Why Republicans are 'playing with fire' on abortion

Last year, the Republican Party said it wanted to be inclusive and welcoming on social issues. But social conservatives issued a resolution Wednesday calling on candidates to speak out against abortion. 

G.J. McCarthy/The Dallas Morning News/AP
Geri Doyle raises her hands in worship during a musical performance at the Dallas March for Life & Rally Saturday in Dallas.

In a risky move, the Republican Party is firmly casting its lot in opposition to abortion rights, even as it seeks to attract more women and young voters.

A group of social conservatives will introduce a resolution Wednesday at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting calling on Republican candidates to speak out against abortion. The resolution was drafted by the national committeewoman from Delaware, Ellen Barrosse, and cosponsored by 15 other RNC members.

"The Republican National Committee urges all Republican pro-life candidates, consultants, and other national Republican Political Action Committees to reject a strategy of silence on the abortion issue when candidates are attacked with 'war on women' rhetoric," the resolution reads.

The move puts Republicans seeking to moderate their party’s image in a no-win situation. If they reject the measure, they will alienate a key part of the Republican base. But by going along, the resolution only enhances the party’s image for favoring ever-more intrusions into women’s health-care decisions.  

“The resolution is playing with fire,” says independent pollster John Zogby. “However, the party is boxed into a situation where it really has no other choice but to be emphatically antiabortion.”

The RNC, meeting here in Washington for three days, is expected to pass the resolution on Friday. Conservative Republican activists have complained that GOP candidates failed to fight back when attacked on their antiabortion views. The most recent example they cite is former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), who lost his state’s gubernatorial election in November to the socially liberal Terry McAuliffe (D).

The RNC resolution’s introduction comes on the  41st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion nationwide and which sparked a culture war that rages to this day. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia both planned to attend the annual antiabortion March for Life on Wednesday.

Just last March, the RNC produced a 100-page “autopsy” examining the party’s failures in the 2012 election and included a call to be more “welcoming” on social issues. The word “abortion” never appears in the report, but the allusion is clear.

“When it comes to social issues, the party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming,” reads the report. “If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.”

The report was not exactly embraced by the GOP’s social conservative wing. And now, with Wednesday’s call for action on abortion, it’s clear that wing is not standing down as it heads into the November midterm elections. Antiabortion activists have been on a roll in state legislatures in recent years, enacting measures that restrict abortion doctors, their clinics, and women seeking abortions.

In 2013, 22 states enacted 70 provisions restricting access to abortion services, according to the Guttmacher Institute. More state abortion restrictions were enacted from 2011 to 2013 than in the entire previous decade, Guttmacher adds.

Democrats, most of whom favor abortion rights, teed off on the RNC resolution.

"Last year, the GOP said they needed to reach out to women, but instead they’ve decided their plan is to spend more time fighting to restrict the rights of women to make their own health care choices,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement.

Both sides in the abortion debate claim polling data favor their side; the wording of the questions can swing the result. But in the 2012 Virginia governor’s race, the abortion issue clearly worked to now-Governor McAuliffe’s advantage. In that race, 20 percent of voters ranked abortion as their No. 1 issue, and among those “abortion voters,” McAuliffe had a 25-point advantage, the exit polls showed. 

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