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Republicans in muddle on abortion as ban proposed by Graham exposes rifts

Lawmakers and candidates trying to recalibrate on abortion are sending mixed messages eight weeks before the midterms

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) introduced legislation on Sept. 13 aimed at banning abortion nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy. (Video: The Washington Post)

In a memo to GOP campaigns released this week, the Republican National Committee laid out what it called a winning message on abortion: Press Democrats on where they stand on the procedure later in pregnancy, seek “common ground” on exceptions to bans and keep the focus on crime and the economy.

Then, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) introduced legislation to ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy — overshadowing new inflation numbers and undermining what many GOP strategists see as their best message for the fall: “Leave it to the states.”

“It’s an absolute disaster,” GOP strategist John Thomas said, as Republican Senate nominees already targeted for their comments on abortion were asked to weigh in. “Oy vey,” he said when informed that Blake Masters in battleground state Arizona had just expressed his support.

More than 80 GOP House members are also backing a 15-week ban, but the second-ranking House Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), did not commit to a vote on the bill and walked away Wednesday when asked if he supports the measure.

Since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June, Republicans have been scrambling for more favorable political terrain on abortion, as polling and election results suggest the issue is disproportionately energizing voters to cast ballots for Democrats. But as the GOP seeks an effective counterargument to Democratic attacks on scores of candidates who want to restrict abortion, it is sending an increasingly muddled message to voters eight weeks before the midterms.

Some candidates are downplaying or backing off past support for strict bans, while others push the debate over federal restrictions that many want to avoid. The same day Graham unveiled his plan, the GOP-controlled West Virginia legislature passed a stricter measure to prohibit nearly all abortions. And former vice president Mike Pence said in an interview with RealClearPolitics that pushing for a national abortion ban and individual state restrictions “is profoundly more important than any short-term politics.”

Democrats are pouncing on those mixed signals to hammer the simpler message they’ve promoted for months, warning that Republicans want to continue to erode access to abortion even after the high court took away a constitutional right to the procedure.

Democratic pollster Molly Murphy said Graham’s 15-week bill, released Tuesday, has only reinforced the argument that Republicans will try to enact significant new restrictions if they gain control of Congress. “I feel like I’ve had a roller coaster of a day between, ‘What kind of three-dimensional chess are they playing?’ to kind of settling into, ‘They’re not,’ ” said Murphy, who is working on the Arizona Senate race.

Asked whether they would back Graham’s legislation, many GOP nominees in the closest Senate races gave ambiguous answers or did not respond. And even as Masters said he would “of course” support Graham’s bill, his campaign spokesman retweeted a message that appeared to channel some GOP groans over Graham’s announcement: “Why why why why why.”

The aide, Zach Henry, removed the retweet Tuesday night and said he was not speaking on behalf of Masters.

More than half of registered voters oppose a 15-week ban on abortion with exceptions for the health of the mother, a Wall Street Journal poll found last month.

While Masters has drawn particular attention for shifting positions — specifying only after his primary win that a nationwide abortion ban should target third-trimester and “partial-birth” abortions — other GOP candidates have also backtracked or played down their views.

In Minnesota, GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen — who once said he “would try to ban abortion” as governor — recently released an ad that began, “In Minnesota, [abortion] is a protected constitutional right, and no governor can change that. And I’m not running to do that.” In Michigan, Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon has been explicitly appealing to voters who might balk at her vocal support for an abortion ban throughout pregnancy with exceptions only for the life of the mother.

“And just like that you can vote for Gretchen Whitmer’s abortion agenda & still vote against her,” Dixon tweeted last week, referring to her Democratic opponent, after Michigan’s highest court cleared the way for a November ballot measure asking whether the state constitution should guarantee abortion access.

Thomas, the GOP strategist, said he thinks candidates in tight races are smart to attempt a “pivot” on abortion. It’s not a winning issue for Republicans, he argued, “but the goal there is to assuage voters with concerns … so the candidate can get back to debating on the issues of higher priority.”

But “will voters buy it?” Thomas said of candidates’ shifts. “Hard to say.”

