WASHINGTON − When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, allowing an 1849 ban on abortion to take effect in Wisconsin, resident Judi Stadler found it nonsensical.
“It’s nothing short of ridiculous,” the 72-year-old retired school counselor said. “We’re right now functioning under the original law from the 1800s.”
Voters like Stadler pushed abortion to the forefront in the midterms and are set to do the same ahead of the 2024 elections − forcing pro-life candidates, and even possible contenders, to vary their approach in how they campaign on the issue of abortion.
With the American electorate favoring abortion access − 61% of adults report that abortion should be legal in all or most cases − some Republican candidates who identify themselves as pro-life are playing up their support for expanded healthcare access and certain exceptions to abortion bans to appeal to voters.
“I am absolutely unapologetically pro-life, I really am, but we have to have some access,” Wisconsin businessman Scott Mayer, who is considering running in the Wisconsin Senate race, told USA TODAY.
Mayer is just one of many contenders and candidates who are mirroring this strategy when talking about the politics of abortion and sharing messaging on the issue.
“We’re seeing Republicans now try to talk about it in a different way or try just not to talk about abortion,” NARAL Pro-Choice America’s Senior National Political Director Rylan Stitzlein told USA TODAY. “They know this is a toxic issue with voters.”
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A top issue in battleground states
Wisconsin is just one of 14 states that currently has a total or almost complete ban on abortion. The law, which bans doctors from performing abortions in any situation except when the mother will die, set off a flurry of outrage from abortion rights groups. The state’s Democratic attorney general and governor filed a lawsuit challenging the ban.
The state is one example where abortion served as a motivator for voters to head to the polls. During an off-year election in April, a massive surge in voter turnout elected Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz to the state Supreme Court, flipping the court to a Democratic majority for the first time in 15 years. Protasiewicz is an advocate for abortion access and campaigned on the issue.
Now with a Democratic majority, progressives have an opportunity to overturn the 1849 abortion ban when Protasiewicz takes office in August.
Stitzlein said in the last general election, but specifically in special elections such as the Wisconsin Supreme Court, abortion has been front of mind for voters. According to polling conducted by Impact Research and NARAL Pro-Life America, 45% of voters across battleground states reported that abortion played a larger role in their voting decisions in 2022 than in previous elections.
“People are outraged, and we’re seeing this show up in polling,” Stitzlein said.
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Wisconsin voters share the perspective of Stadler, a Democrat who identifies as pro-life but says it is none of her business whether a woman decides to have an abortion.
When she hears candidates claim to have a moderate stance on the issue, she doesn’t quite believe it, she said, adding that politicians will say and do whatever they need to get votes.
“I think they may be intelligent enough to know they don’t have a chance if they don’t temper that belief,” the Mequon, Wisconsin, resident added of Republicans who take hard stances against abortion.
Wisconsin voter Phyllis Hebert, a Republican, said she identifies as pro-life, but with exceptions in regard to the health of a mother.
“I’m just not for abortion, but know there are exceptions,” the Fall River, Wisconsin, resident said.
Hebert, a real estate agent, said she prioritizes other issues like those related to the First Amendment. She would vote for a Republican in the Senate race, but not because of their stance on abortion, she said.
‘A national consensus’
Both congressional and presidential candidates across the country are approaching the topic of abortion with caution on the campaign trail.
Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., who is up for reelection in 2024, recently criticized her Republican colleagues and organizations that oppose abortion for “extreme” stances on abortion rights “when it comes to rape and incest, protecting the life of the mother.”
She added that 14 counties in her state are without OBGYN doctors and questioned how women would have more access to birth control if abortion is banned.
“The middle, the independent voters, right of center, left of center, they cannot support us,” she said on Fox News Sunday.
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Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley has also called for a “national consensus” on abortion.
“You don’t save any lives if you can’t enact your position into law, and you can’t do that unless you find consensus,” she said during an appearance in Arlington, Virginia. “Reaching consensus starts with humanizing, not demonizing.”
