Senate Republicans are sprinting away from Herschel Walker’s embrace of an exception-free ban on abortion, wary that his politically unpopular position could hurt their bid to take back the chamber.
The Georgia GOP Senate candidate told reporters last week that “there’s no exception in my mind” for abortion. But that’s a step too far for most of the GOP caucus, which is trying to wrest Senate control from Democrats this fall.
“Most of the people I talk to believe there ought to be reasonable restrictions and reasonable exceptions,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chair of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm. “But every candidate’s going to decide where they are.”
In the wake of the disclosure of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would potentially overturn Roe v. Wade, Senate Republicans are trying to avoid the topic altogether, saying it’s a decision that’s left up to the states. Despite the vast majority of Senate Republicans opposing abortion rights, they are not embracing a total abortion ban — leaving open the chance that several would support exceptions for rape, incest or life of the mother.
When and if Republicans force a vote on abortion restrictions when they have a majority, it’s likely to contain those exceptions — a reflection of the party’s need to balance the views of moderate voters with their conservative base.
“Those exceptions are a sound decision for people who have very strong but differing opinions on these questions,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) “I respect, and I know, many people who don’t agree with that, many people who believe that no matter how life is formed it’s a precious life. I believe that those are sound, reasonable accommodations for diverse opinions for an issue that sparks a lot of intense feelings.”
A spokesperson for Walker said he is “pro-life and believes these decisions should be reserved for the states.”
Democrats are counting on abortion to be their electoral lightning rod, should Roe be overturned. In the past, Republicans have blown their chances at Senate seats for giving unpopular or flat-out inaccurate responses when asked about acceptable exceptions to an abortion ban.
Former Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) said it’s “really rare” for rape to result in a pregnancy: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” And former Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock defended his position supporting no exception for rape victims by saying, “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” Both lost Senate races in 2012 after Democrats torched them for those remarks.
Democrats are hoping they can repeat that strategy on a wide scale. Democratic senators expect additional votes on abortion rights once the Supreme Court issues a final decision, and they see comments like Walker’s as fuel for their candidates.
“It’s out of step with where folks are, there’s no question,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chair of the Democratic Senate campaign arm. “It’s a very extreme position … That’s the wrong place to be.”
Still, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer indicated on Tuesday he’s not planning to bring up narrow legislation focused on protecting those exceptions. He said Democrats “are not going to support any kind of bill that will backtrack on the needs to protect a woman’s right to choose, plain and simple.” Instead, much of the Democratic push will be focused on midterm messaging, such as a virtual roundtable Senate Democrats are holding Wednesday with Democratic state officials including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
In interviews, Senate Republicans declined to go as far as Walker, who Tuesday night clinched his party’s nomination to take on Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) in November. Most said they would support the three main abortion exceptions, though Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said he’d only support an exception “for the life of the mother,” not for rape or incest. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the most vulnerable Senate GOP incumbent this cycle, said he has “always” supported the three exceptions.
Still, Republican support for certain abortion exceptions is of little comfort to Democrats and abortion rights proponents who — at the very least — want to see Roe v. Wade codified. With the exception of Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the GOP conference opposes that idea.
“What happens is many of the Republicans want to drag it off and say it’s somewhere else,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “And the fact that any Republican is willing to take an even more extremist view is not really the point. We need to be supporting Roe. That’s what the American people want us to do. So that’s where I put the stick in the ground and hold on.”
A complete ban on abortion is out of step with the vast majority of Americans. According to a Pew Research Center Survey, conducted before the disclosure of the draft opinion, only 8 percent of U.S. adults say there should never be an exception for an abortion. Meanwhile, 61 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal “in all or most circumstances.”
Some state lawmakers are pushing for more abortion restrictions in anticipation of the Supreme Court decision. But that effort backfired in Louisiana, after legislators there rejected a bill that would have classified an abortion as a homicide.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has introduced a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, said that including abortion exceptions to his bill “meant a lot.”
“You get a lot more support from the pro-life voting bloc if you did it that way,” he said, adding that while he understood Walker’s position, “single issue voters don’t decide elections.”
For now, most Senate Republicans are brushing off Walker’s comments.
“If this goes back to the states, he’s not going to get to vote on that,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas.). “Nor will I. It will be decided at the state level if the draft opinion overruling Roe ends up being the final opinion. So I’m not going to be making those decisions.”