Despite Republican candidates nationwide still nursing their wounds from an embarrassing performance in the 2022 midterm elections ― in large part because of their extreme stance on abortion ― House Republicans kicked off 2023 by passing a pair of anti-abortion bills full of misinformation and dangerous policy changes for pregnant people.
The move seemingly gave us a peek into the GOP mindset, from Capitol Hill all the way down to state-level lawmakers: opposing abortion will be a winning strategy.
In deep red states, Republicans introduced bills that would allow authorities to criminally prosecute pregnant individuals for seeking abortion care. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a six-week abortion ban into law, despite the question of whether the state’s 15-week ban was even constitutional. Idaho became the first state to restrict interstate travel for abortion since Roe v. Wade fell ― forcing providers to leave the state or face criminal punishment for doing their jobs. A Texas judge halted FDA approval for one of the two drugs used in medication abortion, laying the groundwork for a nationwide ban. North Carolina Republicans passed a 12-week abortion ban after a once pro-choice Democrat switched parties mid-session and gave Republicans a veto-proof majority.
Halfway through 2023, Republicans seemed to be gearing up to win the abortion battle. But, if you looked closely enough, there were clues that they knew their anti-abortion strategy was flawed and unpopular.
In North Carolina, Republicans quietly tucked the 12-week abortion ban into an unrelated bill, allowing them to circumvent the traditional committee process and go straight to a vote less than 48 hours after introducing the legislation.
“Senate Republicans know that by talking about abortion, it’s bad for them,” North Carolina state Sen. Sydney Batch (D) told HuffPost in May, the day before the 12-week abortion ban passed.
“This was always their plan, to run this through without any insight, in the dark of night, so that the rest of the general public won’t know that little girls today will have less rights than their mothers,” she said. “They want this done as quickly as possible. They want to hold this override, and they want to be done talking about abortion.”
DeSantis, who had hosted an entire event at a central Florida church in 2022 to enact his 15-week abortion ban, opted to sign his six-week ban into law in the dead of night surrounded by a handful of supporters. The six-week ban, along with a slew of other “anti-woke” bills passed in the Florida legislature, were part of a larger strategy to boost DeSantis’ candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. In reality, the ban lost DeSantis some of his biggest donors who were worried his extreme policies would not appeal to moderate voters on a national level. DeSantis, who was initially seen as a real contender against Donald Trump, is now trailing in polls by nearly 50 points.
“What Republicans are trying to do is win a messaging war. But they can’t because it’s not a messaging issue for them, it’s a policy issue,” said Mini Timmaraju, president of Reproductive Freedom For All, formerly known as NARAL Pro-Choice.
Many abortion rights advocates have said it time and time again, but it bears repeating: Abortion restrictions are unpopular. Eight in 10 Americans believe that the decision to get an abortion should be made by the pregnant person, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published just weeks after DeSantis signed his six-week abortion ban into law.
Nearly 75% of voters in a Change Research survey said that Republicans have gone too far on abortion restrictions this year, including 51% of those who voted for Trump in 2020. (Trump himself has even attributed his party’s defeat in last year’s midterms to candidates’ extreme stance on abortion.)
DeSantis isn’t the only conservative in a purple state who struggled to figure out how to talk about abortion this year. From Republicans in Florida and North Carolina to, more recently, Virginia and Ohio, no one knows how to campaign on abortion restrictions without the guardrails Roe once provided. It used to be that Republicans could galvanize their base by calling for severe abortion restrictions or trigger bans ― while knowing they would never be able to act on these political promises, which aren’t actually popular with most voters.
“Republicans might have had a more appealing environment for talking about abortion when Roe v. Wade was the law of the land because then the conversation was theoretical,” Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, told HuffPost ahead of the Virginia elections in November.
Ohio, notorious for some of the most extreme anti-choice legislation in the country, codified abortion rights into the state constitution late this year, an outcome that aligns with past ballot initiatives to codify abortion rights in states ranging from Michigan and California to Montana and Kentucky. When Americans get to vote directly on the issue of abortion, they continually vote pro-choice.
The lead-up to Ohio’s election was rife with controversy and misinformation peddled by anti-choices Republicans in the state who hoped to confuse voters. Despite Ohioans overwhelmingly voting to protect abortion rights, Republicans are still trying to deny the outcome of the election.
In Virginia, we just watched Republicans experiment in real time how to handle the question of abortion in a post-Roe world. Ahead of the November election, in which the entire Virginia legislature was on the ballot for the first time since the fall of Roe, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) was vying for a GOP trifecta that would give him the power to enact the 15-week abortion ban he has championed.
Virginia conservatives took different approaches to discussing a potential 15-week abortion ban on the campaign trail. We witnessed some longtime anti-abortion Republicans scrub their websites of extreme anti-choice language and refuse to discuss the issue on the campaign trail. But most stuck with the party line, hand fed from Youngkin himself: A 15-week abortion ban is “common sense” and, in fact, it’s so moderate that it doesn’t constitute an actual ban.
As Virginia Democrats railed against their Republican opponents for trying to bring an abortion ban to the state, the GOP stayed true to its party line: “Here’s the truth: There is no ban. Virginia Republicans support a reasonable 15-week limit with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. It’s a commonsense position,” declared an ad created by Youngkin’s political action committee.
Youngkin, who had a Republican majority in the state House and was hoping to flip the Senate, failed to gain a majority in the Senate and unexpectedly lost control of the House. Weeks later, Virginia Democrats took the first steps toward creating a ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights into the state’s constitution.
“Maybe even a few years ago, some Democrats would have been afraid to fight back on Glenn Youngkin and a 15-week ban,” Timmaraju said. “This time, thanks to the record number of wins by pro-reproductive freedom ballot initiatives, they were like, ‘You know what, we’re gonna call a ban a ban,’ and it worked.”
“That’s a huge lesson from 2023. Don’t let them have an inch.”
This year was a warning sign to Republicans who plan to run on anti-abortion platforms in 2024. The anti-choice strategies that may have worked when Roe was the law of the land don’t work on a large scale now.
Some Republican presidential contenders are paying attention. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have pivoted their abortion talking points from supporting anti-choice policies to letting voters decide, both recently said.
“As much as I’m pro-life, I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life,” Haley said during last month’s Republican presidential debate. “Let’s find consensus… We don’t need to divide America over this issue anymore.”
Whether the public actually believes this newfound moderate rhetoric from certain Republicans has yet to be seen, it shows that voters have gotten smarter. Watching more and more pregnant people nearly die from abortion bans has revealed the real consequences of these restrictions. Republicans vying for the presidency or those trying to get elected in crucial swing states will need to rethink their 2024 abortion strategy if they want to compete in a post-Roe political world.