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After the overturning of Roe, many Republicans want to change the subject

While Democrats have leaned heavily into elevating abortion concerns, Republicans in midterm races have often been avoiding questions or taking pains to shift the topic

Nevada Republican Senate candidate Adam Laxalt speaks during an election night event in Reno on June 14. (Trevor Bexon/Getty Images)

One day after the Supreme Court ended the American right to abortion, Nevada Senate candidate Adam Laxalt posted a textbook example of how Republicans hope to respond.

The digital video showed his opponent, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), speaking to protesters Friday through a bullhorn outside the court. Her voice was muted as words flashed across the screen over a droning wail.

“Where was Cortez Masto and her bullhorn when you couldn’t find formula for your baby?” they read. “When gas prices soared past $5/gallon? When Bidenflation hit a 40 year high?”

Laxalt, who calls himself “pro-life” and supports a 13-week ban on abortion, is running in a state that has long been known as one of the most accepting of the procedure. His ad sent the message Republicans in tight races have been trumpeting ever since Friday’s ruling: This election will be decided by other stuff.

“All you need to do is talk to someone pumping gas or buying groceries to find out the most important issue this election,” explained Michael McAdams, the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee in an email. “Every time Americans think about buying something is a campaign ad for why voters need to remove Democrats from power.”

The result is a partisan midterm election less about the merits of the abortion decision by the court — strong majorities in the country oppose overturning Roe v. Wade — than a fight over the subject matter of the fall campaign. While Democrats have leaned heavily into elevating the concerns over the court ruling and the new limits that will be imposed on abortion, many Republicans have been avoiding questions on the topic or taking pains to shift the subject.

Democrats aim to fuse their arguments about abortion into a larger campaign to cast Republicans as extremists, captured by the pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” wing of the party. House Democrats have created a website, ExtremeGOP.com, with a guide to the positions GOP candidates have taken on the issue.

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It’s not a fight that Republicans in contested races are eager to take on. Newspapers across the country Friday reported on Republican candidates for Congress in tight races who declined to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Democrats have gleefully been collecting examples of battleground candidates from states like New Hampshire, Minnesota and California who initially avoided comment or equivocate on the court’s decision.

“There are individuals on both sides that are rightfully very passionate about such an intimate issue that brings out a lot of emotions,” said Alek Skarlatos, a Republican candidate for Oregon’s 4th Congressional District, in a statement to the Oregonian.

Previously he had encouraged Roe to be overturned and won the endorsement of Oregon Right to Life. But after the ruling, he tweeted repeatedly about inflation and chose to focus on the fact that abortion would still be offered in his state in response to reporters.

“Here in Oregon it is settled law,” he said, echoing the assurances of conservative justices, who later voted to overturn Roe.

Republicans have reason to believe their strategy can bear fruit, as polls continue to show that abortion, though growing in importance, is not a decisive issue for most voters, since economic concerns continue to rank as the top issue in the election.

A poll commissioned after the court’s ruling by the Republican State Leadership Committee, which helps elect state legislators, found that more than half of voters cited the economy or rising costs as the top issue for them, compared with less than 1 in 10 who said abortion.

The group’s president, Dee Duncan, urged her party in a memo Wednesday to not get distracted by the Democratic and media focus on abortion, going so far as to paraphrase legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne.

“When we get ’em on the run, we’re going to keep ’em on the run,” she wrote. “We have state Democrats in full retreat on the economy.”

A May poll by Quinnipiac University found that a candidate who supports abortion rights was more likely to get the vote of only 4 in 10 Americans, while 36 percent said it did not make a difference and 22 percent said it would make them less likely. A separate May poll by CNN found that 26 percent of voters would only vote for a candidate who shares their view on abortion.

The response to the court’s decision does not appear to have shifted public attitude significantly. A national Monmouth University poll conducted after the decision and released Tuesday found 66 percent of voters said abortion should either always be legal or “legal with limitations,” up from 64 percent in May and 62 percent in September. Disapproval of the Supreme Court stood at 53 percent, up from 42 percent in March.

“For the Democrats this fall, converting anger and violence into action and votes is tougher than it looks,” Kellyanne Conway, the Republican pollster and former White House adviser to President Donald Trump, said in a statement. “Abortion will squeeze in alongside inflation, immigration, education, crime, baby formula as one of many issues where the Democrats have failed to lead.”

The advantage, Republicans argue, comes from the fact that rising prices are a constant presence in voters’ lives, whereas abortion is, for most voters, a far more abstract issue.

“There is an hourly reminder of how much of a failure the Democrats are,” Republican strategist Corry Bliss said. “Go to the gas station. Go to the grocery story. Try to buy a house.”

The Republican preparations for this fight have been in the works since the spring, when a leaked draft of the decision overturning Roe laid the groundwork for the fight in the fall. In a May memo to Republican candidates, the National Republican Senatorial Committee explicitly urged a change of topic.

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“Democrats want to obsess and spread lies about abortion because they’ve not only failed to address the concerns of the American people; their agenda has made things worse,” the memo told campaigns. “Republicans are focused on getting the economy back on track and keeping your family safe.”

The advice reflects polling from both parties that shows an advantage for Democrats on the question of abortion, with the potential not only to motivate disaffected voters but to swing some voters who might otherwise want to vote their displeasure with President Biden.

A battleground district poll by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), taken in May after the leaked opinion but before a decision was handed down, found that voters did not want to overturn Roe by a nearly two-to-one margin, according to a person briefed on the results, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal data.

The party found in the poll that they could raise the percentage of “very motivated” Democrats in these districts by six points, from 77 to 83 percent, by reading them messages about Republican positions on the overturning of Roe.

“Republicans will do anything to avoid talking about their toxic agenda of banning abortion nationwide because they know it sends battleground voters sprinting in the other direction,” said Helen Kalla, deputy communications director for the DCCC, in a statement. “Unfortunately for House Republicans, we’re happy to remind voters of the GOP’s extreme plan.”

That has not meant Democrats disagree that other issues loom larger. More than most candidates this cycle, Cortez Masto has leaned into abortion as a defining issue in her race, relying on polling that shows both women and Latino voters, two of her key constituencies, are more likely to be moved by it.

Her campaign has highlighted Laxalt’s support for changing Nevada law to allow a 13-week abortion ban in the state, with rape and incest exceptions, which is considerably more restrictive than the state’s current 24-week policy. Like other Republican candidates in close races, Laxalt described abortion rights as “settled law” in Nevada after the draft opinion leak in May.

“Adam Laxalt thinks women’s freedoms won’t matter to voters because they don’t matter to him,” her campaign spokesman Josh Marcus-Blank said in a statement. “Sen. Cortez Masto stands with more than 60 percent of Nevadans who are pro-choice, and they aren’t going to let Laxalt drag them backward.”

But in recent paid television advertising and policy positioning, she has been focused elsewhere. She has supported a gas tax holiday and has come out against a Biden administration plan to end the Trump-era Title 42 policy, which limited migration on the southern border because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Her first major ad since the state’s June 14 primaries flashes images of $5.29 gas prices, while attacking Laxalt for accepting campaign contributions from groups tied to the oil industry. The goal is to get ahead of the Republican attack on rising gasoline costs.

“Where you find ‘Big Oil,’ you’ll find Adam Laxalt,” the ad’s narrator says.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.

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