How Republicans in Key Senate Races Are Flip-Flopping on Abortion

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Republican candidates in all eight of the country’s most competitive Senate races have changed their approach on the issue of abortion, softening their rhetoric, shifting their positions and, in at least one case, embracing policies championed by Democrats.

From Michigan to Maryland, Republicans are trying to repackage their views to defang an issue that has hurt their party at the ballot box since the Supreme Court overturned federal abortion rights. While the pivot is endemic across races in swing states, the most striking shifts have come from candidates who unsuccessfully ran for the Senate just two years ago in their home states, with abortion views that sounded very different.

When Bernie Moreno, a Republican businessman, ran for a Senate seat in Ohio in 2022, he described his views as “absolute pro-life, no exceptions.”

“Life begins at conception” and “abortion is the murder of an innocent baby,” he said on social media.

He has since softened his position. In March, he said he supported a 15-week national abortion ban. But his spokeswoman also says abortion “should be primarily decided at the state level,” that he backs “reasonable exceptions” and that he has maintained those positions throughout the 2024 election cycle.

In 2022, David McCormick, a Republican businessman running for Senate in Pennsylvania, touted his staunch commitment to opposing abortion. Asked at a Republican primary debate that April if he would support exceptions to abortion bans if Roe v. Wade was overturned, he said he believed in exceptions in the “very rare instances” when a woman’s life was at risk.

Now, as he makes his second bid for the Senate, he has urged Americans to “find common ground.” Language saying “life begins at conception” has disappeared from his website, which now notes that abortion is legal in the state until 24 weeks — the federal standard under Roe. And a campaign spokesman told CNN in April that Mr. McCormick “inadvertently left out” exceptions for rape and incest from his debate answer two years earlier.

Those kinds of shifts mark the latest effort by Republican candidates to reconcile their party’s decades-old opposition to abortion rights with the changed political reality of an issue that has helped power Democrats to electoral victory since the fall of Roe.

Before the 2022 midterms, Senator Lindsey Graham tried to rally Republicans around a 15-week federal abortion ban, arguing that voters would embrace what some in his party framed as a “reasonable” limit. But the position became a cudgel for Democrats in key races and cost Republicans seats, with losses in swing states including Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Now, many Republicans are adopting former President Donald J. Trump’s position of leaving the issue to the states.

“They’re iterating,” said Angela Kuefler, a Democratic pollster who is involved with Senate races in Florida and Arizona. “They’re aware of what a massive liability their position has been in the last couple elections since the fall of Roe.”

Some of the candidates have staked out positions that seem at odds, describing themselves as “pro-life” but also supportive of their own state’s abortion laws, which legalize the procedure in almost all cases.

National Republicans say that their position is clear and that it is Democrats who are trying to overcome their weak poll numbers on the economy, inflation and controlling the border by focusing the Senate races on abortion rights.

“Republican Senate candidates have clearly stated their opposition to a national abortion ban, as well as their support for exceptions in the case of rape, incest, and to protect the life of the mother,” said Tate Mitchell, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate Republican campaign arm. “We plan to aggressively combat Democrat attempts to demagogue this issue.”

A handful of Democrats, too, have shifted their position on abortion in recent years.

Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, the incumbent Democrat who is trying to fend off Mr. McCormick, voted in 2018 to advance a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and frequently referred to himself as a “pro-life Democrat.” But after the 2022 leak of the draft Supreme Court decision that would end Roe, he joined the efforts to codify its protections into law.

“No senator has made a more radical change to his position on abortion than Bob Casey Jr.,” said Elizabeth Gregory, a spokeswoman for Mr. McCormick. “His extreme stance is out of step with Pennsylvania.”

But Mr. Casey is an outlier in his party, which placed abortion rights at the center of its 2024 messaging. Nearly all Democrats support legalizing abortion at the federal level and generally do not back restrictions on the procedure, such as the number of weeks in pregnancy, saying the decision should be left to women and their doctors.

It’s a position that’s been embraced by one Republican running in a deep blue state. Larry Hogan, the former governor of Maryland and a moderate Republican who is running for Senate, recently said he, too, would vote to codify Roe — an embrace of a new position that came just days after he won his primary. He also said he would vote to enshrine abortion rights in the state’s Constitution, a measure that will be on the ballot in November.

Asked by The New York Times how he would describe his view on abortion, Mr. Hogan said, “Given the definition of what I’m supporting — women’s rights to make their own decision — I would say that’s pro-choice.”

The other Republican Senate campaigns declined to make their candidates available for interviews on the topic. Some did not reply to general requests about the issue.

