Analysis: Republican struggles over abortion policy could haunt GOP in 2024

MIAMI — The third Republican presidential primary debate Wednesday might be most remembered for former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s slashing three-word rebuke to a blundering attack by Vivek Ramaswamy and a spirited discussion over emerging foreign policy crises.

But as this week’s election results demonstrated, the policy issue that might present the most urgent challenges to Republicans next year is a battle over abortion rights.

Democrats scored a string of fresh victories in red states in Tuesday’s election, extending a winning streak on reproductive rights since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

A constitutional amendment enshrining abortion rights in Ohio prevailed, Democrats retained the governor’s seat in Kentucky and gained full control of the Virginia Legislature, with many activists and candidates making abortion access a focus.

And Republican hopefuls still smarting over those defeats struggled to issue a clear response — or a change of approach — to the political backlash when a question about abortion policy surfaced in the last 20 minutes of the debate.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina repeated his support for a federal ban on abortion at 15 weeks, while former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said states should decide about access to the procedure. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Republicans were caught “flat-footed” but didn’t proscribe any solutions. Ramaswamy admonished men to take “sexual responsibility.”

The most nuanced statement came from Haley, who pleaded with Republicans to play it straight with Americans. In a divided Congress, she said, adopting new abortion limits is a nonstarter, so GOP politicians should stop promising what they can’t deliver.

“I would support anything that would pass because that’s what would save more babies and support more moms, but you do have to be honest with the American people,” she said. “Let’s bring people together and decide what we can agree on.”

Democrats urged voters not to be fooled by Haley’s soft-edged remarks. President Joe Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Quentin Fulks, called it “cute language” that masks an extreme position on abortion, telling MSNBC that Haley is “completely out of touch.”

But there are growing calls among Republicans to embrace a different message in a post-Roe political landscape. Veteran GOP strategist Stephen Lawson told the “Politically Georgia” podcast this week that Republicans need to take a more “empathetic” approach to abortion — and back off demands for a total ban on the procedure.

And Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said her party needs to strike a “consensus” position on abortion or risk Democrats continuing to define the narrative.

“What I do think is our candidates have to talk about this,” she told NBC on Wednesday. “We can’t put our head in the sand.”

Just how deeply abortion will influence the 2024 election remains to be seen. In last year’s midterm in Georgia, pledges by Democrats to repeal the state’s anti-abortion law helped energize voters, though a GOP focus on the economy and public safety wound up wooing more swing voters.

But the off-year elections Tuesday made clear that abortion remains a potent political force for Democrats, one that can help the party win even in the reddest of states. And Wednesday’s debate reinforced how leading Republicans have yet to come up with an effective strategy to respond.