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Republicans are beginning to adjust to a backlash against abortion

Republican candidates, facing a tough reality check from Kansas voters, are softening their once-hardline anti-abortion stances as they head toward the general election, recognizing that strict bans are unpopular and that the issue can be a key driver in the autumn campaigns.

In swing states and even conservative corners of the country, several Republicans have shifted their rhetoric on abortion bans, recently emphasizing support for exemptions. Some have clearly stopped discussing details. Pitched battles in Republican-dominated state legislatures have erupted now that the Supreme Court has made what was long a theoretical argument a reality.

In Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, the staunch anti-abortion Republican gubernatorial candidate, recently said that “the people of Pennsylvania will ‘decide what abortion is like’ in the state, not the governor.” In Minnesota, Scott Jensen, a family physician who said in March that he would “try to ban abortionas governor, he said in a video released before the Kansas vote that he does support some exemptions: “If I’ve been unclear in the past, I want to be clear now.”

Republican advisers to the Senate and House campaigns said Thursday that while they still believe inflation and the economy will drive voters to the GOP, the candidates should talk about abortion to soften Democratic attacks that his position party is extreme. They began advising Republicans to pass bans that allow exemptions for pregnancies from rape or incest or those that threaten the mother’s life. Candidates have been told to emphasize taking care of women during and after their pregnancy.

“If we’re going to ban abortion, there are things we need to do to make sure that the need for abortion is reduced and that women are not at risk,” said Rep. Nancy Mace, R-South Carolina, who won an exemption. for rape and incest in her state’s abortion law as a state representative. Now, he says Republicans must push to expand access to gynecological and obstetrical care, contraception, including emergency contraception, and even protect the right of women to leave their states to get an abortion without fear of prosecution.

Messaging alone can’t absolve the GOP of the news drumbeat following the Supreme Court ruling, including the story of a 10-year-old rape victim who crossed state lines to get an abortion and headlines about women who faced serious health problems under new, extended restrictions or prohibitions.

On Thursday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has recently shied away from talking about abortion, suspended a state attorney from Hillsborough County who refused to prosecute people who try to obtain abortions prohibited by new 15-week state banprompting angry criticism from Democrats.

The recalibration for some began before voters in deeply Republican Kansas voted overwhelmingly Tuesday against removing abortion rights from the state constitution. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, revoking the constitutional right to due process, many Republicans have been slow to detail what’s next. As they rush to enact long-promised laws, Republican-led legislatures have learned how difficult abortion bans can be.

“Not only the pro-choice movement but the pro-life movement was caught off guard” by the Supreme Court, said Brandon Steele, a West Virginia representative who pushed for a no-exception abortion ban in a special session of the legislature that just ended. week with the Republican supermajority in the way. “Without having the talking points, without being told what to do, lawmakers had to start saying what they were actually going to do. You could see the confusion in the room.”

“We’re finding out who’s really pro-life and who’s pro-life just to get elected, not just in West Virginia but across the country,” Mr. Steele said.

In Indiana, a special session of the state legislature to consider a near-total abortion ban had heated debate over whether to include exceptions and how far those exceptions should go.

“For some it’s very black and white: if you’re pro-life without exceptions or if you’re pro-choice without restrictions,” said Sen. Kyle Walker, Republican of Indiana who said abortion should be legal during at least the first trimester of pregnancy. “When you’re in the gray zone, you’re forced to come to terms in your mind with where your limits are.”

For months, Republicans argued that abortion rights would be a footnote in a midterm campaign driven by the worst inflation in 40 years, crime, immigration and a Democratic president whose approval ratings hover at 40 percent.

That’s still the public line, even after the Kansas referendum, where voters faced a single issue, not the multiplicity of factors they’ll consider in November.

But the reality on the campaign trail is different. Sarah Longwell, a Republican pollster, told her focus groups that swing voters do cite inflation and the economy when asked what issues are on their minds. But when asked to discuss abortion, real passion flares. This shows that if Democrats can mount a campaign to keep the issue front and center, they will find an audience, he said.

