How Kari Lake’s tactical retreat on abortion could point the way for the GOP
By Michael C. Bender
Kari Lake campaigned for governor of Arizona last year as a fierce ally of former President Donald Trump who was in lockstep with her party’s right-wing base, calling abortion the “ultimate sin” and supporting the state’s Civil War-era restrictions on the procedure.
This past week, she made a remarkable shift on the issue as she opened her bid for the U.S. Senate: She declared her opposition to a federal ban.
“Republicans allowed Democrats to define them on abortion,” Lake said in a statement to The New York Times about her break from the policy prescription favored by many anti-abortion groups and most of her party’s presidential contenders. She added that she supported additional resources for pregnant women and that “just like President Trump, I believe this issue of abortion should be left to the states.”
The maneuvering by Lake, along with similar adjustments by Republican Senate candidates in Pennsylvania and Michigan, is part of a broader strategic effort in her party to recalibrate on an issue that has become a political albatross in battleground states and beyond.
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, eliminating federal protections for abortion rights and handing Republicans one of their most significant policy victories in a generation, voters have turned out repeatedly to support abortion rights, even in red states.
The campaign arm for Senate Republicans, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is now coaching candidates to take the same tack as Lake — that is, clearly state their opposition to a national abortion ban, according to people familiar with the new strategy.
The group has also urged candidates to state their support for “reasonable limits” on late-term abortions with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, the people said. Rather than trying to avoid the topic, like many candidates did last year, it is advising Republicans to go on offense.
Senate Republicans were briefed last month on detailed research commissioned by One Nation, a nonprofit group aligned with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, showing that many Americans equated the term “pro-life” — traditionally used by Republicans — with support for a total ban on abortion without any exceptions.
The research also showed that while voters opposed the idea of a total ban, there was wider support for restrictions after 12 to 15 weeks of pregnancy, particularly with exceptions for rape, incest and the life or health of the mother.
The nonprofit has suggested that Republicans communicate their views on abortion with empathy and compassion. Steven Law, who is the president of One Nation, is also the president of the Senate Leadership Fund, which has spent more than $1 billion on federal campaigns since 2016.
Whether or not Republican candidates for Congress — and the White House — can persuade voters that they have become more moderate on abortion promises to be one of the central questions of the 2024 elections.
“Voters have repeatedly rejected Republican politicians for supporting dangerous policies that deny a woman’s right to access abortion,” Sarah Guggenheimer, the spokesperson for the Senate Majority political action committee dedicated to electing Democratic candidates. “This cynical effort by Mitch McConnell and Republican candidates to mask their positions won’t change that.”
The already challenging rebranding effort also carries significant risks, none more so than alienating anti-abortion activists in the party.
Since the fall of Roe v. Wade and the nationwide rollback of abortion rights, the party’s base of anti-abortion voters, which include mostly evangelical Christians, has had heightened expectations that Republican politicians will push to implement the strict anti-abortion policies they have spent decades promising.
Still, Trump has made an apparent political calculus, insisting that hard-line positions on abortion cost the party a red wave of victories last year and that it must avoid similar mistakes in 2024.
Blaming abortion allows Trump to sidestep the sense among many Republicans that it was in large part his elevation of candidates who embraced his lies about the 2020 presidential election — which ultimately proved unpopular to general-election voters in key states — that cost the party control of the Senate and delivered just a razor-thin House majority. He also ignores his own role in appointing three of the five Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe. But there is ample evidence that the abortion issue mattered.
Trump has refused to take an explicit position on whether he would support a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks, the baseline position of many Republicans as well as Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a leading anti-abortion group. Last month, he criticized Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a presidential rival, for signing a six-week abortion ban into law.
Lake spent several minutes talking about abortion during her first speech as a Senate candidate in Arizona last week, which she acknowledged was rare for a Republican to bring up. She described her position broadly, saying she wanted to “save babies and help women.”
“The Republican Party is going to put their money where their mouth is,” Lake said to the cheering crowd. “We are going to give them real choices so they can make better choices and not live with that regret.”
Still, Lake didn’t mention her opposition to a national ban to the crowd, even though it is laid out on her campaign website.
“Kari Lake has repeatedly said she is a pro-life candidate,” said Cathi Herrod, the president of the Center for Arizona Policy, a nonprofit group that promotes anti-abortion policies. “I think the advice to oppose a federal ban is misguided.”