Anti-abortion groups argue over next steps in wake of election losses

Abortion opponents are pushing the GOP to campaign more openly and forcefully against the procedure after the party suffered a string of losses in House, Senate, state legislative and ballot initiative fights.

Less than six months after celebrating their decades-long goal of toppling Roe v. Wade and watching access to abortion nearly disappear in a quarter of the country, conservatives saw their hard-fought court victory galvanize abortion-rights supporters to outspend and outvote them in the midterms.

That whiplash has left the anti-abortion movement mired in infighting, finger-pointing and bitter disagreements over what messages and messengers they should embrace in a post-Roe era. Some are faulting party leaders including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and GOP candidates such as Senate contender Mehmet Oz for not running harder on abortion restrictions.

“I hope Republicans got the message loud and clear that running away from the issue doesn’t work,” said Marilyn Musgrave, a former GOP member of Congress who now leads government affairs for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “We saw the Democrats go all in on saying women wouldn’t be able to get health care and would be punished, and we did not see a Republican response to counter all those lies.”

The divisions among anti-abortion groups and Republican leaders threaten to undercut a movement that for decades has shaped party platforms, tipped the scales in primaries, and helped steer the federal judiciary rightward.

Even before the final votes were tallied, some anti-abortion groups called for an internal reckoning on how they message abortion restrictions, particularly to younger voters. They are also debating what policies to push in the coming years and weighing tactics for countering the ballot initiatives abortion-rights activists plan to use to overturn restrictions in several red states.

Others believe the only problem was the midterm message didn’t reach enough voters and are anxious to amplify their talking points, clashing in state capitols over how far to go on limiting abortion access, working to influence the outcome of Tuesday’s court showdown in Kentucky over the state’s near-total ban, and pouring at least $1 million into mobilizing conservative voters in the Georgia Senate runoff after getting massively outspent in key November races.

“There are a lot of different ways to build a culture for life, but it’s frustrating when we start to attack each other privately or publicly,” said Jeanne Mancini, the president of the anti-abortion group March for Life that is preparing to hold its 50th-anniversary march in D.C. in January. “We need to get on the same page about what we stand for.”

Now that Republicans have eked out a narrow majority in the House, the divisions are also playing out on Capitol Hill.

Some advocacy groups are demanding Republicans prioritize a federal 15-week abortion ban that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced earlier this year, which many lawmakers have been hesitant to cosponsor, while others insist the issue should be left to the states. Others still say the 15-week bill doesn’t go far enough because more than 90 percent of abortions in the U.S. happen before that point in pregnancy. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said she is hopeful a bill prohibiting abortion after the detection of fetal cardiac activity, which is around six weeks of pregnancy, will be introduced soon.

Others, including Students for Life, are pushing their fellow activists to “get more creative” with legislative, oversight and legal battles, urging a focus on defunding Planned Parenthood and going after FDA’s regulation of abortion pills. On Friday, the conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of several anti-abortion organizations challenging the FDA’s approval of the abortion drug mifepristone.

“We’re not looking for show-votes,” said Kristi Hamrick with Students for Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group active in 33 states in the midterms. “And we are going to have to be more innovative than the currently discussed options.”

Some of the largest anti-abortion groups are lashing out at McConnell — the person arguably most responsible for securing the Supreme Court majority that overturned Roe — for keeping the issue at arm’s length while voters in his home state considered and rejected a Republican-sponsored ballot initiative limiting abortion rights.

“If the argument is that this is a state issue, McConnell was not in the state arguing for the ballot initiative. There was nobody in the state … making it clear what was at stake,” Frank Cannon, a political strategist for SBA Pro-Life America, told reporters. “The pro-life movement has to do a better job and the political element of the pro-life movement has to step up. Without that, we’re going to be in trouble.”

McConnell’s office declined to comment.

The election left neither party with the votes to pass a federal law restricting or protecting abortion, meaning the fate of abortion access, for the most part, is up to states.

Leading national groups have vowed to ramp up their state policy work in light of the midterm elections. Mancini noted that March for Life held five marches in state capitals in 2022 and plans to double that next year in addition to their signature January event in D.C. — the theme of which will be “Next Steps: Marching into a post-Roe America.”

Mancini and other leaders said, however, that the anti-abortion state constitutional amendments Republicans put to voters in Kansas, Kentucky and Montana this year were failures that should not be repeated.

“They’re so expensive and so confusing,” she said.

State-level anti-abortion groups have long dominated conservative politics at the local level and have seen sweeping success over the last several election cycles — helping to lock in GOP supermajorities in many states. But many were taken aback by the midterm results and are now struggling to regroup.

