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Tyler Michals: Republicans need to reevaluate candidate choices and message to voters on abortion

From the commentary: The Republican Party cannot continue to thread the needle on abortion forever. So long as conservatives are content to punt on the issue, liberals will continue to press their advantage. The electorate spoke definitively last week — Republicans would do well to listen.

Republican Party on abortion topic
Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz and his wife, Lisa, at his election watch party on Nov. 8, 2022, at the Newtown Athletic Club in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Oz, who lost, said in an October debate that abortion decisions should be made between “women, doctors (and) local political leaders.”
(Tom Gralish/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
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There was no “red tsunami” during this year’s midterm elections. There wasn’t even a red wave. In fact, the editors of the National Review called it a “red mist.” Republicans did have notable success in a few places, particularly in Florida and parts of New York state.

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It’s still possible that Republicans will gain control over one chamber of Congress. Even so, given the numerous political headwinds facing Democrats, Republicans were left disappointed by the results.

The blame was immediately placed on an especially weak slate of candidates. This was largely the result of intraparty divisions between establishment candidates and those backed by former President Donald Trump. Georgia provides a snapshot of the problem that has beset the GOP.

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In the Peach State, incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp caught the ire of Trump when he refused to indulge in 2020 election conspiracy theories. In a fit of pique, Trump sought to oust Kemp in the state’s Republican gubernatorial primary earlier this year. Republicans in Georgia refused to take the bait, nominating Kemp for a second term over Trump’s protest.

It was a different story in Georgia’s Republican Senate primary, in which Trump-backed candidate Herschel Walker received the nomination. Walker, a former NFL star with no political experience, ran a campaign that was repeatedly hobbled by controversy and scandal.

On election night, Kemp easily cruised to victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams to secure the governorship for Republicans. But it quickly became clear that Walker was running well behind Kemp’s pace in the Senate race. Indeed, Walker finished slightly behind his Democrat opponent, incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock. However, since neither candidate was able to eclipse the state’s 50% vote threshold, the race heads to a runoff election in December.

It’s certainly necessary for Republicans to question their candidate choices, but it’s not sufficient. Republicans will also need to reevaluate their message to voters. On that point, it’s clear that the abortion issue has become the party’s albatross.

In the 1990s, famed Democratic strategist James Carville succinctly distilled what voters cared about the most: “It’s the economy, stupid!” Over the past several months, Republicans used this playbook relentlessly in an effort to pin high inflation on the Democrats. At a time when the economy ranked among the top issues for voters, this seemed like a good bet.

Democrats, on the other hand, waged a fierce counterattack in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade. When the issue of abortion was returned to the political arena, Democrats were given a casus belli, which they exploited to great effect. Exit polls from battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan show that abortion — not the economy — was the single biggest issue motivating voters.

The warning signs for Republicans should have been plain to see. Over the summer, Kansas held a post-Dobbs referendum on abortion; the results demonstrated that voters were in no mood to overturn the standard set by Roe. They emphatically rejected an amendment to the state’s constitution that would have removed protections for abortion. Democrats took the hint, making the abortion issue their centerpiece heading into the midterm elections.

Republicans, however, were never able to present a coherent message on the issue. At a highly anticipated Senate debate in Pennsylvania, Republican candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz opined that abortion decisions should be made between “women, doctors (and) local political leaders.” In Maine, when Republican candidate Paul LePage was asked at a gubernatorial debate whether he would sign a bill restricting abortions after 15 weeks, he dissembled, “I don’t know what you mean by 15 weeks or 28 weeks. … I don’t know. I mean, I’m not sure I understand the question.”

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It wasn’t just the candidates. Abortion itself was on the ballot in several states. In California and Vermont, propositions to place a woman’s right to choose in their state constitutions easily succeeded. Similarly, in Michigan, voters overwhelmingly approved a detailed abortion initiative that will codify Roe in the state’s constitution.

The big wake-up call came in Kentucky, where a ballot initiative sought to clarify that abortion is not protected by the state’s constitution. Yet, on the same night that Republican Rand Paul sailed to reelection in the Senate, and all of Kentucky’s House seats went for Republicans save for one, Kentuckians soundly rejected the anti-abortion rights amendment.

The Republican Party cannot continue to thread the needle on abortion forever. So long as conservatives are content to punt on the issue, liberals will continue to press their advantage. The electorate spoke definitively last week — Republicans would do well to listen.

Tyler Michals is an attorney in Chicago. This commentary is the columnist's opinion. Send feedback to: opinion@wctrib.com.

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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