Republicans are grappling with how they message on abortion in next year’s elections, after the party suffered a defeat in the highly contested Wisconsin Supreme Court race on Tuesday.
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz’s victory handed a majority to liberals on the court for the first time in 15 years, along with abortion rights activists fighting to make the procedure legal in the state following the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year. Her win follows a slew of Democratic and abortion rights victories across the country during last year’s midterms.
However, the liberal victory in a presidential battleground and hotly contested Senate state signals that Republicans and anti-abortion rights activists have a steep hill to climb going into 2024.
“When you’re losing by ten points there is a messaging issue and abortion is still an issue and we can’t allow Democrats to define Republicans and put millions of dollars up in lies and have it go unanswered because the lies become the truth if they go unanswered,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel told Fox News this week.
McDaniel went on to call for Republicans to put Democrats “on the defense” on the issue by labeling them as extreme abortion.
“I’m a suburban woman,” McDaniel said. “This is not an issue that is going away for our party in a post-Dobbs world and we can’t put our head in the sand thinking that it’s going to heading into 2024.”
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal’s right-leaning editorial board, wrote this week that Protasiewicz’s win represents a “five alarm warning for the GOP about 2024.”
“The Wisconsin results show abortion is still politically potent. In a special election for the state Senate on Tuesday, the Republican candidate barely won in a longtime GOP stronghold in the northern Milwaukee suburbs,” the board wrote. “If Republicans can’t win in Mequon, their legislative majorities will soon be imperiled, and you can move Wisconsin out of the swing-state column for the Presidency in 2024.”
Protasiewicz defeated her conservative opponent Dan Kelly by 11 points on Tuesday, a decisive victory for liberals in a state Republican Sen. Ron Johnson won by one point last year and that President Biden won by less than a point in 2020.
Throughout much of the campaign, Protasiewicz focused on abortion rights, highlighting the issue in her first two television ads.
“Her coffers were filled by interest groups on the left, pro-abortion advocates, and she was able to dominate the airwaves and fuel her campaign,” said Kelsey Pritchard, state public affairs director at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “Her ads mentioning abortion made up a third of the pro-Janet TV ads that were running versus just four percent of Kelly’s ads, which shows us something there.”
Pritchard went on to cite Republican governors who handily won their reelection bids in 2022 after taking strong anti-abortion rights stances in their respective states, including Florida, Ohio, Georgia, South Dakota, and Texas. These states are considered reliably red states, particularly at the gubernatorial level.
“We have a lot of examples where governors were not afraid to talk about the issue and also took action in the time after the decision of Dobbs and they got reelection by huge margins,” Pritchard.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who is mulling a presidential bid, is appearing to move farther to the right on abortion since his landslide reelection bid in 2022. On Monday, Florida’s GOP-controlled state Senate passed legislation that would ban abortions in the state after six weeks. DeSantis said last month that he would sign the measure into law.
While many anti-abortion rights Republicans have praised DeSantis for taking what they see as a firm stance on the issue, other Republicans worry that a six week ban may be a step too far for the party going into what is expected to be a fraught general election year.
Former Nevada GOP Chair Amy Tarkanian, who identifies as pro-life, told The Hill that the possibility of a six week ban in Florida has “opened up the can of worms once again” on top of the liberal win in Wisconsin.
“This is obviously a issue that is so important to a number of voters that it will supersede other issues,” Tarkanian said, citing Democrats’ wins on the issue in 2022.
Last year, 27 percent of voters said that abortion was the most important issue in deciding their vote, coming in only behind inflation at 32 percent, according to exit polling from NBC News.
“And so if Republicans want to continue to do what Gov. Ron DeSantis did and bring it down to a six week ban, if you are somebody that’s pro-choice, that’s a scary thought,” she continued.
A Gallup poll released shortly before Roe was overturned last year found that roughly 60 percent of U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy. However, that support declined to 28 percent for abortions taking place in the second trimester, and then to 13 percent in the last trimester. Roe upheld the constitutional right to an abortion at the woman’s discretion during the first trimester, and some government regulation could be allowed in the second trimester.
However, Tarkanian said GOP candidates need to take a stronger stance on not letting Democrats define them on the issue, citing Nevada’s Senate race last year with incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Republican nominee Adam Laxalt.
“By the time any type of rebuttal came out when it came to abortion, for Adam it was already too late,” Tarkanian said. “Catherine and the Democrats had already put out that Republicans were going to take away your right [to an abortion].”
“We can’t do that according to our law, but it was enough to scare the heck out of people,” she added.
Nevada has already codified protections for abortion until 24 weeks of pregnancy. But the issue could come into play once again in Nevada’s Senate race in 2024.
“We just don’t do a good job on getting that message out or putting enough money behind it, so we always end up on the defense instead of getting ahead of it,” Tarkanian said, referring to Republicans.