“We can all agree that women who get abortions should not be jailed,” she added.
Other presidential Republican contenders have had similar messaging, including New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” voters under 45 years old are looking for a “new generation” of Republicans and that abortion is not one of their priorities.
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a pro-life organization, is not wavering on the issue of abortion. The group will oppose any presidential candidates who refuse to support at least a 15-week national abortion ban.
“Our focus is on ensuring we have a presidential candidate who is a strong national defender of life and understands their responsibility to protect unborn children and their mothers from abortion on the federal level,” SBA Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfleser said in a statement to USA TODAY.
A prime example? The Wisconsin Senate race
The Wisconsin Senate seat up for grabs in 2024 is set to be a heated race where a candidate’s stance on abortion may sway voters and draw them to the polls.
Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, a strong advocate for abortion rights, announced her re-election campaign last month. The senator is the lead sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2023, a bill that guarantees access to abortion nationwide and restores the right to reproductive health care.
“The issue of abortion is not going away until we pass legislation guaranteeing everyone, no matter their zip code, has the freedom to make their own health care decisions,” Baldwin said in a statement to USA TODAY.
She has yet to face any official Republican challengers, but the list of possible contenders is growing.
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Wisconsin businessman Mayer has expressed interest in entering the race. If he decides to run, he is just one of many possible candidates who may find a more moderate lane on abortion to appeal to voters.
“I would absolutely come in a little bit different than most Republicans and have some access and some availability,” he said.
Mayer said there’s more to abortion than identifying as pro-life or pro-choice, emphasizing the need for better healthcare for women and improved access to contraceptives. When a woman’s health is in danger or in the case of rape or incest, he said he believes a mother should have access to abortion and would consider a ban close to the end of the first trimester with “no strings attached.”
David Clarke, a retired Milwaukee County sheriff, is also considering running for the Senate race as a Republican and called abortion a “complex issue.”
Clarke said in a statement to USA TODAY that those who support “unfettered abortion” have “no heart and no compassion.”
“The problem for Republican politicians and candidates for office is that they haven’t framed the issue properly. They run from it,” he said.
To Phil Anderson, who announced his candidacy for the Senate race as a libertarian, abortion is not a “black and white decision.” Anderson decided to enter the race because the paradigm between the Democrat and Republican parties is starting to “break down.” He cited abortion as an example of radical messaging from both Democrats and Republicans.
Anderson, who identifies as pro-life, said the real debate surrounding abortion comes down to what point a human life begins. He said he doesn’t “have a commitment personally.”
“I’m either not really pro-life, or I’m not really pro-choice, and the fact is I’m in between and both,” he said. But he added there should be something on the books that allows exceptions for the life of the mother. Anderson does not support the 1849 Wisconsin law currently in effect.
More: 5 ways the landscape has changed since the end of Roe v. Wade ‘upended’ abortion access
All a façade?
NARAL’s Stitzlein said Republican candidates taking a moderate stance on abortion shows only a change in rhetoric, not their actions.
“I think as these bans have been in place and people are living with the realities, I think Americans are realizing what abortion bans actually look like, and they’re starting to see that this fallacy of exceptions or this fallacy of moderation really doesn’t work in practice,” he said.
Stitzlein said Republicans often feel “beholden to this extreme part of their base.”
He said the question for Republicans is, “how much longer are they going to be held hostage by this extreme minority that is hell-bent on banning abortion nationwide?”
But potential candidates in the Wisconsin Senate race, like Mayer, said they think their more moderate stances will attract voters.
“If I do this, you are out to represent the people there. It’s the people that elect you, not the party, and I really feel that 70% of people want some access to abortion, then I would have to honor that,” Mayer said.
Here’s what to know: Reproductive justice is a human rights, abortion access movement.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: GOP contenders strategize abortion approach on 2024 campaign trail