Abortion can still be a winning issue for the GOP
Conservatives just need to be much smarter in how they talk about it
As an anti-abortion conservative, I must confess to some schadenfreude over the fate of Democrat Wendy Davis.
Davis, who made her name filibustering abortion restrictions last year, didn't just lose the Texas gubernatorial race. She was humiliated. Republican Greg Abbott's 20-point margin was the biggest for a non-incumbent since Texas instituted four-year terms. Abbott won women, and outperformed among Latinos, the two constituencies that Davis thought would propel her to an upset. Davis lost her state Senate seat to an anti-abortion, Tea Party activist — who is also a woman. Davis doesn't even have her honor left, having run ads basically attacking Abbott for being disabled.
Is there anything Republicans can take from this striking set of events in Texas and apply to their national strategy in the future? Of course, Texas is not exactly identical to the rest of the country — as any Texan will proudly remind you. But it's not Planet Zyrklon either. Some of the trends we saw at work in Texas also hold nationally.
In fact, Tuesday was a good night not just for the Republican Party in general, but for the anti-abortion cause more specifically. The media was rightly eager to report that the youngest congresswoman in history was elected yesterday; they were less eager to point out that Elise Stefanik, a Harvard graduate, is staunchly conservative and an opponent of abortion. Mia Love, the anti-abortion (and African American) former mayor of Saratoga Springs, was elected in Utah. In the purple-shading-blue (or so we're told) state of Colorado, Republican Cory Gardner upset Democrat Mark Udall; importantly, the main reason seems to be that Udall decided to make below-the-belt issues central to the campaign (and mendaciously), and that not only did this not work, but it backfired, with Latinos disproportionately supporting Gardner.
These events are only surprising if you live inside the Acelaland bubble. In point of fact, according to Pew, "Hispanics hold a more conservative view of abortion than the general public". Furthermore — and the media will never, ever let you know this — there basically isn't a gender gap on abortion. This only stands to reason, since women are more likely to know in an intimate way that a child in the womb is a person and not an object. This is easy to know if you speak with any of the countless existing women who oppose abortion. But this doesn't seem to be something most reporters are interested in.
Women and Latnios are crucial to national elections, and crucial to what we are told is the emerging Democratic coalition. And while it is true that they tend to be slightly more progressive on economic issues, and that this is mainly why they tend to trend leftward, huge slices of women and Latinos oppose abortion. Given this state of the chessboard, you don't have to be a supercomputer to figure out what the GOP's moves should be (besides advancing a true pro-family, pro-middle-class agenda).
While polling the issue is difficult because the answers are wildly different depending on how the questions are framed, Americans still identify more as opposed to abortion than in favor of abortion access. More specifically, more than two-thirds of Americans consistently believe abortion should be illegal in the second and third trimester, even though the national Democratic Party and allied abortion-rights groups support late-term abortion.
And yet, outside of deep red states, the GOP rarely runs on abortion. Both Mitt Romney and John McCain talked about everything except their anti-abortion commitments (which there was reason to believe were insincere anyway), even though Barack Obama's record on the issue is really out of step with the views of many Americans. While George W. Bush was certainly not ashamed of his anti-abortion views, he also didn't make them a central issue of his candidacy. In 2000, he danced around abortion, and it is now recognized that the infamous "values voters" aspect of 2004 was overplayed; and whatever was there was more about same-sex marriage than abortion anyway.
Why is this? There are two reasons, both of which are completely underreported.
The first is that the GOP's coastal consultant and operative class tends to be much, much more friendly toward abortion than the average American citizen in the middle of the country. They are Acelaites too, after all. As an issue, they tend to see abortion as having only downside and no upside. Political consultants tend to see the world in terms of constituencies that must be bought off (which is why their go-to remedy for the GOP's troubles with Latinos is immigration reform, rather than outreach and a workable middle-class agenda), and they buy the demonstrably false Acelaite prejudice that talking about abortion hurts you with "women" (the same prejudice that was the entire rationale for the Davis campaign).
The second is that — and this is not an overstatement — the professional media is part and parcel of the left's abortion-rights lobby. As a comprehensive Los Angeles Times study established two decades ago, media coverage of abortion issues is almost universally biased towards the abortion-rights side. Then-New York Times editor Bill Keller famously (if you don't just read the mainstream media, that is) and proudly admitted to bias on social issues in the paper that sets the tone for the rest of the press. While newsrooms are typically coy about their members' political views, for fear of confirming what everyone already knows, all the evidence we have shows that journalists are almost universally, and often militantly, in favor of abortion rights. (What about Fox News and talk radio? By and large, I would include them within the "operative class" described above.)
This means that every time an anti-abortion candidate opens her mouth on abortion, she can expect her words will be twisted and spun in the worst possible way. This creates an understandable reluctance on the part of many conservative candidates to talk about abortion.
But they should still overcome the reluctance; because, ultimately, the American people decide elections, not the media, and because things like ads and debates exist.
So, what should high-profile, anti-abortion candidates do?
Well, first, it is absolutely inexcusable for any anti-abortion candidate to not have a well-rehearsed and thoughtful answer to the "hard questions" that they should have to face, such as how to deal with abortion in the case of rape. Candidates should be coached, and coached again, on speaking well on sensitive issues. This should go without saying, but, apparently, it cannot.
But, most importantly, anti-abortion candidates should realize — understand down to their bones — that the best defense is a good offense, and that, deep down, more Americans are on their side than not, if a good case is made. Any answer to a question on abortion should end with something like: "I think all Americans understand that there are very hard questions involved in this issue — for both sides. So I guess I want to know why journalists always ask me the hard questions on this issue, but never ask my opponent the hard questions on her side of the issue. Why does she take money from the multibillion-dollar abortion business Planned Parenthood, which supports third-trimester abortions, which we're the only country to have with China and North Korea, abortions of viable babies, infanticide, and has a record of covering up sexual abuse and the rape of minors? I'm willing to answer the hard questions, but I want my opponent to answer those questions as well."
If a candidate has supported late-term abortion and other extreme liberal abortion positions, the opponent should not be shy about running ads highlighting that fact. Candidates who take money from abortion-rights lobbies should be tied to those groups' most extreme positions and to exemplars of the reality of abortion such as Kermit Gosnell.
The Democratic Party platform, and the platform of the abortion lobbies within the Democratic coalition, are extreme on abortion. The Democratic Party position is government-funded abortion as a constitutional right at any point in the pregnancy (including perhaps infanticide) for whatever reason. However muddled Americans are on the issue of abortion, they definitely view that as extreme, and this is an opportunity for the Republican Party.
Abortion can be a winning issue for the GOP. All they have to do is be smart about it — and go on the offense.