A day after election losses, GOP candidates gloss over struggles on abortion policy at the debate

Republicans and abortion-rights opponents lost elections across the country Tuesday, in large part because the party still hasn’t found a successful message or policy on abortion rights.

And when the issue emerged at the GOP primary debate Wednesday night, the five candidates onstage couldn’t agree on how the party should best handle the complicated issue.

The fragmented responses further underscored the challenges Republicans face on the issue heading into 2024.

Asked to outline the GOP’s “path forward” on abortion rights, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina re-litigated the ongoing squabbles over the issue within the party.

And none broke any new ground in finding a compelling answer to the political problem that has confounded Republicans for the 17 months since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.

DeSantis said that “we’re better off when we can promote a culture of life” but acknowledged that each state does it “a little bit different.”

He said Republicans and abortion opponents must “do a better job on” ballot measures and referendums related to abortion rights — but he didn’t explain how.

Haley touted herself as “unapologetically pro-life” and lauded states for taking matters into their own hands following the Supreme Court’s decision last year striking down federal protection for abortion rights.

But when it came to pitching a new federal proposal, she said it wouldn’t ever be politically possible to enact any nationwide abortion restrictions.

“Be honest, it’s going to take 60 votes … and a president to sign it,” she said. “No Republican president can ban abortions,” she continued, before she added, “Let’s find consensus.”

Scott then expanded on what other Republicans have previously said the consensus position should be: a 15-week abortion ban.

“I would certainly as president of the United States have a 15-week national limit,” he said. “We need a 15-week federal limit.”

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy emphasized the need for “sexual responsibility for men,” while former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he was “pro-life not just in the womb” but “for the whole life.”

Earlier Wednesday, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel appeared on NBC’s “TODAY” show and said Republican candidates “have to talk about” the issue.

Republican candidates suffered losses Tuesday night in the Virginia legislative elections and the Kentucky governor’s race — campaigns in which Democrats put abortion rights front and center — while a ballot measure in Ohio to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution also passed.

The results were the latest in an unbroken winning streak by candidates and ballot measures supporting abortion rights since the high court’s June 2022 Dobbs ruling, and they further highlighted Republican struggles on the issue. 

The outcome in Virginia — where Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin had made a proposed 15-week abortion a focus of his efforts to help the GOP gain control of the state government — was of particular concern to Republicans, who widely viewed the proposal (which included exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the woman) as a test message for Republicans looking for a moderate reproductive rights policy and message to run on in the post-Roe landscape.

Its failure among Virginia voters was the strongest piece of evidence yet that, heading into 2024, Republicans still lack an effective way to counter messaging from Democrats who have successfully attacked them over their support of more restrictive abortion laws.

Earlier during the debate Wednesday night, which was hosted by NBC News, several candidates indicated they were deeply angered by their party’s continued losses.

“What we saw last night, I’m sick of Republicans losing,” DeSantis said, while Ramaswamy called the GOP a “party of losers” that got “trounced last night.”

Neither of them, however, mentioned the party’s struggles with abortion as a factor in the losses.

Adam Edelman

Adam Edelman is a political reporter for NBC News.

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