Republican candidates appear soft on abortion in a Post-Roe election season. Don’t trust them.

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Photo: Illustration by Rachel Choi

Rachel Choi

By Meg Richards, Staff Writer

The morning Roe V. Wade was overturned, a thick silence hung in the air. Everything felt surprisingly small at the moment, but bigger than the human brain could feasibly comprehend. It was both overwhelming and as if the world came to a halt. 

Concerns were raised immediately about the subsequent actions pro-life politicians would take. In some states, trigger bans went into effect, ranging from militant-Handmaids-tale total bans to exceptions for rape, incest, and situations when the life of the mother or baby is endangered. People feared the worst was yet to come with the impending midterm elections and how Republican candidates planned to further restrict abortion, should they be elected. It was anticipated that abortion would take center stage in the fall all along—but it did so in the most unexpected way. 

Georgia, a previously red state now turned swing, is a prime example of  how Republicans are shying away from strict abortion stances. Incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp supported the Heartbeat Bill that went into effect in July, effectively banning abortion at the first detection of a heartbeat, which can be as early as 6 weeks. Now, he refuses to answer questions regarding potential restrictions he’d impose if re-elected. The reason for this, he has said, is because he does not want to talk about legislation that does not exist yet. 

He’s also come to the defense of Herschel Walker, Georgia’s Republican Senate candidate, who was accused of paying for the abortions of two women. Walker is on the record as previously saying he would support a total ban without exception for rape, incest, or threat of life. In his most recent debate, however, he denied ever making such statements, saying he solely supports whatever legislation currently exists in Georgia.

Similar sentiment is expressed by Republican Joe Lombardo, who is running for governor of Nevada. Instead of answering questions on how he’d restrict abortion further as a pro-life governor, he’s maintained that he supports the current abortion law, which allows abortion for up to 24 weeks of pregnancy and makes exception for endangerment of life. He said in the gubernatorial debate that the issue has no place in politics, but he’d support a voter referendum to restrict it further. He previously advocated for a 13-week ban with exceptions for rape, incest, and threat to life, but now says he supports the current law notwithstanding his personal views. 

Christine Drazan, who is the Republican running for governor of Oregon, has taken a stance akin to Kemp’s, saying she will not comment on legislation that has not yet reached her desk. She expressed that she herself is pro-life, but pro-choice laws are embedded in the state’s statute and she will abide by that as governor. Her statements were like-minded to that of Lombardo, saying she will support the state’s current laws on abortion regardless of her personal beliefs. 

Finally, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican who ran for Senate and lost in Pennsylvania, said most recently the decision regarding legislation on abortion should be one led by women, doctors, and local political leaders. He reiterated several times his opposition to a national ban on abortion, citing that the federal government should have no involvement on the issue. Though this is a stance he’s maintained throughout his campaign, it is still notably moderate.

The primary concerns are clear: Why is the pro-life party suddenly so unenthusiastic about restricting abortion if this is what it’s been campaigning on for years? Why have nearly all Republican candidates removed actual proposals for restrictive legislation from their platforms and replaced it with a simple “I am pro-life” statement? 

This shift could be accredited to many things, namely the examples given in swing states where opponents were neck-and-neck this election. It benefits both sides to appear more moderate in these kinds of races, which Democrats are doing, too. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Galen Druke, a Supreme Court precedent being overturned could also be to blame for such a drastic change in the political landscape.

“The fact that we’re even seeing a competitive race for the Senate is proof that abortion has shifted the landscape,” Druke said. “In polls, voters support the status quo of Roe V. Wade. When candidates go out and say ‘we want to restrict abortion beyond what Roe V. Wade would’ve done,’ that can sometimes make them unpopular, even if abortion isn’t your number one issue as a voter.”

As Republicans have sensed the importance abortion has to voters this season, it seems they’ve shifted their stance to align with the general population. In an interview with The Guardian, Republican strategist Barret Mason spoke to why Republicans are taking this angle:

“Over the years, it’s been OK to advocate for the strictest abortion regulations in a Republican primary because abortion generally was protected by Roe v Wade. Now it’s no longer theoretical. So now the most restrictive policies have real-life consequences.”

It seems the GOP woke up to how the staunch, chauvinist extremism that occupied the White House from 2016-2020 is no longer a viable way to garner support. According to a recent NBC news poll, 62 percent of Republican voters identify themselves as supporters of the party rather than former President Donald Trump. This could very well be because his increasingly alarming antics throughout his four years in office—as well as his recent subpoena—effectively ostracized him from the party. His politics polarized and divided the country in a way many Americans did not anticipate, and that may have scared away the moderate section of the electorate. 

Such politics have resulted in some Republicans making an effort to separate themselves from Trump to win their elections. This worked in the case of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who beat Former Gov. Terry McCauliffe in Virginia last year. Youngkin did not accept Trump’s endorsement and ran on a mostly moderate, non-inflammatory platform. However, his landslide victory is a cautionary tale that proves just because these Republican candidates are not saying they’ll restrict abortions further doesn’t mean they won’t once they are sworn in. His campaign strategies are a direct insight into the promises Republicans are making and why they can’t be trusted. 

Youngkin ran on issues that were generally hard to disagree with, like lowering gasoline prices and grocery store taxes. At the center of his campaign was the promise to include parents in their children’s education—pretty non-partisan, right? His opponent, former Gov. Terry McCauliffe, was not someone who the electorate was enthused about. He didn’t do much as governor and Democratic voters wanted someone younger, fresher, and less of a white male. 

What sealed the deal was a three-second sound-bite—taken out of context—wherein McCauliffe said he doesn’t believe parents should have a say in their children’s education. At this point in the game, Youngkin became a shoo-in. He gained the support of suburban white women and moderates who otherwise might have voted Democrat, yet tread lightly by separating himself from Trump so as to not scare off either end of the political spectrum. Within a year of taking office, he proved himself to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, proposing this fall legislation that would require parental consent for students to be referred to by their preferred pronouns and name in classrooms, and setting up a tip line to report teachers who taught Critical Race Theory—which, by his definition, is any material that mentions race.

Youngkin’s trajectory is a warning not to trust this supposedly moderate new wave of Republican pro-life views. The candidates who dodged questions of abortion restrictions or refused to speak on legislation that did not exist yet will throw all their lukewarm talking points out the window when it comes time to sign. Some of them might even slap on some liberal pro-choice arguments to appear more moderate, such as saying the issue has no place in politics. The bottom line is these statements were only ever meant to pacify voters and seem less partisan. Youngkin’s extremist views on transgender students came as a surprise to many Virginians due to his moderate platform in last year’s election season, and Republicans appear to be following the same playbook to avoid scaring off potential moderate voters with ultra-conservative, polarizing Trumpism.

The decision to approach abortion moderately is a deliberate attempt to appeal to a broader demographic for Republicans, but the rug will be pulled out from under voters’ feet should they trust the GOP on this issue. It’s important to remember the GOP is still the party of Trump. He has all but announced his candidacy for president in 2024, and when he’s on the ticket, he’ll have the same letter next to his name as these seemingly-innocent, tactfully subtle pro-life party members.