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As Republicans’ hoped-for red wave turned out to be more of a red ripple, GOP presidential hopefuls should make note of what worked and what didn’t.
Various post-mortems were quick to blame pro-life candidates and the Dobbs decision. Headlines proclaimed, “Abortion Again Proves to be a Winning Issue for Democrats” and “Voters solidify pro-abortion stance at the polls.”
This facile narrative is wrong.
Most Americans are not “pro-abortion” by any stretch. The position of today’s Democratic Party – abortion on demand until birth, paid for by taxpayers – has never been popular. Even immediately after Dobbs, it garnered only 10% support.
In the presidential election cycle that’s just beginning, it is a given that candidates must go on offense – but it’s not sufficient. They must also center a strong, pro-life GOP agenda around national minimum protections for the unborn child and mothers. One prominent Democrat pollster conceded the party’s fear of this debate, saying, “Debating [gestational] weeks is not where we want to be,” and blaming voters: “People are terrible at math and terrible at biology.”
The kernel of truth is that Dobbs posed the best chance Democrats will ever have to use the abortion issue politically and energize a demotivated base. It was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime, seismic event.
During this general election, Democrats spent an unprecedented $391 million on abortion-focused TV ads alone, compared with only $11 million on the GOP side – outspending them more than 35-to-1. Combined with the primaries, Democrats spent more on advertising than McDonald’s Corporation did last year (albeit less than Planned Parenthood’s annual taxpayer funding).
Republicans who weren’t prepared were susceptible to bad advice. They did their best imitation of an ostrich – burying their heads in the sand, letting their opponents define them. Dr. Oz’s loss in Pennsylvania and Adam Laxalt’s in Nevada are two disappointing examples.
For Democrats who spent millions casting their opponents as heartless villains who don’t care if women die, and were met with silence or a weak response, lying worked.
But for those whose Republican opponents not only strongly refuted them, but also went on offense and challenged them to defend their actual agenda, pro-abortion extremism became a liability.
Republicans will likely still take back the House majority.
Republican Senate candidates who won were clearly the reasonable adults in the room on abortion policy, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, North Carolina Senator-elect Ted Budd and Ohio Senator-elect J.D. Vance. They exposed their opponents as extremists who support abortion on demand without limits, in contrast to a well-articulated pro-life position centered around consensus measures such as protections for unborn children when their heartbeat can be detected or they can feel pain.
Starting in mid-September, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s legislation to set a minimum national limit on abortion at 15 weeks provided a concrete backstop against the Democrats’ smears. All three winning Senate candidates embraced this political gift to their advantage. Rubio deserves special mention as the first Senate colleague to co-sponsor Graham’s bill, and he didn’t hesitate to call out his opponent Democrat Val Demings’ record of opposing any limits.
The clear takeaway for GOP candidates entering the 2024 presidential cycle is this: Winners define their opponents, contrasting their extremism with a well-articulated pro-life position centered around consensus measures such as protections for unborn babies when their heartbeat can be detected or when they can feel pain.
Pro-life governors also did particularly well. Governors Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, Mike DeWine, Kay Ivey, Brian Kemp, Henry McMaster, Kristi Noem, Kim Reynolds, Kevin Stitt and others were handily re-elected. The smallest margin of victory among them was eight points, the largest 37 points. Each has signed ambitious pro-life protections into law. Dobbs did not sneak up on them, because they had already spent months or years preparing and debating the issues.
By the end of the week, Kari Lake in Arizona could join the winners’ ranks. In Georgia, Republican Herschel Walker will fight on as the U.S. Senate race heads to a runoff. SBA Pro-Life America and our partner Women Speak Out PAC have had boots on the ground there for more than a year, and we will invest at least $1 million to educate voters about Democrat Sen. Raphael Warnock’s extremism and help secure Walker’s victory.
President Joe Biden in his reaction speech Wednesday afternoon said, “I will veto any attempt to pass a national ban on abortion.” He was not asked a single question either about his blatant mischaracterization of GOP legislation or his squelching of democracy. We can be sure pro-life presidential contenders will not get gentle treatment. Leadership is critical. Those who don’t lean in will find themselves left out.
Republican primary candidates may have different views on what is achievable. We welcome that debate, especially in the general election setting. Doing so affords the best opportunity to show America the true extremists – Biden and the Democrats who refuse to support a single protection for the unborn.