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Lying About Abortion Is the GOP’s Election Strategy

Despite voters making their choice for safe and accessible abortion resoundingly clear at the polls, Republicans are doubling down on their life-threatening bans.

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The weekend after Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to enshrine a right to abortion in the state Constitution, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel went on NBC’s Meet the Press and CNN’s State of the Union to pitch her master plan for Republican candidates on abortion moving forward: lie. Candidates in her party, McDaniel argued to CNN, should follow the lead of a newly elected Republican state senator in Virginia who falsely claimed that he doesn’t support abortion bans; he instead supports “common sense limitations.” On NBC, McDaniel offered an example of how Republican candidates should answer questions about the matter, saying, “It’s confusing right now. But in a time of consensus, can’t we agree on reasonable limitations [on abortion]?”

This was precisely the playbook on which anti-abortion candidates across Virginia ran—and lost—last week. They lost their narrow majority in the State House, giving Democrats control of both chambers of the state legislature and barring Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin from being able to sign an abortion ban into law. The governor, together with Virginia state Republicans, vowed to enact a 15-week ban. Yet Youngkin’s PAC stated that “there is no ban” and referred to the proposed 15-week ban as an ostensibly moderate, reasonable “limit.” 

They still lost.

“We have seen that voters are seeing through the lies,” Christina Reynolds, senior vice-president of communications at EMILY’s List, told Dame. In Virginia—the last state in the South where abortion remains legal past 12 weeks—the organization placed emphasis on Republican candidates’ extreme track records on abortion in contrast with their more moderate statements; these track records included voting for a ban without rape exceptions and maintaining business and personal relationships with anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. It worked: “We have seen that people don’t like it when you take away their rights,” Reynolds said.

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, McDaniel’s bald-faced strategy is hardly an outlier. Obfuscation and deceit have been the only tools in Republican candidates’ toolbox for a simple reason: Support for the right to abortion is the highest it’s been in years, with more than two-thirds support from the electorate. Among Democratic voters, in particular, surveys have shown the right to abortion is a key mobilizing issue. On the same night Ohio’s abortion rights measure passed and Virginia Democrats won majorities in both state houses, the deep-red state of Kentucky reelected Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who campaigned heavily on abortion rights and emphasized his Republican opponent’s plan to ban all abortion.

Faced with the broad popularity of abortion, time and again, Republican candidates dodge direct questions on their stances on abortion bans. Anti-abortion leaders organizing against state-level abortion-rights ballot measures have relied on a range of lies; in Kansas, for example, they claimed that removing the right to abortion from the state Constitution would “give women a choice.” In Missouri, Republicans earlier this year spent months trying to stall a proposed abortion-rights measure by baselessly claiming it would cost the state billions, then falsely portraying the measure as one that would allow “dangerous, unregulated, and unrestricted abortions, from conception to live birth, without requiring a medical license or potentially being subject to medical malpractice.” (Abortion up until “live birth” is not a thing.) As Reynolds put it, “If you want to know how toxic [Republicans’] position is, just look at how many of them are running away from it.”

Of course, telling the truth about their support for abortion bans isn’t exactly an option for Republican candidates who want to win. In the last year and a half since Roe fell, we’ve witnessed the horrifying impact of these bans on our lives: child rape victims forced to travel out-of-state for abortion care, children denied medications deemed “abortifacients,” nearly two dozen women in Texas suing the state for almost killing them by denying them emergency abortion care. This is exactly why Republicans are running from the words “abortion ban”—they don’t want to be associated with the brutal lived consequences.

And, in many cases, cable news and uncritical media have failed to challenge Republican candidates and operatives when they’ve pushed anti-abortion misinformation. NBC and CNN readily accepted McDaniel’s characterization of abortion bans as “limitations.”  On NBC back in September, former President Trump lied when he said that Democrats would allow abortion “even after birth”—which is absurd on its face. The network’s “fact-checking” merely pointed out that later abortion happens but is rare, neglecting to further point out that abortion “after birth” is, by definition, infanticide. Trump knew what he was doing, though; his ludicrously false claim reflects anti-abortion leaders’ reliance on pseudoscience and lies about “fetal viability” to challenge abortion-rights ballot measures as well—also with minimal fact-checking from mainstream media.

Still, abortion continues to win. It’s frustrating that legacy media has a pattern of giving Republican candidates a pass on many of these lies, explained Reynolds—but even still, the lies don’t seem to be resonating with voters. “Honestly, voters have spent decades with Republicans telling them that this [the right to abortion] was wrong, and Democrats telling them that they believe this is a right they should have,” she said. “They know that.” 

The state of abortion rights across the U.S. remains bleak more than a year without Roe. Come 2024, the threat of a national abortion ban looms if Republicans take Congress and the White House. Running on abortion—and exposing Republicans’ lies—could be a deciding factor in preventing such an outcome.

But will abortion still “matter to voters” in 2024? From what Reynolds has seen, abortion—and the right-wing disinformation wars surrounding it—will be the issue of Election 2024. “I don’t think there’s a demographic out there that’s not supportive of abortion. That was the case in Virginia,” she said, “and it’s going to be the case nationwide in 2024.”

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