‘When it comes to social issues, the Party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.”
So concluded the Republican National Committee in its so-called autopsy analyzing the GOP’s failure in the 2012 election cycle. Party leadership might as well have filled an entire page of the document with bright-red, bolded, 20-point type: “Don’t talk about abortion.”
But since 2012, some of the most successful Republican candidates have ignored this advice — Donald Trump foremost among them — and in crucial swing states across the country in the run-up to the 2018 midterms, GOP challengers are poised to knock off Democratic incumbents whose pro-abortion voting records make them prime for unseating.
One week ago in the last debate of the Indiana Senate race, for example, Republican businessman Mike Braun hammered Democratic senator Joe Donnelly for his voting record on abortion. “When it comes to the sanctity of life, you cannot say you’re pro-life and have your voting record,” Braun told his competitor. “I’m the one that’s being endorsed by the Indiana Right to Life. Susan B. Anthony [List] has knocked on 500,000 doors for me. The National Right to Life is endorsing me. They give Joe an ‘F’ grade.”
To the average observer, it might’ve sounded like an odd or even deceptive talking point. Donnelly, after all, boasts that he was one of three Democratic senators to cross the aisle in January and vote in favor of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The bill would’ve prohibited abortions after five months of pregnancy based on scientific research suggesting that unborn children begin to feel pain at that stage of development.
But the pro-life movement is gunning for Donnelly anyway, in large part because he has voted several times over his six years in the Senate to funnel half a billion federal dollars each year to Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the country. Trump’s promise during the 2016 campaign to support legislative efforts to defund Planned Parenthood was a key component in securing the votes of pro-life Americans, many of whom were intensely skeptical of the famously libertine former businessman’s supposed change of heart on the abortion issue.
Braun’s willingness to contrast his pro-life credentials with Donnelly’s record is a big change from the 2012 campaign, when the Democratic senator was first elected. Then, Donnelly faced Republican Richard Mourdock, whose crucial gaffe when talking about abortion in cases of rape likely cost him the Senate seat.
Donnelly has been done no such favor by Braun, who has hit his Democratic opponent for his inconsistency on abortion without making any of his own missteps. And in return, Braun has received the support of the pro-life movement’s most powerful advocacy groups, most notably the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, which has launched an independent-expenditure, get-out-the-vote campaign on his behalf — and the group has done the same in several crucial swing states across the country.
“The last time these seats were up, in 2012, Republican Senate candidates made serious missteps when talking about the abortion issue,” Mallory Quigley, communications director at SBA List, tells National Review. “At the top of the ticket was Mitt Romney, who certainly did not go on offense. Then, the RNC autopsy came out advising Republicans not to talk about social issues at all. Marjorie Dannenfelser and SBA List believed that was a big mistake.”
Along with other pro-life groups, SBA List urged Republican candidates to prepare to talk about abortion in debates and on the campaign trail as intensely as they would prepare for economic and foreign-policy questions. “Candidates in 2014 and 2016 did just that, seeing [a pro-life stance] not just as the moral position to take, but as a political winner,” Quigley adds.
This election cycle has been a continuation of that trend. In several swing states that went to Trump by large margins in 2016, Democratic senators face competitive Republican opponents, several of whom haven’t been afraid to capitalize on the fact that the Democratic party is out of step with the average American on the abortion issue. North Dakota is the perfect example.
Despite having said in 2012 that she opposed publicly funded and late-term abortions, Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp voted against the 20-week abortion ban in January and has voted several times to continue federal funding of Planned Parenthood. Unsurprisingly, Heitkamp earned herself a 100 percent rating on Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s 2018 congressional scorecard.
But with her votes on the issue, she also earned herself a formidable challenger. Republican Kevin Cramer, North Dakota’s at-large congressman, told National Review in June that Heitkamp’s vote against the 20-week ban was one of the key reasons he decided to jump in the race even after having announced that he wouldn’t do so. Cramer says that following Heitkamp’s vote — and her apparent high-five with Chuck Schumer directly after the pro-life bill was defeated — his office was inundated with calls from constituents demanding that he challenge her.
Seeing the weakness of incumbents such as Donnelly and Heitkamp, SBA List went on offense, launching a nearly $30 million campaign to back pro-life Republicans trying to unseat shaky Democratic senators. The group’s ground game in recent elections has revealed the power of pro-life messaging to turn out swing voters.
“The last two cycles, we have seen that our ground team can increase turnout on average by 6.6 percent, and when we’re talking about races that come within two and three points, that effort can make the difference,” Quigley says. SBA List is expecting similar results this year, if not better.
In Indiana, for example, eight out of ten voters contacted by SBA List’s door-knocking canvassers during the campaign have said that they’re less likely to vote for Donnelly after being informed about his record of voting to fund Planned Parenthood. Nearly 70 percent of voters in North Dakota said the same of Heitkamp. The group has launched similar efforts in several other key swing states, including Florida, Montana, and Missouri, where pro-abortion Democratic incumbents face tough challenges.
The push to win over moderate voters on abortion is coming at the right time, as the Democratic party becomes increasingly radical on the issue. Just a few months ago, the Missouri Democratic party removed a plank from its platform that had welcomed pro-life voters to support the party, despite its formal endorsement of unlimited abortion rights.
In other words: According to Missouri Democrats, pro-life Missourians are not welcome in the Democratic party. The Republican response should be: Come on over.
If any of these Senate seats end up switching hands on Tuesday, the GOP will owe that victory in part to the efforts of SBA List — and to candidates and voters who recognize that supporting the right to life can be a political win.