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Abortion Is Motivating Voters, but Republicans Would Rather Change the Subject

In Wisconsin, Tim Michels, a Republican running for governor, promised activists that he would never “flip-flop” on his support for an 1849 law that bans abortion except when a woman’s life is threatened. Less than three weeks later, he changed his stance.

In the Phoenix suburbs, staffers whisked away Juan Ciscomani, a Republican House candidate, citing an urgent text, after he was asked by a voter whether he supported abortion bans.

And in New Hampshire, Don Bolduc, the Republican running for Senate, described abortion as a distraction from the “really important issues.”

In races across the nation, Republican candidates are waffling on their abortion positions, denying past behavior or simply trying to avoid a topic that has long been a bedrock principle of American conservatism. Less than a month before the midterm elections on Nov. 8, the party lacks a unified policy on abortion, unable to broadly adopt a consistent response in the three and a half months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“I do believe it’s caught them slightly off guard with just how bad an issue this is for them,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who leads focus groups. “The party has opted for changing the conversation entirely because abortion is just bad terrain for them.”

Some party leaders and strategists have urged candidates to adopt poll-tested positions popular with large swaths of independent voters: No restrictions on contraception, no bans before about 15 weeks and including exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. But those policies are a compromise position, falling short of the long-held goal of the party’s socially conservative wing to end all abortions. They also clash with some of the past language and positions of Republican candidates.

That has left candidates, particularly those in purple states, caught between the more moderate views of independent voters and a conservative base that views the court’s ruling as the beginning of restrictions, not the end. Now, many of the party’s candidates in the most competitive contests are racing to recast their positions.

Credit…Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

“I’m winning because people see a strong leader, a man of conviction, a man who doesn’t waffle, a man who doesn’t flip-flop,” Mr. Michels, the Republican nominee for governor in Wisconsin, told Republican activists and officials on Sept. 6 about the state ban. “I’m going to stick with what I know is right.”

But within weeks, he reversed his stance on opposing expanding exceptions to a Wisconsin abortion ban, saying that, if elected, he would sign legislation to include rape and incest.

Many of the pivots have been even less artful. In Maine, a former governor, Paul LePage, is running to lead the state again and repeatedly stumbled over a question about whether he would sign more restrictive abortion laws if elected. “I don’t know what you mean by 15 weeks, 28 weeks. Because I don’t know,” Mr. LePage said after a protracted exchange on a debate stage last week.

And in Arizona, a spokesman for Kari Lake, the Republican nominee for governor, had to clarify last week that Ms. Lake was not advocating changes to the state’s near-total abortion ban after she told a Phoenix talk-radio host that the procedure should be “rare and legal.”

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How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

In an interview with CBS News on Sunday, Ms. Lake said she was trying to articulate how far the Democratic Party had moved from its Clinton-era talking points of “safe, legal and rare,” asserting that the procedure has become “anything but rare.” But she refused to say whether she would pursue restrictions on abortions sooner than 15 weeks into pregnancy, diverting the conversation to adoption and falsely casting her Democratic opponent as supportive of “abortion right up until birth.”

Her remarks follow guidance circulated by some party strategists who are urging their candidates to flip the script, labeling Democrats as the “extremists” on the issue. That message has been adopted by a number of high-profile Republican Senate candidates in recent debates, including Ted Budd in North Carolina, Blake Masters in Arizona and J.D. Vance in Ohio.

“We’ve been encouraged to see pro-life Republicans in high-profile races increasingly use this strategy to show contrast to their advantage,” said Mallory Carroll, a spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, an advocacy group that opposes abortion rights.

But other Republican strategists and party officials argue that the potency of the issue is fading as economic concerns grow more intense, and they are urging candidates to focus instead on rising prices and violent crime.

“To sustain that level of interest and enthusiasm in the current political climate for five months is very difficult, especially with more pressing personal pocketbook issues hurting voters,” said Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster engaged in a number of midterm races.

Mark Graul, a longtime Republican strategist based in Wisconsin, said that right after the Supreme Court decision, the abortion issue was “very much front and center.”

But in the final weeks of the race, Mr. Graul said, voters are saying, “‘I care about that, but I care about how much it costs to fill up my car and buy groceries. And is my family going to be safe?’” He added: “I think they’re starting to care about that more.”

While polls show that the majority of voters support a federal right to an abortion, Democrats are not favored to maintain control of Congress, given still-high inflation, concerns about crime and President Biden’s low approval ratings.

Still, Democrats are trying to ensure that Republicans cannot escape so easily. After decades of treating the issue as a second-tier priority, the Democratic Party has made abortion rights a centerpiece of its fall campaign, spending nearly $213 million to blanket the airwaves with ads about it, according to AdImpact, an advertising-tracking firm.

Celinda Lake, a veteran Democratic pollster and strategist, called the political debate over abortion rights “the best thing going for the Democrats.”

“It can’t be the only thing going for the Democrats,” she added. But many Republicans, she said, are “having a lot of difficulty” discussing the issue.

The need to square decades of opposition to abortion rights with the new political environment has led to some complicated contortions for Republicans, some of whom have tried to cast themselves less as drivers of abortion bans and more as bystanders.

Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska, a Republican who faces a tough race for re-election, said he supported not only the 15-week federal ban but prohibiting abortion starting at conception. But Mr. Bacon also argues that such a policy would never pass the Senate because it would be unable to garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster — essentially telling voters not to worry about his positions because they will be blocked by Democrats.

Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

“Whether we have a pro-abortion majority in the House and Senate, or a pro-life majority in the Senate or House, you’re not going to get past a 60-vote threshold in the Senate,” he said, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” “So the reality is, most of this is going to be done at the state level.”

In his primary race, Joe Lombardo, the sheriff of the Las Vegas area who is running for Nevada governor, summarized his position on abortion with three words: “Joe is pro-life.”

But a 747-word note published on his campaign website late last month reversed his stance on an abortion rule in Nevada. He said he would not repeal an executive order protecting women from being prosecuted for seeking an abortion in the state, which has emerged as a safe haven for the procedure as neighboring Utah, Arizona and Idaho have restricted access.

An ad by a conservative group in Nevada echoes that argument, accusing Democrats of “scaring” voters about the state’s abortion laws and saying politicians cannot change the rules allowing the procedure until 24 weeks.

The claims by Mr. Lombardo and the group ignore the power of executive orders to add new restrictions and the possibility that Congress could pass a national ban, superseding state law with a stricter federal standard.

Not all Republicans have been so quick to finesse their stances.

A campaign ad released last week by Jeff Crossman, the Democratic candidate for Ohio attorney general, takes aim at the Republican incumbent and his public questioning of the existence of a 10-year-old rape victim who left the state for an abortion. The child was blocked from obtaining an abortion in Ohio because she was three days past a six-week limit on abortions. The attorney general, Dave Yost, initially said the report was likely to be a “fabrication.”

“Dave Yost, you disgust me,” a woman identified only as Geri of Northeast Ohio says to the camera in the ad. “When a 10-year-old was raped and impregnated, Yost went on national TV and called it a hoax? I am a grandmother, and I have a 10-year-old granddaughter.”

Mr. Yost has resisted calls to apologize for doubting the victim. “I don’t understand what you think I need to apologize for,” he said in an interview with a local television program. “We didn’t even know the identity, and still don’t, of that poor victim.”

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