Further complicating Republicans’ pitch: Some GOP officials are pushing bans at the state level that are far stricter than Graham’s proposal. Republicans have sought to shift the focus to Democrats’ positions, noting that the United States is one of fewer than a dozen countries that allow elective abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But even some antiabortion advocates say the other side has more energy as the end of Roe triggers dramatic new restrictions on abortion in swing states.

Chuck Coughlin, a Republican strategist in Arizona, called a 15-week ban a “pragmatic” stance — especially in comparison with the far more stringent law working through the courts in his state. One of Masters’s former rivals in the primary, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, has been arguing for enforcement of that ban, which dates to the 1800s and prohibits all abortions except to save the life of the mother.

Democrats said they see a persuasive case against Republicans, even with attempts to rally the party behind less restrictive bans, such as Graham’s proposal, which would allow the vast majority of abortions to continue but marks a sharp departure from the roughly 24-week standard under Roe.

“Republicans’ national abortion ban will be on the ballot, in every Senate race,” Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement. Vulnerable Democrats in states where abortion remains legal — who have argued for months their opponents could help pass national restrictions — immediately highlighted Graham’s proposal.

In Nevada, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) claimed again that her opponent, former state attorney general Adam Laxalt, would back a federal abortion ban; Laxalt denied this in an op-ed last month, but his campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Graham’s legislation. In New Hampshire, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) on Wednesday launched a first general-election warning that Republicans in the Senate will seek a nationwide abortion ban.

The Republican nominee, Don Bolduc, said early in the primary that he would not “vote contrary to pro-life,” but this week he told Fox News that he would not support Graham’s bill.

“The states have it,” he said. “That’s where it needs to be.” GOP Senate nominees in blue-leaning Washington state and Colorado also said they would not back the 15-week ban.

Abortion restrictions are unlikely to pass in the Senate, even if the GOP retakes control of the chamber this November — a political reality several senators nodded to on Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he wouldn’t eliminate the filibuster to pass abortion legislation, which means any such bill would require 60 votes in the chamber to overcome a procedural hurdle. At the White House, President Biden is sure to veto any such measure if it made it to his desk.

On Tuesday, McConnell declined to commit to bringing Graham’s bill to the floor, while his top deputy, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), said he’d “like to see the federal government get out of the abortion business.”

“I think every Republican senator running this year in these contested races has an answer as to how they feel about the issue,” McConnell said. “And it may be different in different states, so I leave it up to our candidates who are quite capable of handling this issue to determine for them what their response is.”

Asked whether the GOP needs to be more united on abortion, Graham said candidates should follow what they are “personally” comfortable with.

Some Republicans said they saw no problem with disparate positions on abortion — as long as the GOP could steer the conversation back toward inflation and other issues on which they have a more unified pitch.

Republican strategist Doug Heye, a former communications director for the RNC, said that “in theory, you always want” a cohesive party message. But “Republicans nearly got Trump reelected without even having the party platform,” he added.

Leading antiabortion groups have been pushing to restrict the procedure at the federal level since the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Late last month, Students for Life Action sent a letter to every House and Senate Republican, arguing that the federal government should enact nationwide limits.

“We can’t delegate ending the injustice of abortion to states alone. All of us at every level of society, and especially legislators, need to reverse almost 50 years of public policy that allowed the life-ending harms of abortion to continue with taxpayer support,” Kristan Hawkins, the group’s president, wrote.

Opponents of federal restrictions also made their case Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Ashbey Beasley was there to meet with Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) to discuss an assault weapons ban after she and her son survived the Highland Park, Ill., shooting on July 4. But she took a quick detour after seeing that Graham was having a news conference to introduce his legislation.

After the event finished, she stood up to recount discovering that when she was pregnant with another child, they learned that the baby had a fetal abnormality at 16 weeks. After undergoing multiple in-utero surgeries, she said, she and her husband decided to deliver the baby to live out of the womb until he died eight days later. But she argued other women should have abortion as an option.

“What do you say to a woman like me?” she asked.

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.