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Monday, May 20, 2024

The one pivot Republicans could make to start winning again

Republicans have an abortion problem, and there is only one Party leader who can fix it: Donald Trump.

Let me explain. Like the proverbial dog chasing the bus, the GOP spent years campaigning on the promise to appoint Supreme Court justices who would repeal Roe v. Wade but when finally successful, had no idea how to navigate the resulting political landscape. Democrats have used the reversal of Roe and Republicans’ subsequent anti-abortion initiatives to paint the party as extreme, thereby winning over women and younger voters.

The overturning of Roe handed abortion policy back to the states, where it will stay for the foreseeable future. Our country is so divided on the issue that Congress is unlikely to pass a nationwide law any time soon.


Given that power, some red states like Texas have enacted draconian laws banning all or nearly all abortions, a position that is unpopular with the majority of Americans. Other states have had long-standing restrictions on the books that were not enforceable because of Roe; now, some of those are in play.

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Wisconsin, for instance, has a statute from 1849 that banned most abortions. That law is under review by the state’s Supreme Court. Just recently, Badger State residents voted to fill a seat on that court; a Democrat who favors abortion rights won that race by a shockingly wide margin after the contest became the most expensive such match-up in Wisconsin’s history. Because of that win, liberals now hold a majority on the state court, for the first time in decades. 

Remember that Donald Trump won Wisconsin in 2016, and then lost it in 2020 to Joe Biden, both by narrow margins; it is truly a “swing state”. In the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans actually gained seats in Wisconsin’s state legislature. So, the recent loss of the court seat, driven by the dispute over abortion, should be a wake-up call to Republicans.


Red states, too, have delivered warning shots to Republicans. Last year in Kansas, voters soundly defeated a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that would have banned abortions. Even in conservative Kansas, about 60% of voters shot down the measure. As in the Wisconsin senate race, turnout was extremely high.

Polling shows very clearly that Americans want abortion to be safe, legal and also to be restricted to the early months of pregnancy. Some 61% of Americans in a Pew survey last year said abortion should be legal in all or most cases – about the same number that defeated the Kansas resolution. 

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Polling also shows strong support (70%) for the kind of referendum offered voters in Kansas.  There are 14 states currently that have a total or near-ban on abortions, including some swing states like Wisconsin and Georgia – states which could determine the outcome of future presidential elections. Other swing states, like Ohio and Arizona, have bans that are on hold pending court rulings.


How can Republicans be faithful to voters who firmly oppose abortion but also appeal to the majority, and win elections? By demanding that every state put abortion laws before voters, instead of allowing governors and state legislatures to dictate policy. In some states, that would likely result in a continuation of broad restrictions; in others, it would not. That’s called democracy, with all voters having their say. The GOP needs a leader to declare this the Party’s policy. The only person able and perhaps willing to do so is Donald Trump.

First, remember that abortion was not an issue central to Trump’s 2016 campaign. Indeed, he was barely familiar with party orthodoxy when he claimed early on that women who had abortions should be “punished,” a position he quickly reversed when admonished from the right and the left. Banning abortion ranks below China’s threat, a strong military and solid economic growth for the former president, and a lot of Republicans would agree with him.

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Second, Donald Trump has been blamed for post-Roe election losses in the midterms and in special elections. He would relish, instead, pinning those losses on the GOP’s abortion policies. 

Third, Trump can remind voters that the Republican Party is supposed to be the party of freedom and liberty. How can the GOP claim that mantle while denying half the country one of the most personal freedoms that exists – how to manage their own bodies and their families?

Fourth, Democrats have taken an extreme position on abortion by passing offensive laws in states they dominate. In New York, abortion is allowed up to and including at nine months, if “in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health.” The law does not specify what the health threat might be; depression might satisfy the “health care provider” who does not even have to be a doctor. It is time the GOP turned the “extremist” weapon on Democrats. 

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Fifth, Republicans need to broaden their appeal if they want to win elections. In the recent Chicago mayor’s run-off race, Paul Vallas, easily the more accomplished of the two competing Democrats, was defeated partly because his opponent ran ads featuring a 2009 clip in which Vallas describes himself as “more of a Republican than a Democrat.” Imagine: the Republican brand is so tarnished that in a troubled city bleeding residents, the “R” word elects a man with virtually zero credentials.


Any Republican candidate who comes out with a balanced abortion policy, even one that channels the majority of voters, will lose support among Evangelicals and the powerful pro-life movement. On the other hand, Trump is in an extremely strong position currently, notwithstanding his many legal issues, has been a champion of religious freedom and should be uniquely able to withstand the tempest. He can remind pro-lifers that he delivered a conservative Supreme Court, without which voters would not be able to choose. And, it is worth noting that not that long ago, the GOP, including then-Governor Ronald Reagan, were leaders in liberalizing abortion policy.

By siding with the American majority, Trump could do something powerful for the GOP: make it great again.


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