Top Republicans Explain: How GOP Candidates Should Be Talking about Abortion
“We’re hoping they don’t notice.” That’s what a handful of GOP operatives told Rolling Stone when they were asked what pro-life voters would think about Republicans ignoring the abortion issue. We’re “advising [our] candidates to talk as little as possible about abortion proposals at this time,” they said. That’s horrible advice, movement leaders fired back. “Not only has the pro-life position historically provided more voter enthusiasm,” Kristan Hawkins argued, but “it remains a core distinction between the two parties, for those with the skill and fearlessness to make the case.” To the relief of pro-lifers, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel doesn’t just agree — she’s on a mission to prove why.
Fresh off of her speech at the Reagan Library, where she declared that Republicans can win on abortion, McDaniel continues to insist that the GOP needs to go on the offensive when it comes to life. On Monday’s “Washington Watch,” she reiterated that the surest way to lose in 2024 is to stop talking about the unborn. Why? Because “if there’s a vacuum in messaging,” the chairwoman said, “the Democrats will fill it.”
And fill it they have, she said, spending $360 million on the abortion issue alone in the 2022 midterms. “And many consultants said, ‘Don’t talk about it. Voters only care about the economy.’ That’s not true,” McDaniel argued. “Because when $360 million is spent against you, you need to respond. And we’re right on this issue. So let’s respond and be positive. … And let’s not let the media or other Republicans say we lost because of abortion. No, we lost from our inability to defend life.”
Of course, there are some, like former vice president Mike Pence, who see the turmoil in the Republican Party and are determined to remind candidates that “defending the unborn … is more important than politics.” The RNC chair feels the same, insisting, “We should be proud to be the pro-family, pro-life party. [It’s] a great place to be. It’s a compassionate place to be. It’s where most Americans are also,” she pointed out, drawing a stark contrast with Democrats who want “gender-selection abortions. They want taxpayer-funded abortions. They are in line with North Korea and China [in] allowing abortions up until a baby’s due date. These are things that are out of step with the civilized world,” McDaniel said, “and we need to push back.”
The last thing Republicans need, she emphasized, “is to put our head in the sand and say, ‘This is an issue we’re uncomfortable talking about.’” If the GOP does that, she warned, “the Democrats will define us. And we need to be out there defining ourselves and defining them.”
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins echoed that sentiment, pointing out that “when we don’t respond, the lies become the truth. That’s exactly what we saw in the midterm elections. Many Republicans were afraid to talk about this issue. And so, as you [explained], the Democrats defined it. And they’re the ones that actually have the radical positions. It’s not the Republicans, who are simply saying, ‘Look, we need to protect the unborn, and we need to find a consensus point where we can do that.’”
One Republican senator believes he’s found that consensus point: Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). When the GOP was struggling to find its voice after the end of Roe v. Wade and experts worried they couldn’t put together a cohesive message on life, Graham offered a starting point — a 15-week limit on abortion nationwide. His argument then is the same that it is now. “What kind of America do you want to live in? Fifty of the 53 European nations — I’m talking about Europe here — have limits on abortion at 15 weeks or less,” he told Perkins.
And, as polling bears out, “Most Americans are very supportive of the idea of banning late-term abortions,” he told Perkins. “Seventy percent are opposed. … My bill is at 15 weeks, and like the rest of the civilized world, I’d like to draw the line there. And to my Republican colleagues,” Graham said, “if we can’t muster the courage, post-Dobbs, to tell the country that we’re against late-term abortion, then we’ve lost our way.”
That doesn’t mean, Graham went on, that states can’t be more restrictive. If Arkansas or Louisiana want to outlaw abortion entirely, they can. He pointed to the new Florida law that limits abortion to six weeks (a threshold that Republican Governor Doug Burgum just signed into law in North Dakota). But there also needs to be a clear, nationwide boundary, Graham argued, so that children in extreme places like California, Illinois, or Maryland have a fighting chance. So “at 15 weeks, we draw the line as a nation. [That’s a] minimum federal standard.”
To him, walking away from the national conversation on life and leaving the decision-making to the states is a big mistake. “They tried this states’ rights approach to slavery,” he said. “… What did we learn over time? That owning human beings in one state is bad for the country as a whole.” The same is true for abortion. “So it’s not a states’ rights issue at all. To me, it’s a human rights issue.”
And frankly, Graham argued, it’s time to put Democrats on the defensive. “I have absolutely no problem looking any Democrat or any journalist in the eye and saying, ‘When you allow abortion on demand up to the moment of birth with taxpayer funding, that’s barbaric.’ … We will win this issue if we engage. Because when you ask the Democrat, ‘What limits do you have [on abortion]?’ they will never give you an answer.”
The reason they’re talking about abortion in the first place, McDaniel insisted, is because “they can’t talk about crime. They can’t talk about the border. They can’t talk about fentanyl. They can’t talk about anything in this country that’s going well. Energy independence. [Everything] that Democrats are in charge of is failing. So this is the issue they’re going to hone in on, and they’re going to do it through misdirection and lies and their allies and the media. And that’s where Republicans [have] got to get a backbone. We fought for this issue. We should celebrate it, but let’s not hide from it.”
If Republican candidates need help finding that backbone, Graham has some advice. “Let’s say you’re on a debate stage with a Democratic opponent, and the issue of abortion comes up. … The answer is, ‘If I go to Congress, I will make America like the civilized world — not China, not North Korea. I will vote to limit late-term abortions.’ Then, turn to your opponent and ask them, ‘What would you do when it comes to the rights of the unborn — to a baby that is well developed [and] can feel pain? When do you draw the line?’ If you’ll engage that Democrat, they will stumble all over themselves, or the Left will get mad if they have limits. So it’s a winning issue only if you fight back.”
And frankly, Perkins chimed in, the heart of this debate isn’t political. “This is a defining issue,” he insisted. “I think God gave us an opportunity to get this right. The court repented. It changed its mind over abortion. Now we have to do the work.” After a half-century of abortion, the Lord has “entrusted us with this moment. I didn’t think it would ever come, but it did. And we cannot allow what’s been happening in this country for the last 50 years to continue. We’ll take it state to state, but we need to do what we can at the federal level as well.”
Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.