Voters reject abortion bans. Republicans keep pushing them. What’s going on?

Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz, left, and opponent Dan Kelly, right, at a debate.
The win by liberal Wisconsin Supreme Court Janet Protasiewicz, seen here at a debate with her conservative opponent Dan Kelly, was a major victory for abortion rights supporters.
(Morry Gash / Associated Press)

Voters in swing states keep rejecting abortion bans at every opportunity.

Republicans in red states keep pushing them.

That may seem an odd conjunction, but it’s driven by an internal logic pushing the GOP ever further from voters whose support they probably need to win national elections.

While some Republican officials have begun sounding alarms over the path their party has taken, they are vastly outnumbered, and there’s little sign of a course correction ahead.

Abortion dominates swing state politics

The most recent example of voter support for abortion rights came this month in Wisconsin as Judge Janet Protasiewicz won election to that state’s Supreme Court, giving liberals a 4-3 majority on the panel for the first time in 15 years.

“Abortion was, without a doubt, a huge driving force” behind Protasiewicz’s victory, said Ben Nuckels, her campaign’s media consultant. “It encouraged turnout. It persuaded voters, especially in suburban areas.”

In addition to running up large majorities in the state’s two Democratic strongholds, the Madison area and Milwaukee, Protasiewicz won the Green Bay region, where other Democrats have struggled, and cut deeply into the margins that Republican candidates have counted on in the three suburban counties outside of Milwaukee. Ultimately, she won by an 11-point margin in a state that President Biden carried in 2020 by just 0.6%.

Young voters were especially strong for Protasiewicz: In some precincts dominated by university campuses, turnout approached the level of November’s midterm elections. Protasiewicz carried some college precincts with more than 90%.


She is slated to be sworn in for a 10-year term on Aug. 1. Soon after that, the court will have an opportunity to rule on the state’s abortion law, which dates to 1849 and bars the procedure in nearly all cases. As in some other states, the old law snapped back into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, which for half a century had guaranteed abortion rights nationwide.

Protasiewicz’s victory comes after abortion drove Democratic victories in other swing states in November, including Michigan, where Democrats took full control of state government for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president, and Pennsylvania, where they retained the governorship and took control of the state House for the first time since 2010.

But if voters in those swing states are sending a message, Republicans, including some potential presidential candidates, aren’t heeding it.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin made a strong effort this year to enact a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which Democrats blocked in the state Senate.
For the Record
April 14, 2023, 10:23 a.m.: A previous version of this article referred to Gov. Ron DeSantis as Mike DeSantis.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed a 15-week abortion ban into law in 2022, this year proposed a six-week ban, which the state Legislature approved Thursday and DeSantis signed Thursday night.

And former Vice President Mike Pence last week praised a decision by a federal judge in Texas that would ban the commonly used abortion drug mifepristone.

The “ruling fixed a 20-year wrong,” Pence said, referring to the Food and Drug Administration’s decision in 2000 to approve mifepristone’s use. The Biden administration has appealed the judge’s ruling, and on Wednesday, a federal appeals court blocked part of it from going into effect.


Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland quickly announced Thursday that the Biden administration will ask the Supreme Court to preserve full and easy access to the abortion medication.

The restrictions the GOP is pushing, especially the six-week ban and the ruling against mifepristone, clearly contradict the views of most voters.

Two surveys released in the last couple of months — one by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, the other from the Public Religion Research Institute — found that only about 1 in 4 Americans believe abortion drugs should be illegal.

Support for keeping the drugs legal was especially strong among women younger than 30, who favored keeping them available by 71% to 12%, Pew found.

Although Republicans were less supportive of abortion pills than Democrats, even among the GOP, only 35% favored making them illegal, Pew found.

That’s a big reason why Pence is virtually alone among prominent Republicans in saying anything about the judge’s ruling in the mifepristone case — most GOP members of Congress and the other presidential hopefuls have tried to avoid the subject.


The PRRI survey also found that Americans oppose a six-week ban by about 2 to 1. Even a 15-week ban failed to win majority support, with 52% opposed and 44% in favor.

So why are Republicans so eagerly pursuing a policy that a majority of voters don’t want?

Some are believers in the antiabortion cause for whom the goal of ending abortion may outweigh any electoral damage to their party. Matthew Kacsmaryk, the judge in the mifepristone case, for example, had a long history as a conservative Christian with strongly held views against abortion when President Trump nominated him to the bench in 2017. That’s why antiabortion groups sought out his judicial district to file their challenge to mifepristone.

Others who have less strongly held views against abortion may make a rational calculation that backing a ban will serve their personal self-interest even if it damages the party’s prospects.

Republicans in swing states suffered significant losses last year because of the abortion issue; Republicans in more conservative states did not.

Roughly two-thirds of people in Ohio, for example, say abortion should be legal in “all” or “most” cases, according to PRRI’s state-by-state survey of abortion views. But Gov. Mike DeWine won reelection last year 62% to 37% — one of the largest winning margins in state history — despite championing a six-week ban. The same goes for Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia, who handily won reelection despite signing a six-week ban into law.

As UCLA political scientists Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch found in research they did on voters during the 2020 presidential campaign, a significant number of Republicans say they support abortion rights, but are very willing to vote for Republican candidates who oppose them.

“They’re not really cross-pressured on the issue, because they don’t care that much” about it, Tausanovitch said in an interview last year. Among Republicans, the voters who do care about abortion have traditionally been on the antiabortion side.


Last summer’s Supreme Court decision changed that somewhat. It increased the number of voters who care enough about abortion to base their votes on it. That’s especially true when voters see immediate stakes in an election — the future of the state’s 1849 abortion law in Wisconsin, for example.

But abortion, alone, isn’t enough to change the political math in the deeply conservative places that most Republican lawmakers represent. In Congress, for example, fewer than 20 of the 221 Republican members represent districts that are truly competitive in a general election. The vast majority, 192, come from districts that the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates as solidly Republican.

In those places, the election about which officials worry most is their primary, and the voters who show up for those more often want their representatives to fight, not compromise.

Since at least 1980, when the GOP put strong antiabortion positions into its party platform, Republicans have counted on the support of antiabortion voters. For years, that support buoyed Republican prospects. Now that in much of the country it weights them down, it may be too late to change course.

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