Republican candidates, facing a stark reality check from Kansas voters, are softening their once-uncompromising stands against abortion as they move toward the general election, recognizing that strict bans are unpopular and that the issue may be a major driver in the fall campaigns.
In swing states and even conservative corners of the country, several Republicans have shifted their talk on abortion bans, newly emphasizing support for exceptions. Some have noticeably stopped discussing details at all. Pitched battles in Republican-dominated state legislatures have broken out now that the Supreme Court has made what has long been a theoretical argument a reality.
In Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, the Republicans’ ardently anti-abortion candidate for governor, has lately taken to saying “the people of Pennsylvania” will “decide what abortion looks like” in the state, not the governor. In Minnesota, Scott Jensen, a family physician who said in March that he would “try to ban abortion” as governor, said in a video released before the Kansas vote that he does support some exceptions: “If I’ve been unclear previously, I want to be clear now.”
Republican consultants for Senate and House campaigns said Thursday that while they still believe inflation and the economy will drive voters to the GOP, candidates are going to have to talk about abortion to blunt Democratic attacks that the party’s position is extreme. They have started advising Republicans to endorse bans that allow exceptions for pregnancies from rape or incest or those that threaten the life of the mother. They have told candidates to emphasize care for women during and after their pregnancies.
“If we are going to ban abortion, there are things we’ve got to do to make sure the need for abortion is reduced, and that women are not endangered,” said Representative Nancy Mace, Republican of South Carolina, who won an exemption for rape and incest in her state’s abortion law as a state representative. Now, she says Republicans need to press to expand access to gynecological and obstetrics care, contraception, including emergency contraception, and even protect the right of women to leave their states to get an abortion without fear of prosecution.
Messaging alone cannot free the GOP from the drumbeat of news after the Supreme Court’s decision, including the story of a 10-year-old rape victim who crossed state lines to receive an abortion, and headlines about women who confronted serious health problems under new, far-reaching restrictions or bans.
On Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has recently avoided talking about abortion, suspended a state attorney from Hillsborough County who refused to prosecute people who try to provide abortions prohibited by the state’s new 15-week ban, prompting angry recriminations from Democrats.
The recalibration for some began before voters of deeply Republican Kansas voted overwhelming on Tuesday against removing abortion rights from the state’s constitution. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, retracting the constitutional right to the procedure, many Republicans were slow to detail what would come next. As they rush to enact long-promised laws, Republican-led legislatures have learned how difficult banning abortion can be.
“Not just the pro-choice movement but the pro-life movement was caught by surprise” by the Supreme Court, said Brandon Steele, a West Virginia delegate who pressed for an abortion ban without exceptions in a special session of the legislature that ended this week with the Republican supermajority stymied. “Without having the talking points, without being told what to do, legislators had to start saying what they were actually going to do. You could see the confusion in the room.”
“We’re finding out who is really pro-life and who is pro-life only to get elected, not just in West Virginia but across the country,” Mr. Steele said.
In Indiana, a special session of the state legislature to consider a near-total abortion ban has had brutal debates over whether to include exemptions and how far those exemptions should go.
More Coverage of the Kansas Abortion Vote
“For some it’s very black and white: if you’re pro-life with no exceptions or if you’re pro-choice with no restrictions,” said State Senator Kyle Walker, an Indiana Republican who said abortion should be legal during at least the first trimester of pregnancy. “When you are in the gray area, you are forced to reconcile in your own mind where your own limits are.”
For months, Republicans have maintained that abortion rights would be a footnote in a midterm campaign driven by the worst inflation in 40 years, crime, immigration and a Democratic president whose approval ratings are mired around 40 percent.
That is still the public line, even after the Kansas referendum, where voters faced a single issue, not the multiplicity of factors they will be considering in November.
But the reality on the campaign trail is different. Sarah Longwell, a Republican pollster, said in her focus groups that swing voters do bring up inflation and the economy when asked what issues are on their minds. But when prompted to discuss abortion, real passion flares. That indicates that if Democrats can prosecute a campaign to keep the issue front and center, they will find an audience, she said.
