The XX Factor

Republican Midterm Debate Strategy: Be Pro-Life, But Not Anti-Abortion

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says signing a law limiting abortion access is nothing against abortion.

Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

As the midterm campaigns hit their final weeks, a clear picture of the Republican strategy on reproductive rights issues has emerged: However anti-choice you are, downplay it.

Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst usually trumpets her radical anti-choice views that include support for a federal personhood law, but she started to go squishy during Thursday night’s debate against her opponent, Rep. Bruce Baley. According to TPM, Ernst admitted she wants to ban abortion, but said:

“There would be certain exceptions but again it’s something that has to be discussed,” Ernst said. “I support life. Those things come together when there is consensus upon what is put into legislation. Right now there is not consensus but I do believe in supporting life.” When asked about what those exceptions might be, Ernst would not commit: “Going back to the life of the mother I think that would be important. But again, civil discussion needs to happen.” 

The strategy here appears to be to admit you are anti-choice but to strongly imply that your views wouldn’t ever get in the way of a voter who needs an abortion, by emphasizing that a vote on an abortion ban is unlikely to happen and to cling to those “exceptions” so that voters believe they would get one of those, or that you are reasonable.

Ernst employed this “yeah, I’m pro-life, but it’s not like it’s ever going to matter” strategy earlier in her campaign when she told the Sioux City Journal editorial board that yes, she would vote for a federal personhood amendment, but not to worry because that will never come up. “If you look at any sort of an amendment at the federal level … they come together through consensus,” she said. “And, honestly, we don’t have a consensus. It would take two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of the Senate to even pass a proposed amendment, and then it would have to be ratified by three-quarters of our states’ legislatures.” Of course, it would take a lot less to pass it simply as a law and not a constitutional amendment, something her statement doesn’t address. 

Scott Walker, defending his incumbency as governor of Wisconsin, is also trying to imply that his hostility to abortion rights won’t actually affect voters’ ability to access abortion. After running ads that said that a law he signed targeting abortion clinics for closure wasn’t about abortion at all, Walker continued to try to lull voters into thinking he’s practically pro-choice during last week’s debate against Democrat Mary Burke. After Burke hit Walker for signing bills that mandate ultrasounds and bar doctors who don’t have admitting privileges for a nearby hospital, Walker argued, “That bill leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor.” Except that the bill is intended to make sure there aren’t any doctors left who can legally work with you on that decision, and it’s only the intervention of a federal judge that has prevented that from happening. 

Rep. Cory Gardner, who is challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado, has become so notorious for dodging and weaving on abortion that moderator Kyle Clark tore into him during Wednesday night’s debate. Gardner co-sponsored the federal Life at Conception Act, which would declare fertilized eggs “persons” protected by the 14th amendment and is clearly designed to render Roe v Wade moot. But he has taken to saying the bill is just a general statement, implying that it would have no impact on abortion access. Clark confronted him at the debate, saying, “You continue to deny that the federal Life at Conception Act, which you sponsor, is a personhood bill to end abortion and we are not going to debate that here tonight because it’s a fact. Your co-sponsors say so, your opponents say so, and independent fact-checkers say so.”

Gardner was not deterred. “I think again I do not support the personhood amendment,” he said, even though he was asked about a bill, not an amendment. “The bill that you’re referring to is simply a statement that I support life.”

“But why does no one else think that?” Clark replied. “People who agree with you on the issue of life think you’re wrong about how you’re describing the bill. Everybody seems to have a cohesive idea of what this is with the exception of you, and I’m just wondering: What should voters glean from that fact?”

Gardner’s answer? “There are people who agree with my opinion on life. There are people who don’t,” he said. “I support life, I’ve voted for exceptions, but the fact is that the bill that you are talking about is simply a statement that I support life.”

Supporting “life” but declining to discuss the policy implications of that is frustrating to journalists, but it is also a savvy move. Plenty of voters like expressing a general disapproval of abortion but don’t actually want to see it banned. That’s why 43 percent of Americans claim they are both “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” By highlighting their “support” for life but hedging on their actual policy views, Republicans could very well convince many of these voters that they are just interested in judging abortion but not actually keeping women from getting one. Unfortunately, their actual legislative records show that they aren’t moderate on this issue at all.