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House Republicans grapple with abortion messaging and policies after election losses

House Republicans grapple with abortion messaging and policies after election losses

House Republicans are digesting the glaring warning signs from Tuesday’s elections that saw key wins for Democrats who capitalized on abortion messaging — and battling internally over abortion-related policy riders on funding bills before the next election cycle gets into full swing.

Democratic wins in the Kentucky gubernatorial race, Virginia legislative races, and an Ohio constitutional amendment enshrining abortion rights came as Democrats campaigned heavily on abortion.

“The American people are telling us very clearly, they don't want Washington, D.C., meddling in their abortion rights. That's clear. And we're trying to make sure we can deliver on that,” said Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.), who represents a district President Biden won in 2020. 

Rep. Dan Meuser (R-Pa.) said he is “very much so” worried about what the Tuesday results mean for 2024. Democrats need to flip a net of five seats to win control of the House.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who has a very socially conservative policy background and is against abortion, said on “Fox News Sunday” on Nov. 5 that social issues like abortion “are not issues that are on the front of the agenda.” There is no indication that Republicans could bring up a federal abortion ban measure in this Congress — breaking with the trend of Republicans passing 20-week abortion ban measures three times in the past when they held the House majority.

But the risk that comes with abortion is nonetheless affecting House Republicans as they battle over internal strategy on how to address the issue. 

House GOP leadership punted a scheduled floor vote on a funding bill Thursday due in part to objections from swing-district Republicans like Duarte over language that would bar Washington from enforcing a law prohibiting employer discrimination based on reproductive health choices.

And earlier this year, Republicans scuttled a different funding bill in part over moderates’ opposition to a provision that aimed to nullify a Biden administration rule allowing mifepristone, an abortion pill, to be sold in retail pharmacies and by mail with prescriptions from a certified health care provider.

Some swing-district Republicans insist the off-year results do not spell doom for the prospects of keeping the House in 2024, particularly if the candidates handle the issue delicately in key districts.

New York Reps. Anthony D’Esposito and Nick LaLota, both first-term Biden-district Republicans, pointed to good news for Republicans on Tuesday in Long Island, where Republican Ed Romaine won the Suffolk County executive office — marking the first time the GOP won that race in two decades.

“We were smart on pocketbook issues and public safety issues, and we didn't disrupt the social issues as they exist in New York,” LaLota said.

In Kentucky, while Democratic Gov. Andy Besher won a second term as he leaned into abortion messaging, Republicans won all the other statewide races. 

Democrats took control of the Virginia General Assembly while also maintaining control of the Virginia Senate — but data compiled by the National Republican Congressional Committee showed Republicans still overperformed in many of those state districts that were won by Biden in 2020. Some Republicans pointed to those stats, as well.

“I don't think it's as stark as what is being made,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), another swing-district Republican. 

But Bacon had a realistic message on abortion messaging.

“When you're pro-life, if you make that your No. 1 issue all the time in a purple district, it don't work,” Bacon said. “You gotta be growing the economy, security, and by-the-way-pro-life.”

Meuser said Republicans should not lead with the idea of a 15-week abortion ban and instead should focus on issues like the border, the economy and parental rights in schools.

“I think we do better by providing the resources so more people make the decision to choose life,” Meuser said.

But one GOP strategist warned against Republicans trying to avoid the issue, pointing to the large amounts of money that Democrats spent on abortion messaging versus Republicans.

“Avoiding it is the worst possible thing you could do,” the GOP strategist told The Hill. “If you bury your head in the sand, we know what Democrats are going to say,” adding that Democrats can “misrepresent” a candidate’s position.

“Republicans are going to have to get comfortable talking about this, are going to have to get comfortable putting money behind the message. But ignoring it means Democrats will define your position for you, and that is not how we're going to win in tough seats,” the GOP strategist told The Hill.

Other Republicans who are staunchly anti-abortion are balking at the idea of sweeping the issue under the rug.

“We need to address that issue with humility and compassion for mothers who find themselves in difficult situations. However, we must be unashamedly, unapologetically the party of life,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.). “Some issues transcend elections and politics, and are literally life and death.”

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