Ms. Mace agreed, saying that abortion is rising fast and that Republicans have to respond.
In Minnesota, Dr. Jensen, the Republican candidate expected to take on Gov. Tim Walz, suggested it was interactions with voters after the fall of Roe that, he said, prompted him to clarify his position on abortion.
“Once the Roe v. Wade decision was overturned, we told Minnesota, and basically told everybody that we would engage in a conversation,” he said. “During that conversation, I learned of the need for me to elaborate on my position.”
That elaboration included embracing a family and maternity leave program, promoting a $2,500-per-child adoption tax credit, and improving access to birth control, including providing oral contraceptives over the counter with a price ceiling. And, like Adam Laxaltthe GOP Senate nominee in Nevada, Dr. Jensen pointed to abortion protections already in place in Minnesota to cast the matter as settled rather than on the ballot this year.
Mr. Walz said he would stay on offense, and not accept any softening of the Republican line.
“I take them at their first word,” he said of Dr. Jensen and his running mate, Matt Birk, a former NFL player and anti-abortion rights advocate. “If they get the opportunity they will criminalize this while we’re trying to protect it. So it’s become a central theme, obviously, I think that flip on their part was in response to that.”
The Kansas vote implies that around 65 percent of voters nationwide would reject rolling back abortion rights, including a majority in more than 40 of the 50 states, according to a New York Times analysis.
Republicans believe their party can grab the mantle of moderation from Democrats, in part by conveying empathy toward pregnant women and offering exemptions to abortion bans, and casting Democrats as the extremists when it comes to regulating abortion. If Democrats insist on making abortion the centerpiece of their campaigns, they argue, they risk looking out of touch with voters in an uncertain economy.
But Republicans who moderate their views must still contend with a core base of support that remains staunchly anti-abortion. Abortion opponents said Thursday that Republican candidates should not read too much into the Kansas vote, a single-issue referendum with language that was criticized by voters on both sides as confusing.
“Regardless of what the consultant class is telling the candidates, they would be wise to recognize that the right-to-life community is an important constituency and an important demographic of voters,” warned Penny Nance, chief executive and president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative organization that opposes abortion rights.
After the Kansas vote, Democrats stepped up efforts to squeeze their opponents between a conservative base eager for quick action to ban all abortions and a broader electorate that wants no such thing. Representative Elaine Luria, a moderate Democrat running in a Republican-leaning district in southeastern Virginia, released a new advertisement against her Republican opponent, Jen Kiggans, painting her as “too extreme” on abortion. Ms. Luria had initially said she would campaign on her work for the district and her support for the Navy, a big force in the region, but the landscape has shifted. Ms. Kiggans’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
A group aligned with the Democratic Governors Association is already advertising off abortion-related remarks made by Tudor Dixon of Michigan, who won the Republican nomination for governor this week.
“If you take Tudor Dixon at her word when it comes to outlawing abortion, she’s told us exactly who she is,” the spot, titled “No Exceptions,” intones, featuring clips of Ms. Dixon highlighting her opposition to a range of abortion -related exceptions. Ms. Dixon was unambiguous about her position earlier this summer, writing on Twitter“My only exception is to protect the LIFE of the mother.”
In a lengthy statement that highlighted her opposition to an expected ballot measure in Michigan intended to protect abortion rights, Ms. Dixon also insisted that her race would be defined by jobs, schools, crime and being “able to afford your gas and groceries.”
For Republicans, one problem might be the extensive trail on the issue they left during the primary season.
In May, Mr. Mastriano was unequivocal in Pennsylvania as he courted Republican primary voters: “That baby deserves a right to life whether it is conceived in incest or rape or there are concerns otherwise for the mom.”
Last month, he said it was not up to him. “You decide on exceptions. You decide on how early. And that’s in the hands of the people,” he said on Philadelphia talk radio. “That’s a fact. That’s not a dodge.”
Mitch Smith, Trip Gabriel and Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.