People gather outside the state legislature as Senate Republicans gave their final approval to legislation requiring additional rules surrounding abortions in North Carolina, even as hundreds of protesters against the bill watched from the gallery in Raleigh, N.C., on July 3. (Gerry Broome/AP)

As a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly years ago, Republican Scott Walker pushed two key measures to limit abortions. Neither was successful.

But as governor on Friday, Walker signed legislation requiring that women get an ultrasound before having an abortion and mandating that doctors who perform the procedure have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Opponents say the bill would force at least two clinics in Wisconsin to close.

The measures are part of a wave of abortion limits passed this year by conservative lawmakers and governors, who have approved more than 40 restrictions in statehouses around the country, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the issue.

The push has been aided by the expanded control of state governments by Republicans, who now hold a majority of governerships and legislatures and who enjoy veto-proof majorities in twice as many states as Democrats. Some of the measures were also fueled by outrage over the conduct of providers such as Philadelphia late-term abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, who was convicted of murder charges this spring.

By mobilizing partisans on both sides, the abortion issue is poised to figure more prominently in the 2014 and 2016 elections than most strategists would have expected six months ago.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), widely seen as a presidential contender, is weighing whether to play a leading role on the issue by sponsoring a Senate bill to ban abortions 20 weeks after fertilization. Rubio is attempting to shore up support among conservatives who opposed his role in crafting a Senate immigration bill.

In North Carolina, the state Senate adopted a sweeping bill Wednesday that includes a ban on sex-selective abortions and on abortion coverage in insurance offered in the state’s health exchange. It also requires abortion clinics be held to the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers and have a transfer agreement with a local hospital.

In Texas, the legislature convened a second special session this week to take up a bill similar to North Carolina’s, which state Sen. Wendy Davis (D) successfully blocked through a filibuster in late June.

“It’s not as if there’s some central mastermind strategy that’s organizing action on the state level,” said Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser at the Catholic Association. “It really is a response of the people and the growing pro-life sentiment in the country.”

But abortion rights activists and their Democratic allies say the push will work to their political advantage in upcoming congressional and gubernatorial races, allowing them to portray Republicans as more focused on extreme social issues than on bolstering the economy. Many of the abortion measures also face court challenges that could delay implementation for months or years.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.) said in an interview that the DCCC was already targeting 16 House Republicans who had voted in June for the 20-week abortion ban written by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) or in favor of defunding Planned Parenthood in the last Congress.

“Republicans have shown they can’t help themselves from pursuing an ideological agenda, and they are further alienating independent and moderate voters,” Israel said. “They are pulling themselves down on this issue.”

GOP officials say they do not expect abortion to become a decisive factor in upcoming races. Republican candidates will focus instead on economic issues and on controversy surrounding President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, they said.

“Like most campaigns, the issues that are discussed most are the issues that voters deal with on a day-to-day basis,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “At the current moment, that seems to be jobs, the economy, making sure health care is affordable and making sure our children have the opportunities we were blessed with.”

Abortion is already a major campaign issue in some contests, including the Virginia governor’s race between GOP Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe. But Cuccinelli campaign strategist Chris LaCivita said much of the focus is being driven by one side, which has attacked the attorney general for his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest and his push to impose new requirements on abortion clinics.

“Ken Cuccinelli’s position on life is well known,” LaCivita said. “But the only people trying to make it a central issue are Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats.”

Some Republicans, however, say they are concerned that GOP lawmakers continue to mishandle the issue through clumsy statements that alienate women. During committee consideration of the House abortion bill last month, Franks touched off a firestorm when he said that “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.”

The following week, Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.) argued that sonograms suggest a young fetus can experience sexual pleasure. “If they’re a male baby, they may have a hand between their legs,” Burgess said. “If they feel pleasure, why can’t they feel pain?”

One Republican Party official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the Franks bill “should have been a political win for us, and it was a messaging disaster. . . . Salacious, inappropriate comments coming out of male House Republicans’ mouths — it just damages the brand.”

Abortion opponents, who play a crucial role in the Republican base, have been pushing particularly hard for legislative action amid revelations about unsafe practices at some abortion clinics. Gosnell was convicted in May of first-degree murder in the deaths of three infants and of involuntary manslaughter in the death of an adult patient. Live Action, an anti-abortion group, has spurred state investigations of clinics by producing dozens of videos with undercover footage.

“House Republicans felt very strongly after the horrors committed by Kermit Gosnell we needed to protect life and protect women and children from these unsafe and inhumane practices,” said Rory Cooper, spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). But he added, “Right now, we’re focused on energy and jobs.”

Public opinion has remained mostly supportive of the right to legal abortion since the 1990s, but many Americans are willing to impose tighter restrictions on the procedure. Under the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, abortions can be performed until the point when an individual doctor determines a fetus’s viability, which is generally defined as up to 24 weeks of gestation. After that point, the government can prohibit the procedure if it provides safeguards for the mother’s health and well-being.

Fifty-five percent of respondents said abortion should be legal in all or most cases in an August 2012 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, with 42 percent saying it should be illegal in all or most cases. A Gallup poll in December 2012 found that while 61 percent of respondents supported keeping abortions in the first trimester legal, 64 percent thought second-trimester abortions should be illegal and 80 percent backed banning third-trimester abortions.

The pace of state abortion restrictions in recent years has accelerated, with more than 170 enacted since 2011, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, whose group plans to spend $1.5 million helping Cuccinelli, said Republicans can win at the ballot box if they “bring the public to a point of consensus” around issues such as a 20-week ban and tougher operating standards for clinics.

Democrats are doing their best to put all anti-abortion Republicans in the same camp as Todd Akin, whose Senate candidacy for a seat in Missouri collapsed last year after he suggested women don’t get pregnant in instances of “legitimate rape.”

Democrats pounced this week after Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) signed several new abortion restrictions into law while surrounded by a group of male legislators. Both the Democratic Governors Association and American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal super PAC, began highlighting the scene in political attacks.

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols called the criticism unfounded. “The governor is pro-life and we believe these are reasonable policies to help protect human life,” he wrote in an e-mail.

But Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Kasich’s move “will be an issue for him” in his reelection campaign next year. “These are going to be nationalized races in a way we haven’t seen with these state races, because people understand the things that are at stake,” she said.

Capital Insight survey research analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.