House Republicans think Democrats' abortion rights strategy could backfire

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One year after their party was pummeled over abortion restrictions on the campaign trail, vulnerable Republicans are starting to sound unafraid of the electoral consequences of it.

Democratic party leaders have stated their intention to make abortion a primary issue in the ‘24 cycle, drawing no distinctions between Republicans who want a national ban and those with any other position.

They credit the urgency to protect abortion access after the Supreme Court Dobbs decision for holding off a red wave during the midterm elections and believe it will harm GOPers again.

But those Republican members, who managed to win in blue states like New York and California in 2022, say they are ready for this line of attack in 2024. They argue that they’re proof that its potency is overstated.

“They tried that in 2022, and my opponent spent $3.1 million trying to paint me as that when that’s not the case. I do believe in exceptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother. And I do not oppose abortion in the first trimester,” said Rep. Nick LaLota, a Republican from Long Island, N.Y. “We won by 11 points so if they want to light that money on fire in 2024 again, that’s their decision.”

LaLota calls abortion a “hot” issue but says he’s leading with a “common sense” approach. Many other New York Republicans are aiming to chart the same path.

Republican Reps. Marc Molinaro and Anthony D’Esposito, both of New York, told POLITICO that they weren’t worried about failing to represent the will of voters in their districts when it comes to abortion policy and said they would not interfere with the state’s laws on the issue. New York has one of the most liberal abortion access policies in the country.

These targeted GOP members are finding support from other moderates in Congress too when it comes to taking votes on abortion legislation. In a recent closed door meeting, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy briefed members on an upcoming vote to strengthen limits on tax funded abortion, similar to the Hyde Amendment. Chaos broke out after Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) asked, “Why the hell are we doing this?”

The bill has yet to come to the floor.

In a brief interview, Mace said that she wasn’t certain why the bill hadn’t gotten a vote but that there were “some concerns internally” about a section of it that would have potentially impacted the Affordable Care Act, and therefore private insurance plans. The bill would never make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate. But even its consideration, some feared, could be used to attack Republicans.

“I think there were just some concerns from folks in swing districts, is my read of it,” Mace said. “I don't know if that will be addressed, if they'll modify or amend that part of the bill. I don't know yet.”

Democrats are preparing to showcase this vote (if it does, in fact, make it to the floor) along with a vote earlier this year on another abortion-related bill on the campaign trail.

“Republicans in vulnerable districts may try to falsely portray themselves as moderates or distance themselves from the extreme of their party,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.). “We’re going to ensure that we disqualify each and every Republican in these states for their stances on abortion.”

The delicate approach to abortion policy of vulnerable House Republicans could get overshadowed in 2024 by the more vocal calls from GOP presidential candidates and their conservative colleagues advocating for a national ban. While former President Donald Trump has kept vague on such a policy, virtually all the other major GOP candidates have adopted a variation of it. Democrats are planning to not let them off the hook.

“Working collectively, DCCC, DNC, DSCC [will] continue to make sure that the American people understand what is at stake in this election and how extreme Republicans are. And so we’re going to do that in whatever medium is necessary to make sure that they see this information and see these folks,” said DNC Chair Jaime Harrison, highlighting that there are already billboards and soon-to-be digital ads on this issue in battleground states.

The DCCC has three new abortion-specific digital ads running against all 31 Republicans that are being targeted this cycle with more campaign messaging to follow this cycle. And President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign is also expected to aggressively campaign on abortion access, according to campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez.

But Republicans are betting that going all in on abortion may not be the elixir Democrats think it is. They suggest it could even backfire.

“Where [the advertising is] hysterical, over-the-top or clearly not credible, voters don’t buy that,” cautioned one GOP strategist, who was granted anonymity to candidly discuss 2024 election dynamics.

“There’s no question in lots of races last cycle where candidates were on camera saying ‘I’m against abortion with no expectations’ that was a real liability,” the strategist said. “Alternatively when Democrats tried to argue because of their connection to national Republicans, X-candidate was automatically going to be against abortion without exceptions and that wasn’t true, it didn’t work. Candidates were able to easily dispel that.”

The last Democratic frontliner in New York, Rep. Pat Ryan, sees it differently. He argues that voters in New York feel that abortion access in the solidly blue state is at risk amid talk of a national ban.

He won his special election and reelection, both in 2022, largely due to his unapologetic support for abortion access. While districts flipped for the GOP around Ryan’s home turf in the Hudson Valley, he hasn’t relented in his messaging on abortion and believes that Democratic challengers in New York should do the same next year.

“We have to help the American people understand. This is a stark, clear choice: either you’re for freedom or you’re not. And that centers on reproductive freedom but a lot of other freedoms that are under threat,” Ryan said. “Actions speak louder than words. People sent us here to either fight for these freedoms or go home, in my opinion.”

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