Let’s get one thing straight. GOP Senate candidates Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin did not lose their races on Tuesday because they are extreme right-wingers whose opposition to abortion, even in the case of women who become pregnant as a result of being raped, is considered beyond the pale. Nor did they lose because of verbal gaffes about rape—although Akin’s creative understanding of the female reproductive system should have been enough to disqualify him for a seat in the U.S. Senate, or in freshman biology.
No, Mourdock and Akin lost because they each made the mistake of actually trying to explain an increasingly common position by Republican officer-holders, including Paul Ryan.
I heard a lot last night and this morning about how the Mourdock and Akin defeats show that Americans don’t like inflammatory rhetoric about abortion or that Republicans need to do a better job recruiting more normal candidates. But those two men weren’t inflammatory. Akin’s comments about rape were stupid, but not intentionally inflammatory. And I’ve explained why I think Mourdock’s remarks reflected a consistent view for someone who believes that life begins at conception.
It seems to me that abortion rights supporters are missing the point and the opportunity here. It’s not unusual for GOP politicians to oppose rape exceptions. But they haven’t previously had to defend that position—at least not on a big stage. When they are forced to explain themselves, as in the case of Akin and Mourdock, it’s not their words that alienate voters, but the idea of forcing women to carry to term a pregnancy that began in rape. Americans can hold mixed positions on abortion in tandem—many continue to believe that abortion is morally wrong but should remain legal. Likewise, voters can support abortion restrictions while at the same time opposing the idea that a rape victim should have to carry her rapist’s baby.
Republicans can—and really should—try to recruit future candidates who are a little less wack-a-doodle. And GOP politicians will no doubt be a little more careful before they say anything that involves the word “rape.” But as long as opposition to rape exceptions remains a mainstream position for Republican officeholders, the GOP’s abortion problem is here to stay.