By Dan Merica and David Wright, CNN
Not many Republican candidates want to talk about abortion in their campaigns, especially in their costly paid television or digital ads.
But the few who are taking on the issue are doing so with a familiar message: We aren’t the extremists, Democrats are.
It’s a theme playing out across the country, from gubernatorial contests to House and Senate races. While most GOP attack ads focus on issues like the economy, the border and crime, some Republicans have looked to counter Democratic messaging on abortion rights, hoping to cut into what has become a motivating issue for Democrats since the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.
It can be a difficult case to make. After the Supreme Court ruling ended federal abortion protections, a series of state-enacted abortion restrictions have come into effect, including some that ban abortion outright. These laws, coupled with decades of Republican anti-abortion advocacy, have put the party on the defensive, as polls show abortion rights supporters across the political spectrum energized by the issue and nearly two-thirds of Americans opposed to the high court’s decision.
In the face of Democratic attacks, some Republicans in blue or swing states say it’s Democrats — many of whom back minimal restrictions, if any, to abortion — who are out of step with how Americans feel about abortion. Democrats contend, however, that this is an issue that should be handled between patients and their doctors, not politicians.
Zach Nunn, the Republican challenging Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, touted in a recent ad how “most Iowans support common sense limits on abortion” but that his opponent “votes for the most extreme abortion laws in the world.” Axne has been running ads attacking Nunn for raising his hand during a GOP primary debate when candidates were asked if they supported a policy banning “all abortions” with “no exceptions.”
Adam Laxalt, the Republican nominee for Senate in Nevada, launched an ad last month pushing back on criticism of his abortion position.
“Democrat politicians have done incredible damage to America, ruining our economy, causing chaos at our border, increasing crime in our cities. They changed our lives. But one thing hasn’t changed: abortion in Nevada,” the spot says.
Laxalt, who prior to the Supreme Court ruling called the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision a “joke,” wrote in an August op-ed that abortion should be decided at the state level. He said it was a “a falsehood that I would support a federal ban on abortion as a U.S. senator” but noted he would support a potential state referendum banning abortion after 13 weeks of pregnancy.
His opponent, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, is running an ad saying she will “always fight for a women’s right to make our own health care decisions,” while “Adam Laxalt won’t.”
Republican Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley in Washington state has aired multiple ads expressing her opposition to a federal ban. “Patty Murray has spent millions to paint me as an extremist,” Smiley says of the longtime Democratic senator in one of her spots. “I’m pro-life, but I oppose a federal abortion ban.”
Shortly after Roe was overturned, Murray began airing a straight-to-camera ad, in which she says, “It is a horrifying reality: Extreme politicians across our country, now in charge of the most private health care decisions.”
In the month of September, Democratic campaigns and outside groups spent more than $70 million airing 285 unique ads about abortion, according to tracker AdImpact. Republicans, by comparison, spent just $6 million on 23 unique ads about abortion in the same period.
Those numbers are even more dramatic since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in June. Democrats have run more than 470 unique ads about abortion since then, spending more than $130 million, while Republicans have spent $16 million airing about 100 ads.
Republican groups, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have urged their candidates not to allow their opponents to define them on abortion but also not to fight the election solely on that issue.
“The Democrat position is extreme and strident, our position should be based in compassion and reason,” read an NRSC memo sent to GOP Senate campaigns in the wake of the Dobbs decision. The group said candidates should “call out Democrats” who “hold extreme views on abortion that are out of the mainstream.”
This is exemplified by the way Joe O’Dea, the Republican nominee for Senate in Colorado, has addressed the issue in his race against Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in a blue-leaning state.
In a recent ad, the first-time candidate and businessman touted his outsider credentials — “I’m an outsider, not a politician” — and his support for abortion in the early stages of pregnancy — “For the first five months, that should be a woman’s decision between her and her doctor.”
The ad also featured his daughter, who called her father “a different kind of Republican” and noted that he “supports a woman’s right to choose.”
O’Dea has also hit Bennet for focusing on abortion, suggesting that by doing so he is “not talking” about issues such as crime and inflation.
It’s a fine line to walk for the Republican. Despite O’Dea taking a more moderate stance on abortion, Bennet attacked him in an August spot that featured Colorado women expressing fear about the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The spot also noted O’Dea’s past remarks that he would have voted to confirm the conservative justices who decided the Dobbs case.
“It makes the race for Senate even more important,” a woman says in the ad.
(O’Dea has also said he would have voted for Obama nominee Elena Kagan, a liberal justice who dissented in the Dobbs ruling, as he wants to end the “blood sport” over the Supreme Court confirmation process.)
“It’s not an issue that you want to be talking about,” Doug Heye, a longtime Republican strategist and former communications director for the Republican National Committee, said of abortion. “Not necessarily because you don’t want to talk about this issue, but because you have three issues to hammer Democrats on — crime, the economy, the border — that should be our message all day, every day.”
Heye added: “Anything that is not those three issues, you are off message.”
A Republican operative who has worked on House races said the decision to run ads on an issue like abortion is simple.
“If it is an issue in the district and it is showing up in your polling, talk about. If it is not an issue that shows up in your polling, talk about issues like the economy that are more advantageous to you,” the operative said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham’s introduction of a bill last month that would ban abortion nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy has complicated matters for some GOP candidates. The South Carolina Republican, who is not up for reelection this year, introduced the legislation because he did not think sidestepping the issue was working for Republicans and wanted to arm them with an actual policy proposal, according to a source familiar with the senator’s thinking. But the move has bolstered Democratic messaging and forced Republicans to decide whether they believe the issue should be left to the states, as many have said since Roe was overturned, or if they back a federal ban.
“The Supreme Court made it clear: This is a Raleigh decision, not a Washington decision,” North Carolina GOP Senate nominee Ted Budd said in a local interview in September.
But shortly after making that point, the congressman co-sponsored the House companion bill to Graham’s proposal, which would let elected officials in Washington, and not the North Carolina capital of Raleigh, decide how to regulate abortion.
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