None of the other candidates have gone quite as far on abortion as Mr. Hogan. But several have backed away from more strident anti-abortion positions they’ve previously supported in public office.

Former Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the front-runner in the Michigan Senate Republican primary, cosponsored multiple anti-abortion measures in the House, including bills granting constitutional rights to zygotes at conception. But now he says that, as a senator, he wouldn’t support federal proposals that would undo the protections Michigan voters have put into place to keep abortion legal until 24 weeks.

“The people of Michigan spoke in a loud voice in 2022 and this is a settled issue in our state,” Mr. Rogers said in a statement. “I will take no position as their voice in Washington that is at odds with the rights guaranteed by voters in the Michigan Constitution.”

And in Wisconsin, Eric Hovde, a Republican Senate candidate who in 2012 told reporters he was “totally opposed” to abortion, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, now says women have a “right to make a choice” early in a pregnancy.

“Eric Hovde can’t hide from the fact that he supports an abortion ban and thinks politicians like him should be in charge of women’s health care,” his Democratic opponent, Senator Tammy Baldwin, said in a statement.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, urged anti-abortion candidates to “go on offense” to expose their opponents’ “extremism.”

“We know what doesn’t win elections: the ‘ostrich strategy’ of burying one’s head in the sand and hoping this issue goes away,” she said in a statement.

Abortion remains one of only a few issues where Democrats, who are struggling to combat poor ratings on the economy, foreign policy and immigration, have a political advantage. Some Republican strategists doubt the issue will have the same resonance in 2024 as it did in the past two election cycles, when abortion rights energized a coalition of liberal, independent and even some moderate Republican women behind Democratic candidates.

A series of polls in battleground states by The New York Times, Siena College and The Philadelphia Inquirer found that abortion ranked below the economy and immigration when voters were asked what issue was most important in determining their vote.

However, 11 percent of battleground state voters — and 17 percent of women — ranked it as their most important issue, which suggests there is still a core of voters deeply activated around the issue.

With a wave of abortion referendums expected to appear on ballots in states across the country, Democrats believe the issue will remain central for voters in the fall. They’ve spent significant time and money reminding voters of Republicans’ past support for abortion restrictions and bans, blanketing airwaves with the records of their opponents. More than a quarter of their ads in the first four months of the year focused on the issue.

“On record and on video, Republican Senate candidates have made clear they back harsh restrictions on abortion and oppose women’s right to make their own health care decisions,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Republican candidates know their agenda is unpopular, and their pathetic attempt to hide their position just reinforces why voters don’t trust them.”

In recent weeks, much of the Democratic effort has been focused on Arizona, where party officials and their allies have spent millions boosting a ballot measure that would enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution. The issue emerged as a political flashpoint this month when lawmakers repealed a near-total ban on abortions but enforced a 15-week ban, with no exceptions for rape or incest.

Over the past two years, Kari Lake, the Republican now running for Senate, has appeared to be on all sides of Arizona’s abortion legislation.

She praised the state’s 1864 abortion law that banned nearly all abortions in the state when she was running for governor in 2022, calling it a “great law.” She also said she would sign a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

But last month, when the state’s Supreme Court reinstated the 1864 law, she denounced it as “out of step” with Arizonans and personally called Republicans in the statehouse to say she supported repealing it. In a video, she said she opposed federal funds on abortion as well as federal bans.

Not every Republican’s shift has been drastic. Some candidates, Ms. Kuefler said, have simply quietly shifted their tone, eschewing graphic discussions about abortion in favor of warmer language.

Tim Sheehy, a Republican running for Senate in Montana, accused Democrats of “murdering our unborn children” on a local radio show in 2023, before he announced his bid. Earlier this year, he described himself as backing “common-sense protections” on the procedure, said he believed further restrictions should be left to the states and said he supported exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

In 2022, Sam Brown, the Republican front-runner in the Senate primary in Nevada, was named chairman of his state’s branch of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. The announcement of his appointment said one of the group’s aims was “protecting life.”

But as a candidate for Senate, he sat for an emotional interview in which his wife, Amy Brown, told the story of her own abortion. In that interview, he said he respected a Nevada state law allowing abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy and opposes a federal ban on the procedure.

“Amy and I have spoken extensively about this topic and believe, first and foremost, that mothers who are facing an unplanned pregnancy deserve the utmost compassion and understanding,” Mr. Brown said in a statement, in which he called himself “pro-life” but supportive of exceptions. “Like President Trump, I believe the issue is now correctly left at the state level and applaud his leadership.”





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