Republicans struggle as they keep getting forced to talk about abortion

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Republicans keep trying to come up with a coherent message on abortion. And real life keeps intruding.

On the campaign trail this week, Nikki Haley was pressed — yet again — to say whether she’d sign a national abortion ban into law. She dismissed the prospect of such a ban as an effort to “scare people” and jostled with Chris Christie over who had the more reasonable position on abortion.

As the two traded shots, though, they were upstaged by events far away from New Hampshire.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, an ally of former President Donald Trump, drew national attention for blocking Kate Cox, whose fetus had a terminal condition, from having an abortion. And then, on Wednesday, the Supreme Court decided to take up a case that could affect access to mifepristone — a ruling that could get in the way of GOP efforts to sound reasonable on the issue.

The contrast between the GOP candidates’ maneuvering toward the middle and the real-world events that remind the public of the party’s most aggressively anti-abortion faction shows how vexing the issue remains for the party. Eighteen months after the fall of Roe v. Wade, even Republicans who try to moderate — or, like Donald Trump, try not to talk about it — are struggling mightily to get on the right side of popular opinion.

“We have to humanize the situation and deal with it with compassion,” Haley told reporters at Tuesday’s New Hampshire town hall when asked about the Texas case.

The conversation around abortion rights has remained front and center since the Supreme Court overturned Roe last year — from Republicans’ ongoing debate about a national abortion ban to off-year elections reemphasizing the salience of abortion rights for voters.

Republicans continue struggling to find a position they can sell to both their base and the general public, a point that Christie stressed at a New Hampshire town hall on Wednesday: “The voters in this state have a right to know where [Haley] stands, not just her happy talk,” he said. “She wants to be everything to everybody on that issue.”

Haley’s comments on the Cox case in Texas stake out a less aggressive position on abortion than some of her fellow Republicans — and it’s not the first time she has taken such a stance. In November’s GOP presidential debate, Haley urged Republicans to be “honest” about the feasibility of enacting a federal abortion ban.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis echoed a similar sentiment at a CNN town hall on Tuesday, saying situations like Cox’s need to be approached with “compassion.” He pointed to Florida’s six-week abortion ban that he signed earlier this year, saying it has exceptions to save the mother’s life or if the fetus has a fatal condition.

“I understand they’re very difficult, and these things get a lot of press attention,” he said. “That’s a very small percentage that those exceptions cover.”

Christie responded more directly: The Texas Supreme Court was wrong. And so was Haley, he said, for not being clear.

“I think it’s really, really difficult for me to understand why Gov. Haley won’t answer that question, why she says things like, ‘We should be compassionate,’” he told reporters Wednesday. “What the hell does that mean? Are you for it or against it?”

Christie said it’s “not pro-life to prevent a woman from ending a pregnancy which is doomed to end in death of her child and may risk her own health.” He emphasized that he would not enact a federal abortion ban and would instead leave it to voters in the states.

Haley responded to Christie’s criticism by saying that she supports voters in the states deciding their abortion laws. But she maintained that there is no “consensus” for a federal ban, so she doesn’t want to “demonize the issue on the federal level.”

The presidential candidates have been forced to confront the Texas case, as it has been thrust into the national spotlight.

After a lower court ruled last week that Cox would be able to receive an abortion, Paxton jumped in and successfully appealed the case, blocking her ability to do so. Trump has not weighed in on the Cox case, and his campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Still, both publicly and privately, Trump has told Republicans they need to “explain [abortion] properly” on the campaign trail and has complained about Republicans in some cases going too far.

President Joe Biden’s campaign is taking the opportunity to squarely blame the former president for appointing the Supreme Court justices who tipped the court into an anti-Roe majority.

“As the chaos and cruelty created by Trump’s work overturning Roe v. Wade continues to worsen all across the country, stories like Kate Cox’s in Texas have become all too common,” Biden campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez told reporters on Tuesday.

Democrats’ message got another boost with the announcement that the court will once again weigh in on abortion rights with the mifepristone case. The Democratic National Committee issued a statement taking aim at “Trump’s Supreme Court majority,” saying the eventual ruling could be “MAGA Republicans’ latest attack on freedom in their war on a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions.”

After a series of losses in 2022 for anti-abortion causes and Republicans who supported them, 2023 only further demonstrated the staying power of abortion rights in the longer-term aftermath of Roe being overturned. Voters overwhelmingly backed abortion rights — twice — in Ohio, a state that has trended deep red in recent years. It also played out in elections across the country, like when Virginia Democrats seized full control of the state legislature by centering abortion rights in their campaigns and a liberal justice flipped ideological control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court by leaning into the issue.

Republicans have long struggled with how to message on abortion and are scrambling to figure out how to retool their strategy as 2024 approaches. Top strategists are already bracing for the familiar Democratic attack that the GOP doesn’t care about women’s access to health care.

Kellyanne Conway, a former Trump aide, even went to Capitol Hill this week to urge Republicans to pivot — talk less about banning abortion and more about protecting access to contraception.

Sarah Chamberlain, head of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a conservative group that supports conservatives who “enact commonsense legislation,” agreed that Republicans need to shift their focus. Part of that includes emphasizing that access to abortion is not a federal issue — it’s up to the states. It’s also necessary to lean into messaging about women’s health care, she said.

“If we talk about it as health care, I think we can change the narrative,” Chamberlain said. “Stop talking about abortion, and start talking about, ‘Women, if miscarrying, need to get the treatment that they need.’ This should be easy.”

Lisa Kashinsky and Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.

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