Heading into RNC, Republicans grapple with stance on abortion

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MADISON – Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning the constitutional right to end a pregnancy, abortion policy has loomed large over elections throughout the country — and especially in Wisconsin.

As politicians and delegates prepare to gather in Milwaukee for the Republican National Convention in July, the party continues to grapple with its stance on the issue that has proven challenging at the ballot box. 

At the party’s state convention this month, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson urged attendees to unify their position on abortion in order to win in November, warning Democrats will seek to make the 2024 presidential election a referendum on the issue.

“Within the Republican Party, we have a broad spectrum … and I have complete respect for people who, because I think we all agree that life begins at conception, want to protect life,” Johnson — who has argued abortion policy should be determined by referendum — said. “I completely respect that. But that’s not where probably most Americans, most Wisconsinites, and probably even most Republicans land.”

“I know people don’t like what I’m saying. Many people in this room do not like what I am saying. I’m just laying out the reality of the situation because in the end, we have to win elections.”

Johnson’s comments came as Republicans seek to boost former President Donald Trump on an issue created by members of the U.S. Supreme Court he appointed when they overturned Roe v. Wade in the court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Trump himself has warned his supporters the issue could hurt Republicans, particularly if Congress were to pursue a federal abortion ban. The former president has said states should set their own abortion policies, not the federal government.

“We have to do the right thing, but we have to get elected,” Trump said earlier this month at the National Rifle Association convention in Dallas.

Polls: Most Wisconsin voters support legal abortion

The most recent Marquette University Law School poll shows Trump and Democratic President Joe Biden locked in a tight race within the margin of error among Wisconsin voters. Biden has focused heavily on the issue of abortion as he campaigns against Trump.

Wisconsin Republicans have struggled to combat the political effects of the ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, which effectively put back into place a law that had been interpreted for more than a century to ban all abortions except when the mother would die without one — although a Dane County judge in December declared that the ban does not apply to consensual procedures.

Questions about access to abortion, contraception and fertility treatments have been at the forefront of races in Wisconsin and throughout the country since.

The issue was central to the 2022 midterm elections in Wisconsin and the 2023 state Supreme Court race, leading to victories for Democratic and liberal candidates who made the issue a focus of their campaigns.

In an April Marquette University Law School poll, 24% of Democratic voters said they consider abortion their most important issue in deciding who to vote for, followed by the economy. For independent and Republican voters, 5% of those groups saw abortion as their top issue.

While abortion was the leading issue among Democratic participants, the economy was the No. 1 issue for all respondents in the survey, followed by immigration and abortion policy. Voters saw Biden better at handling abortion and health care, and Trump better on the economy and immigration.

The poll found that among registered voters, 31% of Republicans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 68% think it should be illegal in all or most cases. Among Democrats, 96% think it should be legal in all or most cases. And among independents, 67% think it should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 32% who think it should be illegal.

Democrats remain focused on abortion access

Democrats have continued their efforts to make abortion a key factor in motivating turnout for Biden, including among voters in purple areas or even the traditionally red Milwaukee suburbs.

Women affected by abortion bans in other states campaigned for Biden in Waukesha County in April, and Vice President Kamala Harris brought a similar message to the area in January. Biden administration officials have also made frequent trips to Milwaukee and Madison this year, both Democratic strongholds.

“There is a clear line between where we are now and who is to blame,” Harris said in an April visit to La Crosse. “The former president (Donald Trump) was very clear with his intention — he would fill and appoint three members of the U.S. Supreme Court with the intention that they would overturn the protections of (Roe v. Wade).”

In response to Trump’s argument that abortion policy should be left to individual states, Democrats have noted that some states have sought to ban abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy — and others, like Wisconsin, still have archaic laws on the books banning it in nearly every case.

Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez, a Democrat, said she expects Republicans to avoid discussing abortion during the convention.

“Democrats have always been the party that has supported reproductive rights and abortion care (and) never wavered … no matter how the Republicans are trying to dance around it. The Democrats have been consistent,” Rodriguez said. “We are the ones who are going to fight for reproductive rights. We’re going to fight for women to be able to make decisions about their own body. And we’re going to continue to talk about that.”

A recent New York Times analysis of data from AdImpact, a firm that tracks political advertising spending, predicts that Democrats will spend nearly $1 million on abortion-related ads in Wisconsin this year, with zero spending predicted for Republicans.

USA Today contributed.

Jessie Opoien can be reached at jessie.opoien@jrn.com.

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