Republicans may be tirelessly working to rebrand their party since losing last year’s race for the White House, but a recent slew of state initiatives to restrict access to abortion isn't doing this effort any favors – and may only widen the party's so-called "gender gap" in attracting women voters.
Indeed, while conservatives celebrate Texas' early-morning passage of a high-profile bill that bans most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and places new requirements on which facilities can perform the procedure, liberals are once again railing against the party for its so-called "war on women."
Yet despite the risk of alienating female voters, the campaigns have undoubtedly energized conservatives, particularly opponents of abortion rights who compose a cornerstone of the Republican base. And conservatives argue that polling suggests that most Americans – including most women – favor limiting late-term abortions.
“Rhetorically, this can be really hard,” said Liz Mair, a Republican strategist. For the efforts to work to their benefit, party leaders need to "figure out what [they're] going to say, and test it out in advance," she said, "and not by talking to committed pro-lifers.”
The wider movement, reignited in part by the murder conviction of Philadelphia abortion provider Kermit Gosnell, has found Republicans on Capitol Hill and across the country looking to follow Texas' path in restricting access after 20 weeks.
“I think [the push] in fact helps, because one of the reasons Republicans haven't done well in the past few cycles is because the base hasn't turned out and been energized,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, an Arkansas-based Republican strategist.
The challenge of wooing women voters
Conservative enthusiasm aside, the movement comes in the face of a real, proven struggle for the GOP to attract women voters. For as much hand-wringing consultants did after the 2012 election about Republicans’ deficit among Hispanic voters, the party’s struggles with women were nearly as damaging. President Barack Obama beat rival Mitt Romney by 11 points among women voters, who made up 53 percent of the electorate, according to national exit polls.
Democrats drove that wedge in part by successfully seizing upon examples – a bill in Virginia to require transvaginal ultrasounds before an abortion, or Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” – of Republicans seeming hopelessly out-of-touch with women.
The experience prompted Republicans to vow to speak more softly on social issues and promote women within the party. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., crafted a series of legislative proposals that seemed poll-tested to appeal to suburban soccer moms.
But some House conservatives balked at Cantor’s measures, forcing the No. 2 Republican to shelve some of his initiatives. And the talk about a softer tone toward social issues gave way to the new abortion restrictions in some states – North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Texas – and in Congress, where the House passed a law to effectively ban most abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. (There are rumblings that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio may champion a similar measure in the Senate.)
Three of the states that have passed new abortion measures were swing states that were heavily contested in the 2012 presidential election. And the fourth state, Texas, has attracted widespread attention for the actions of state Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis to initially block the Lone Star state’s proposal.
The attention these battles have generated has made Democrats downright giddy.
“These are like layups on a five-foot rim,” said Brad Woodhouse, the president of the liberal advocacy group Americans United for Change. “I think the way that they’re conducting themselves gives me more hope for the immediate political consequences than I’d had they followed through on what they said they’d do after the election.”
Can the GOP change its face?
The prevailing fear among some Republicans is that these measures make the GOP seem unduly focused on abortion. And moreover, the party has too often relied on old, white men as their messengers in these fights.
Huckabee Sanders, the Republican strategist who favors the legislation passed by the varying states, warned against letting “old, white guys” become the face of the abortion argument.
“I think that people like me and my peers need to be more aggressive about getting out there and talking about the issues,” she said.
And conservatives also argue that concerns about their legislation closing most abortion clinics are largely overstated anyway.
It’s also important to note that these fights are playing out early in 2013; Akin and Mourdock’s impolitic comments came at the height of a presidential election season, when even the most benign remark can be instantaneously amplified into a national controversy.
“We know midterms are different than presidential elections. So there may be a strategy related to this based on what voters they think might turn out in the midterm,” Woodhouse conceded. That’s not to mention that many of the Senate seats Democrats must defend in 2014 fall on more reliably Republican turf, and House seats have largely been drawn to protect GOP incumbents.
But, he added: “If they weren’t already shrinking at a party based on where they were on immigration and other issues, they’re certainly not doing any favors.”