In Pennsylvania, Oz’s campaign repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether he would vote for Graham’s bill banning abortion nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy as he stressed his personal opposition to abortion while arguing the issue should be left to the states.

Hamrick is among several anti-abortion leaders arguing Oz’s decision to avoid the issue cost Republicans a winnable seat.

“Dr. Oz was as articulate on abortion as his opponent was during the debate,” she said, comparing Oz’s reluctance to speak on the issue to Senator-elect John Fetterman’s verbal struggles after his stroke. “Running away from the pro-life issue like that really discourages a very motivated core of voters. This year wasn’t the time, if you were trying to draw a distinction, to back away.”

A spokesperson for Oz did not respond to a request for comment.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul eeked out reelection victories, ensuring their legal challenge to the state’s pre-Roe abortion ban will continue. Republicans also failed to secure a supermajority in the state legislature that would have allowed them to override Evers’ vetoes.

“Here in Wisconsin, we’ve already had a staff call where we’re talking about this: We have to step up,” said Gracie Skogman with Wisconsin Right to Life. “We have to be educating, specifically, [the younger] generation, because we have seen minds change and minds shift on the matter of abortion, on the matter of life, when we’re able to educate and have conversations. We know we can move into those spaces, but if we’re not, this is ultimately what happens.”

Infighting has also broken out in Michigan following the state’s blue wave election that kept the Democratic governor, attorney general and secretary of state in power and flipped control of the statehouse to Democrats for the first time in decades.

The state GOP put out a memo blaming Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, who they called an “untested candidate” with “low name ID” for failing to raise enough money to counter the wave of ads highlighting her support for a near-total abortion ban. Ads using “Dixon’s own words” of support for a near-total abortion ban with no exemptions for underage victims of rape or incest, they said, “doomed” both her race and several others.

Between August and November, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign and the Democratic Governors Association-backed group Put Michigan First spent $9.7 million on ads quoting Dixon on her abortion position, according to a POLITICO analysis of data from AdImpact.

“Middle-of-the-road voters simply didn’t like what Tudor was selling,” the GOP leaders wrote.

Dixon hit back, calling the state GOP leaders “incompetent” and urging their ouster.

“A lot of people are feeling that they should have done something different, or someone else should have done something different,” said Caroline Smith with the group Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, which was active in Michigan and other states where abortion was on the ballot this year. “We’re upset. We’re truly grieving the loss because there are literally lives on the line. But that’s not going to help anything. We have to move forward.”

In some states, the post-election disunion is already having legislative consequences. In South Carolina, Shane Massey, the Senate majority leader, implored his colleagues to change tactics after a monthslong debate over whether to ban abortion starting at conception with limited exceptions ended in a bitter stalemate.

A court injunction on the state’s restrictions — which prohibit abortion after the detection of fetal cardiac activity, around six weeks of pregnancy — means abortion remains legal in most instances.

“Fire and brimstone is not going to persuade people. You might scare a few people into a vote here or there, but you are not going to win the issue with fire and brimstone, and so no matter how many times you say the people who voted to ban abortion at six weeks are pro-abortion — good grief — how would anybody who’s pro-abortion vote to ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat’s detected? That’s ridiculous,” Massey said. “If we want to move the ball forward, the whole effort has to change.”

Other anti-abortion groups, however, are vowing to stay the course, pointing to decisive reelection victories for Republican governors in Iowa, Florida, Ohio, South Dakota and Tennessee — all of whom have signed anti-abortion bills into law — as a vindication of their position.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine defeated Democratic challenger Nan Whaley by nearly 26 points. Republicans in the state also gained ground in the state legislature and ensured conservative control of the state Supreme Court, which is expected to hear a constitutional challenge to a state law prohibiting abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy.

“There were no shades of gray. On one side, you had Governor Mike DeWine who signed the pro-life bill. On the other side, you had former Mayor Nan Whaley who believed in abortion up to and including the ninth month. Voters had a clear choice and by over 20 percentage points Governor DeWine got reelected,” said Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life. “It was a red tsunami.”

Meanwhile, for some in the anti-abortion movement, the midterm results were evidence that their energies are best spent outside of the electoral arena for the time being.

“We can’t just rely on the political side of things,” Smith, from Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, said, calling for a focus on “non-violent direct action” at abortion clinics and other locations going forward. “We can’t rely on lawmakers to make the change we need. Institutions are letting us down. Voters aren’t doing what we hoped they would do. We have to take things into our own hands.”

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