Three years ago, Joe Biden won Wisconsin by just 20,000 votes—less than two-thirds of a percentage point. On Tuesday, Judge Janet Protasiewicz won a seat on the state’s Supreme Court by 11 points, tipping the balance of control from a conservative majority to a liberal tilt.
Protasiewicz’s victory was a staggering accomplishment in an off-year election in a purple state. It also wasn’t particularly surprising. It’s the latest sign that, 10 months after the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade, Democratic voters across the country are still energized to protect reproductive rights. Just as significantly, it’s also a clear indication that voters are fundamentally rejecting the Republican Party’s abortion extremism in the aftermath of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—and that the GOP simply has no answer when it comes to abortion policy.
Republicans know they’re screwed too. On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board described the result of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election as “a five-alarm warning to Republicans about 2024.”
“Republicans had better get their abortion position straight, and more in line with where voters are or they will face another disappointment in 2024,” the editorial board argued. “A total ban is a loser in swing states. Republicans who insist on that position could soon find that electoral defeats will lead to even more liberal state abortion laws than under Roe. That’s where Michigan is now after last year’s rout.”
Jon Schweppe, policy director at the conservative American Principles think tank, concurred, tweeting, “Republicans need to figure out the abortion issue ASAP. We are getting killed by indie voters who think we support full bans with no exceptions.” Although in a revealing tell that shows just why aligning the GOP’s stance with the views of most voters won’t be an easy switch, Schweppe continued by touting a 15-week abortion ban, a policy that is supported and opposed in about equal measure. “Time for everyone to suck it up and unify behind [Senator Lindsey Graham’s 15-week bill with exceptions]. That’s the play. The alternative is suiciding the pro-life movement. We are months away from that happening.”
The GOP’s newfound panic is justified. Republicans spent much of last year celebrating an anticipated “red wave” during the midterm elections. It didn’t materialize. Instead, the GOP only gained a marginal majority in the House of Representatives—thanks in large part to Democratic voters who were energized to protect reproductive rights. Across the country, in elections both before and after the midterms, voters pushed back against abortion bans—even in deep-red states like Kansas. For Democrats, moreover, the message was simple. Republicans were trying to pass sweeping abortion bans. Rachel Sweet, who led a campaign to defeat an anti-abortion constitutional amendment in Kentucky, put it well: “While we may not all agree on abortion, we do agree that the government needs to stay out of our personal lives and that women, their families and their doctors are the ones who should be making these decisions, not politicians.”
The GOP had no answer then and still hasn’t come up with an answer in the months since. The Wall Street Journal is right: This is a five-alarm fire for Republicans heading into a crucial presidential election. They’re also right that a total ban is a loser in swing states.
But the idea that the GOP can get behind a policy that isn’t a total ban is a fantasy. Right-wing activists have been pushing for not just a reversal on Roe but a total abortion ban for years; they remain a crucial part of the Republican base. Any candidate who espouses a moderate position on abortion would quickly find himself in a primary battle—and one can think of few contests in recent years in which the more moderate Republican prevailed. This will almost certainly be the case in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. As Slate’s Jim Newell wrote in a perceptive piece last summer, it’s easy to imagine the conversation on the debate stage about abortion: “The 2024 Republican presidential primary … could quickly become a race-to-the-bottom on the issue. A 15-week national ban? RINO. Let’s make it six. A 6-week ban? RINO! Let’s make it zero. Exceptions? R-I-N-O.”
Schweppe’s remedy is similarly fantastical. Graham’s policy—a total, national ban on abortion after 15 weeks—would arguably make things even worse for Republicans. For months, when they have acknowledged the issue at all, which is rarely, mainstream Republicans have argued that they aren’t looking for a national ban at all and that the issue should be left to the states. This is, as evidence suggests, not a winning electoral argument. But there is no evidence whatsoever that replacing it with a nationwide policy that bans abortion just after the end of the first trimester would be better.
If anything, it would energize even more voters against Republicans. It also, as I argued when Graham first unveiled it, gives the game away: The Republican goal is a nationwide ban, full stop. Indeed, nationwide abortion restrictions are at the center of GOP politics, even though they’re unpopular: The House of Representatives has passed several anti-abortion measures since Republicans took back control.
Ultimately, the problem Republicans face is both simple and unsolvable. None of their abortion policies are popular with voters. In fact, they’re all so unpopular they mobilize millions of Democrats to vote against them. This will not stop anytime soon: There’s no magic policy that will stop it because some idealized middle ground that would be palatable to the diehards in the Republican base simply doesn’t exist.