Nearly a year after the Supreme Court turned abortion into a dominant issue of the 2022 midterms, the battle over abortion rights has catapulted to the center of the emerging 2024 election season, igniting Democrats, dividing Republicans and turbocharging sensitive debates over health care.
From North Carolina to Nevada, Democrats running at every level of government are vowing to make support for abortion rights a pillar of their campaigns, and to paint their opponents as extremists on the issue.
And as races intensify, Republicans are caught between the demands of their socially conservative base and a broader American public that generally supports abortion rights, exposing one of the party’s biggest political liabilities as it tries to win back the White House, recapture the Senate and expand its narrow House majority.
All of those dynamics have crystallized over the last month. First, a liberal Wisconsin judge won a crucial State Supreme Court race by a commanding margin after running assertively on her support for abortion rights. A few days later, a conservative judge in Texas took the extraordinary step of moving to invalidate the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the abortion pill mifepristone. The Supreme Court on Friday said the pill would remain widely available for now, halting two separate rulings, including the Texas ruling, while an appeal moves forward.
Democrats cast the Supreme Court’s order as a close call, and warned that many Republicans still want as many abortion restrictions as possible, including a national ban. At the same time, Republican presidential hopefuls — whose teams generally did not respond to requests for comment on the Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday night — are straining to find their footing on the issue.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida recently signed a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, when many women do not know they are pregnant, staking out a position that conservatives applauded, but one that could hurt him in a general election with moderate voters. Others, like Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, have struggled to articulate firm positions. And former President Donald J. Trump, whose choices for the Supreme Court helped overturn Roe v. Wade, recently angered anti-abortion leaders by emphasizing state power over the issue rather than a national ban.
“I’m worried that we let the Democrats use the issue to define us, because we aren’t very good at our own messaging,” said the Republican governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, who signed a measure that banned abortions after 24 weeks, with some exceptions. Mr. Sununu, who calls himself “pro-choice,” was the rare possible Republican presidential candidate to offer a comment on the court’s ruling on Friday: “Good call by the Supreme Court.”
Representative Suzan DelBene, a Washington Democrat who leads the House Democratic campaign arm, said Republicans had moved in an increasingly “extreme” direction on abortion. She pointed, for instance, to an Idaho law criminalizing those who help a minor get an out-of-state abortion without parental permission, and to threats more broadly to abortion medication.
“It’s dangerous, and people are angry,” she said. “We’re going to see that in 2024 in elections across the country.”
As President Biden moves toward announcing a re-election bid as soon as Tuesday, one of his advisers predicted that the issue of abortion rights would be more significant in 2024 than it was last year, as Americans experience the far-reaching results of overturning Roe.
Democrats are carefully monitoring — and eagerly broadcasting — the positions on abortion taken by Republicans in the nascent stages of primary season. And they are pressing their own succinct message.
“We support women making decisions regarding their health care,” said Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat who leads the Democratic Senate campaign arm. “Not politicians, not judges.”
Republicans are far more divided on what their pitch should be — and party officials acknowledge this poses a steep challenge.
Conflict always emerges between the demands of primary voters and the preferences of general-election swing voters. But the overturning of Roe has drastically complicated this calculus for Republican candidates. They now face detailed questions about whether to support national bans; how soon into a pregnancy abortion bans should apply; what exceptions, if any, to permit; and how they view medication used in instances of abortions and miscarriages.
“We wrap ourselves around the axle trying to nuance our position as a candidate or a party through the primary, knowing that we’re going to have to reexplain ourselves in the general,” Mr. Sununu said. “It comes off as disingenuous, convoluted, and at the end of the day, it really chases away voters.”
The fault lines in the party were illuminated again this past week. After a spokesman for Mr. Trump indicated to The Washington Post that the former president believed abortion should be decided at the state level, the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America issued a stern rebuke.
“We will oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard to stop painful late-term abortions while allowing states to enact further protections,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the organization, said in a statement.
In a separate statement, Mr. Trump’s campaign said he “believes it is in the states where the greatest advances can now take place to protect the unborn,” while declaring him the “most pro-life president in American history.”
There will be no shortage of opportunities for Republican candidates to highlight their anti-abortion credentials and to navigate the fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision, starting as soon as Saturday, at a gathering of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. On Tuesday, Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador, is also expected to give a speech on abortion.
Bob Vander Plaats, a socially conservative leader in Iowa whose organization is expected to host a gathering with presidential candidates this summer, said, “There’s a lot of ways to determine a person’s bona fides when it comes to the sanctity of human life, but I guarantee you the Texas ruling will be discussed.”
The issue of abortion, he said, “will be a cornerstone issue in the Iowa caucuses. It will be a cornerstone issue in the Republican primary.”
On Thursday, Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, tried to help her candidates navigate the subject, suggesting that opposing abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy was a strong position politically, somewhat mirroring polling she has been showing to members of her party.
“In 2022, a lot of Republican candidates took their D.C. consultants’ bad advice to ignore the subject,” she said in a speech. Noting the onslaught of Democratic ads on the subject, she said, “most Republicans had no response.”
She urged Republicans to cast Democrats as “extreme” on the issue, a message echoed by some working on House and Senate races who say Democrats should be pressed on what limitations they support.
Nicole McCleskey, a Republican pollster who worked for the successful re-election campaign of Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa last year, pointed to Ms. Reynolds, Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia as examples of leaders who embraced tight abortion restrictions but were not defined by that issue alone. All three swept to comfortable victories in states that often lean right, but are not the nation’s most conservative states.
“This last election saw some candidates who were unclear or changed their position, lacked conviction and were unprepared to talk about this issue,” she said. “If you have those things — if you have conviction, if you have empathy, if you are prepared and you know how to define yourself and your opposition,” she added, “we can successfully navigate this issue.”
But some candidates have shown little interest in managing a rhetorical balancing act.
The issue is likely to come to a head in North Carolina, home to what may be the most consequential governor’s race of 2024, with Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, term-limited.
Mark Robinson, the state’s often incendiary lieutenant governor and a Republican, is expected to announce a run for governor as soon as Saturday. Mr. Robinson, who has said that he and his now-wife aborted a pregnancy decades ago, has since made clear that he wants greater restrictions on abortion rights in North Carolina, where Republicans now have supermajorities in the state legislature. The procedure is currently legal up to 20 weeks of pregnancy in the state.
Josh Stein, the state’s Democratic attorney general who is running for governor, said in an interview that there was “no question” that he saw abortion rights as being directly on the ballot. That message was effective for Democrats in governor’s races in several critical states last year.
“The only reason North Carolina doesn’t have a ban on abortion now is because we have a Democratic governor,” Mr. Stein said.
A spokesman for Mr. Robinson declined to comment for this article.
For Democrats elsewhere, it can be more challenging to argue that their races will decide the fate of abortion rights in their state, especially in places where abortion protections are codified. And it is far too soon to know what mix of issues will ultimately determine 2024 campaigns.
Still, Democrats noted that if the Supreme Court had let the Texas ruling stand, that would have had major nationwide implications — and many stress the possibility of national abortion bans, depending on the makeup of the White House and Congress.
“Even though we may have current protections for this in Nevada, if a nationwide abortion ban is imposed, Nevadans will suffer, and women will die,” Senator Jacky Rosen of Nevada, a Democrat who recently announced her re-election bid, said in an interview.
In a statement, Ms. Rosen called the Supreme Court order “a temporary relief.” But in the interview, she said the Texas ruling underscored how one conservative judge could threaten the power of a major government agency.
“It’s pretty frightening,” she said.
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