Republicans hoped to downplay abortion bans. The new antiabortion speaker makes that harder

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), wearing a dark suit and white shirt is seen raising his right hand to take the oath.
Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) takes the oath as the new House speaker after his election on Wednesday.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
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Leading Republicans have strenuously tried this year to soft-pedal their party’s support for abortion bans as they seek to avoid losses like those suffered in last year’s midterm elections.

That strategy has been clear in statements by former President Trump, who in September called Florida’s passage of a six-week abortion ban a “terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” Trump has refused to specify what limits he would back if he were once again in the White House.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has followed a similar path in his effort to win control of both houses of the legislature in the state’s upcoming election. Youngkin has advocated a 15-week limit, which he depicts as “common-sense.” His political operation has spent millions promoting that and seeking to portray Democrats as extreme for opposing it.


House Republicans’ election of Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana as the chamber’s new speaker almost surely will complicate such efforts at defensive ambiguity, which already faced skepticism from many voters.

Johnson is little known even within Congress, but he’s well documented. A committed evangelical Christian who served as a lawyer and spokesman for the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom before he ran for Congress in 2016, he described his career in a statement that year as a “legal ministry.” His comments to a Louisiana Baptist publication left no ambiguity about his priorities:

“I’ve been out on the front lines of the ‘culture war’ defending religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and biblical values, including the defense of traditional marriage,” he said.

The Trump-evangelical alliance

Johnson’s six years in Congress give him the least experience in office of any House speaker since the 19th century. His short congressional career has had two major themes — opposition to abortion and gay rights, and support for Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

He has introduced several measures to impose nationwide abortion limits and led efforts to rally Republican lawmakers behind legal maneuvers designed to block President Biden’s victory.

His election is an emblem of the rise to power of the alliance between Trump and conservative, white evangelicals which dominates today’s GOP.

Many Democrats express bafflement at devoutly religious voters cleaving to Trump, but the alliance makes sense in cultural terms: Many conservative Christians see themselves as an embattled minority — religiously and often racially — and view Trump as a powerful champion.

At pro-Trump rallies, it’s not rare to hear the former president’s election described as a literal godsend.


Democrats go on the attack

Opposition to abortion is central to the pact between Trump and his evangelical supporters.

The issue is also central to Democrats efforts to defeat them. Party strategists believe that religious fervor on the right scares off voters in the center. They’ve depicted abortion restrictions as part of a broader conservative campaign to limit personal freedoms and portrayed election denial as a Republican tool to put those limits into law despite majority opposition.

This week, they wasted no time in focusing on those issues as they sought to define Johnson’s image.

While Biden issued an official statement welcoming the election of a new speaker, his campaign spokesman labeled Johnson a “loyal foot soldier to ban abortion nationwide [and] lead efforts to deny free and fair election results.”

Abortions have increased

Johnson’s election comes at an important moment in the country’s abortion debate.

The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade hasn’t worked out the way many abortion opponents hoped. The public backlash against abortion restrictions has been stronger and more sweeping than either side predicted.

Equally surprising, since the court’s ruling, the number of abortions nationwide has gone up, not down. The latest evidence of that comes from detailed surveys of abortion providers by WeCount, a project of the Society for Family Planning, which tracks abortions in clinics.


Fifteen states, mostly in the South, ban all or nearly all abortions while another three have highly restrictive laws, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks state policies. In those states, the number of clinic abortions dropped to near zero.

But that decline was more than offset by increases in the states that have protected abortion rights, the WeCount numbers show. That increase includes California, where the number of abortions rose about 5.5%, but was especially pronounced in states like Illinois and New Mexico that are flanked by areas with severe abortion restrictions, the data shows.

In addition, the number of medication abortions has clearly increased, as abortion-rights groups have supported networks of doctors, pharmacists and volunteers who send abortion drugs to women in states with bans. The WeCount report took note of that increase but did not tally it, citing the difficulty of tracking how many such abortions have taken place.

That doesn’t mean the bans have had no effect. A large number of women in restrictive states have clearly been forced to carry pregnancies to term that they didn’t want. But the work by abortion-rights supporters to expand access has been more successful than many expected.

A crucial year for abortion rights

The picture could change in the coming year. The Florida abortion ban, for example, hasn’t taken effect because of lawsuits. If it does, it would block access for many women in the Southeast. The state’s Supreme Court heard arguments in September.

Meantime, abortion-rights groups are working to get a measure on Florida’s ballot designed to overturn the ban.


When abortion rights have gotten onto the ballot, they consistently have won, not just in swing states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, but also in heavily Republican ones, such as Kansas.

This year, in addition to the Virginia legislative election and an election for governor in Kentucky, the Nov. 7 balloting will include a referendum in Ohio to guarantee abortion rights. A recent poll by Baldwin Wallace University showed the referendum winning 58%-34%.

Public opinion has shifted in reaction to the Supreme Court ruling. The share of Americans who support legal abortion has risen nationally, and in nearly every state, the share saying that abortion should be legal in all or most cases has gone up over the past few years.

Prior to the high court decision, polling nationally suggested that a 15-week limit on abortions would command broad public support. Now, as the Virginia campaign has shown, that’s unclear.

All that has pushed antiabortion groups to greater advocacy of nationwide restrictions as they’ve run up against the limits of a state-by-state strategy. That’s built tensions within Republican ranks over the political cost of advocating a nationwide ban.

The GOP had hoped to paper over differences on abortion at least until after the next election, in which a handful of races will determine control of the House. By choosing Johnson as the face of the party’s congressional wing, they’ve made their true preference much clearer.

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Republicans finally get a speaker

Johnson’s victory came after three weeks of chaos in the House Republican conference. Here’s some of our coverage from the final phase.

News Analysis: The House Republican civil war shows Trump’s power — and its limits

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House Republicans unite, finally, to elect hard-right colleague Mike Johnson as speaker

The outcome thrusts Johnson, a 51-year-old former conservative talk radio host in his fourth term in Congress, into the national spotlight, Logan and Faith Pinho reported.

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