortion altogether. “But his goal would be to end abortion in New Mexico. You say, ‘How do I know that?’ Because I talked to him for hours,” Smothermon told his flock.

Ronchetti’s campaign denied the report, but his remarks are reminiscent of those made by then-candidate Glenn Youngkin when he was heard on tape last summer saying he was biting his tongue on abortion to avoid alienating independent voters he needed ahead of Virginia’s gubernatorial election. “When I’m governor, and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense,” Youngkin promised.

After the court reversed Roe, Youngkin said he would push for a 15-week ban come January 2023. But that was before Kansas voters rejected an antiabortion ballot measure and Democrats unexpectedly won a special congressional election in New York by making it a referendum on reproductive rights. Red states will continue enacting bans, but how hard GOP leaders keep pushing in purple states will depend on how big a backlash the Supreme Court has bequeathed upon the party in November.

Until they get a look at those numbers, Republicans will keep their fingers in the wind.