Ms. Mays agreed, saying that abortions are increasing rapidly and that Republicans need to respond.

In Minnesota, Dr. Jensen, the Republican candidate expected to face Gov. Tim Walsh, suggested it was interactions with voters after the fall of Roe that prompted him to come clean position on abortion.

“As soon as Roe v. Wade was overturned, we told Minnesota and basically told everybody we were going to engage in a conversation,” he said. “During this conversation, I learned the need to analyze my position.”

That treatment included adopting a family and maternity leave program, promoting a $2,500 adoption tax credit per child, and improving access to birth control, including price-capped oral contraceptives. And as Adam Laxaltpointed out Nevada GOP Senate candidate Dr. Jensen abortion protection already in Minnesota to put the issue as settled and not on the ballot this year.

Mr. Walz said he would remain on the offensive, and would not accept a softening of the Republican line.

“I take them at their first word,” he said of Dr. Jensen and his running mate, Matt Birk, a former NFL player and anti-abortion rights advocate. “If given the chance they will criminalize it while we try to protect it. So it’s become a central theme, obviously, so I think this reversal on their part was in response to that.”

The Kansas vote suggests about 65 percent of voters nationally would reject restoring abortion rights, including majorities in more than 40 of the 50 states, according to a New York Times analysis.

Republicans believe their party can wrest the mantle of moderate from Democrats, in part by conveying empathy to pregnant women and offering exemptions to the abortion ban and by branding Democrats as extremists on abortion regulation. If Democrats insist on making abortion the focus of their campaigns, they argue, they risk being out of touch with voters in an uncertain economy.

But Republicans who moderate their views must still face a core base of support that remains staunchly anti-abortion. Abortion opponents said Thursday that Republican candidates shouldn’t read too much into the Kansas vote, a single-issue referendum with language criticized by voters on both sides of the aisle as confusing.

“No matter what the advisory class tells the candidates, they would be wise to recognize that the right-to-life community is an important constituency and an important voter demographic,” warned Penny Nance, CEO and President of Concerned Women for. America, a conservative organization that opposes abortion rights.

After the Kansas vote, Democrats stepped up their efforts to wedge their opponents between a conservative base eager for quick action to ban all abortions and a broader electorate that does not. Representative Elaine Luria, a moderate Democratic candidate in a Republican-leaning district in southeastern Virginia; a new ad has been released against her Republican opponent, Jen Kiggans, calling her “too extreme” on abortion. Ms. Luria had initially said she would campaign on her work for the region and her support for the Navy, a major force in the region, but the landscape has changed. Ms Kiggans’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

A group aligned with the Democratic Governors Association is already touting statements on abortion made by Tudor Dixon of Michigan, who won the Republican nomination for governor this week.

“If you take Tudor Dixon’s word for illegal abortion, she has told us exactly what it is.” The point, titled “No Exceptions,” features clips of Ms. Dixon highlighting her opposition to a range of abortion-related exemptions. Ms Dixon was clear about her position earlier this summer, tweeting“My only exception is to protect the mother’s LIFE.”

In a lengthy statement outlining her opposition to an expected Michigan ballot measure aimed at protecting abortion rights, Ms. Dixon also insisted that her race will be defined by jobs, schools, crime and that “ can afford your gas and groceries.”

For Republicans, one problem may be the extensive trail on the issue they left during the primary season.

In May, Mr. Mastriano was unequivocal in Pennsylvania as he courted Republican voters: “This baby deserves the right to life whether it’s incest or rape or there are other concerns about mom.”

Last month, he said it was out of his hands. “You decide on exceptions. You decide how early. And that’s in the hands of the people,” he said on Philadelphia talk radio. “This is a fact. This is not a dodge.”

Mitch Smith, Journey Gabriel and Reid J. Epstein contributed to the report.

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