Multiple Republican midterm candidates have removed from their campaign sites references to particularly strict anti-abortion stances, a shift from primary campaigning to the approaching general election and an indication of growing concern in the Republican Party over how to handle abortion policy post-Roe v. Wade.
Arizona U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters, who is trailing incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly in recent polling, removed language from his website indicating support for a “federal personhood law” that would treat abortion as murder.
Tom Barrett, running in Michigan’s 7th Congressional District against Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, removed language saying he would “always work to protect life from conception.”
And in North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, since winning the May 17 primary, Republican Bo Hines has removed his “life and family” issues section from his website, which previously linked to a fundraising page touting his belief “that life begins at conception and that we must protect the rights of the unborn.”
Masters’ website now suggests he supports a law banning third-trimester abortions, which are already allowed in only a handful of states. Barrett’s website describes him as “consistently pro-life.” Hines’ website has no reference to abortion.
The changes to Masters’ and Barrett’s websites were first reported by NBC News and the Detroit News, respectively. The changes to Hines’ website have not been previously reported. None of the campaigns responded to requests for comment from The 19th. Masters’ campaign staff pointed NBC News to remarks from the candidate suggesting he would support a third-trimester abortion ban; Barrett told the Detroit News that his stance on abortion had unchanged.
Before his primary, Hines, who is running for an open seat, told the Raleigh News & Observer that he would back legislation banning all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest. He hasn’t weighed in publicly on the matter since the primary.
All three political contests are rated toss-ups by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. While most forecasters still expect Republicans to take the House in the November elections, Democrats’ chances have improved in recent weeks, in part because of voters’ opposition to near-total abortion bans.
The shifting campaign language reflects a broader problem for Republicans in close contests, said Melissa Deckman, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. Total abortion bans are incredibly unpopular. Polling data analyzed by the institute found that, even in states enforcing near-total abortion bans, the majority of people oppose prohibiting all abortions.
Strict bans are more popular in some places, though. In six states enforcing abortion bans, a slim majority supports bans in all or most cases. And in Louisiana, the combined total of respondents who supported abortion bans in “most cases” and “all cases” hit 60 percent.
The active enforcement of abortion bans in several states has heightened voters’ concerns about politicians supporting abortion restrictions, Deckman said. Republicans who campaigned in their primaries on strict abortion bans are now likelier to adopt vaguer language or less restrictive policy.
“It’s the proverbial dog that’s caught the car. For decades you had the Republican Party running on a platform largely that sought to ban abortion or to essentially make it very difficult to obtain an abortion,” Deckman said. “Now that the theoretical possibility has become a reality, the real-world ramifications of that have not been calculated well by many Republican leaders.”
In the months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe, in the case known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 11 states have begun to enforce near-total bans on abortion. Three more states no longer allow the procedure for people beyond six weeks of pregnancy. Abortion clinics in states nearby those with bans have reported double or even triple the number of patients contacting them as more and more Americans are forced to travel across state lines if they seek an abortion.
The policies the three candidates previously endorsed could have major implications. Currently, abortion bans do not criminalize the pregnant person, instead punishing medical providers and those who might have helped someone get an abortion. But “fetal personhood” laws — which Masters previously endorsed — could be used to charge a pregnant person who seeks an abortion with murder. Laws protecting life “from conception” would not only ban abortions, but could also threaten access to medical care for people with ectopic pregnancies as well as those who miscarry, since miscarriages are treated with the same pills as are used for medication abortions. Both forms of legislation could make the future of in vitro fertilization uncertain.
Politicians in safer red seats are less likely to moderate their views on abortion, said Mary Ziegler, a professor at University of California, Davis School of Law and expert on abortion history. But those in contested areas need to court independent voters who are increasingly concerned about the impact of Roe’s overturn.
“What we’re seeing is a sense that you can’t say things that could be construed as support for an abortion ban and expect there not to be consequences,” Ziegler said.
Polling from NBC News indicates that “persuadable voters” — those who aren’t already committed to a political party in the coming midterm elections — are currently more likely to lean Democratic, a shift that has emerged despite President Joe Biden’s relative unpopularity. A month ago, voters in Kansas decisively rejected a constitutional amendment that would have eliminated state abortion protections. Polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation also suggests that Democratic and independent voters are more likely now to include abortion among their top issues, though across all voting blocs, inflation and gas prices remain the number one concern.
Congressional Republicans have previously talked openly about passing a national abortion ban. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has not ruled it out either. Such a policy is not likely to pass while a Democrat remains president — Biden has indicated he would veto any national ban — but could become viable if Republicans control Congress and the White House.
It’s not clear if the current backlash will deter Republicans from pursuing such restrictions in the future, Ziegler said. But the backtracking by some candidates now suggests that’s possible.
“It would suggest some of these people might not want to sign a name to a ban at six weeks, because they would fear they would lose reelection,” she said. “But who knows if that will continue in the aftermath of Dobbs?”