(WASHINGTON) — Republicans accomplished a longtime goal in 2022 when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, scrapping constitutional protections for abortion. They’ve been faced with seemingly monthly electoral setbacks ever since, with no end in sight.

Democrats have made defending reproductive rights a rallying cry, seizing on it to defy expectations in the 2022 midterms and hoping it offers a life raft this year to a President Joe Biden, whose approval rating hit a new low in January, and down-ballot candidates running in his wake. And the fallout from the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision has appeared ceaseless, sparking just recently a controversy over in vitro fertilization access in Alabama and this week’s Supreme Court hearing on a challenge to the Food and Drug Administration’s regulation of mifepristone, a widely used drug used in medication abortions.


That dynamic has many Republicans bracing for further electoral consequences, with few saying that they see an off ramp to the now routine flareups in the debate over abortion.

“This is the beginning, not the end. This issue is not going away anytime soon. There are many facets to this that are layered in federal policy, state policy, there’s going to be court cases, there’s going to be things that come up. We’ve had already this year an IVF challenge, we’ve had, now, the pill challenge. There’s gonna be more of this,” said GOP pollster Robert Blizzard.

To be fair, reproductive rights are not the only issue that could move the needle this November.


Israel’s war in Gaza is dampening enthusiasm among Democrats’ base; inflation, while declining, is still a major concern for voters, according to an early March ABC News/Ipsos poll of adults that found Americans grade Trump more favorably than Biden on inflation (45%-31%); immigration has been a constant thorn in the White House’s side, with voters telling pollsters they trust Republicans more than Democrats to clamp down on unauthorized border crossings.”

GOP operatives who spoke to ABC News frequently tied their conundrum around abortion to Democrats’ struggles to convince voters that the parties share the blame over immigration concerns.

But on those other issues, there are at least action items, even if they may not ultimately succeed: diplomatic pressure could tamp down hostilities in Gaza, possibly ending the war months before Election Day; the Federal Reserve could lower interest rates to ameliorate inflation concerns; Biden could take already-teased executive actions on the border.


Republicans said they’re still searching for action items on abortion that would prevent such flashes as the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling on IVF and the resulting controversies.

“It is the challenge that we have on a daily basis, and you never know what’s next and what state or what member of Congress or state legislator’s going to do something that rocks the boat on it,” said one veteran GOP strategist who spoke anonymously to comment on such a hot-button issue.

“Just like we take advantage of the more liberal side of the Democrat Party, the Democrats are going to try to highlight some of the more conservative people on the right. That’s the cards we’re dealt, we’re just gonna have to deal with it as it comes.”


The electoral potency of the issue was put into sharp relief again Tuesday, when Democrat Marilyn Lands won a swing state House seat in Alabama. Lands focused much of her campaign around abortion and IVF, while Republican Teddy Powell centered much of his campaign around the economy.

Lands’ win was in part attributed to a backlash to the state Supreme Court’s IVF ruling. And while many Republicans privately and publicly lambasted that decision as beyond the pale, including by GOP standards, operatives conceded there’s little that can be done to prevent a ruling or bill from making a splash in the future, even if it’s widely viewed as unacceptable.

“The states have just started wrestling with one of the most intractable issues in American politics. And some state legislatures are going to overreach, and some state judicial rulings will overreach, and then they’ll get corrected,” GOP consultant Whit Ayres said. “We saw that with the IVF issue in Alabama, where the legislature and the governor rushed to confront and overturn a Supreme Court decision.”


When asked if Republicans have to make peace with a pattern of overreach and correction, Ayres replied, “Yeah. That’s the way the process works.”

Republicans’ challenge is rooted in a fundamental disagreement over how the party should approach abortion, with some advocating for some kind of federal policy like capping abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape, incest and concerns for life of the mother, and others pushing a leave-it-to-the-states approach, keeping the party on the defensive.

“When you have inconsistencies across the country, it’s easier for the other side to paint that in one broad stroke,” Blizzard said.


Republicans in support of a federal policy like a 15- or 16-week limit with exceptions argue that could walk the line of taking action while not alienating too many voters.

“I think it’s 15 weeks with exceptions on the federal level — with states allowed to go further if they wish to. And I can’t for a minute say that the entire movement has coalesced around that, but I think that’s a winning proposal,” said GOP strategist Bob Heckman.

Heckman added it would be “helpful” if former President Donald Trump, the GOP’s presumptive White House nominee and de facto party leader, declared where he stands as a sign to the broader party.


The former president has floated capping abortion at 15 or 16 weeks of pregnancy, though he has declined to definitively lay out his stance — a strategy that some predicted would change precisely because of the unpredictability of upcoming controversies around reproductive rights.

“I think for Trump, it’s not feasible to not have a position. If you just say, ‘leave it to the states, and I have no opinion beyond that,’ I don’t think that’s feasible, because then you’re stuck with anything that any state does,” said Republican strategist Scott Jennings.

“What [Trump] could say is, ‘look, I’m signaling my position. I think it’s a reasonable position. I think it’s where the Republican Party should be, and I think if you support me, you’d do well to take this position.’ So, maybe that’s where they’re headed,” Jennings added. “When he talks, Republicans listen, and they tend to adopt his views on issues, and so, I think it’s likely that this will become the de facto position of the Republican Party.”


Republicans who support a state-by-state approach, though, point to the existing lack of consensus and the ambitions of other lawmakers or conservative state courts to suggest that such federal policy isn’t a panacea to the GOP’s messaging woes.

“You’ve got a presidential campaign that usually sets the tone, and then you’ve got everybody else running in their Senate seats or congressional seats or even state legislative seats or statewide officeholders that are trying to be the most conservative on this issue or that issue. And even if there was a consensus at the federal level, that doesn’t mean the state guys are gonna fall in line,” said the veteran GOP strategist.

“There will never be an abortion policy that will be considered legitimate in both Massachusetts and Mississippi,” Ayres added. “The idea that you’re going to find some kind of national solution that will be accepted as legitimate around the country is a mirage.”


When asked if he could think of any historical parallels of an issue that had such little consensus with such significant electoral repercussions, Ayres cited one of the country’s most historically divisive issues: slavery.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.