Less than four months ago, a Republican task force commissioned by RNC chair Reince Priebus released a blunt report—colloquially known as the autopsy—urging the party to abandon its obsessive Kulturkampf. “When it comes to social issues, the Party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming,” said the report. “If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.”
Since then, the House of Representatives passed a bill banning abortion at 20 weeks, with no exception for severe fetal anomalies—anomalies that are often not detectable before 20 weeks. There’s been an explosion of anti-abortion legislation in the states, including a ban on abortion as early as 6 weeks in North Dakota. Ohio passed a budget bill defunding Planned Parenthood and imposing stringent new requirements that could close a third of the state’s abortion clinics. Despite Wendy Davis’s valiant, star-making stand in Texas, Republicans are close to ramming through legislation that will shutter most abortion clinics in that state. Late Tuesday night, North Carolina Republicans added anti-abortion regulations to a bill meant to prohibit Sharia law. If passed, it will leave only one clinic standing. Meanwhile, the Weekly Standard reports that Mark Rubio will spearhead a Senate version of the House’s 20-week abortion ban.
Far from retreating from abortion politics, then, the Republican Party is more energized about the issue than ever. According to Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, 2013 is on track to look a lot like 2011, when states passed a record 92 provisions restricting abortion. “The surge on the state level has not abated,” she says.
A few things conspired to end the Republican rebranding effort on women’s issues before it could begin. First, there’s the inconvenient fact that the Republican base was never on board. “The pressure against all this comes from editorial boardrooms, elite circles,” says Dannenfelser. “It doesn’t come from state-level grassroots folks.” Indeed, according to a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll taken last year, 63 percent of Republicans believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Among those who identify with the Tea Party movement, the number is 88 percent. These are the party’s activists, the people who turn out for crucial primary elections—and, in many cases, mount primary challenges of their own. They will can’t simply be ignored.
Then came the Gosnell trial. Not only did it reenergize the anti-abortion movement—by drawing attention to late-term abortion, it persuaded conservatives that they could reframe the abortion debate in a way that favored them. “The 20-week ban got a jet-propulsion boost when the revelations started coming out about the unbelievable horrors in Philadelphia,” says Dannenfelser.
After all, polls consistently show that a majority of Americans oppose second-trimester abortion. Republicans came to believe that if they fought to ban it, the public would be on their side, while Democrats who opposed them would seem extreme. “At the very least, Republicans will benefit from having the Rubio-backed legislation take center stage, overshadowing controversial statements by Republican candidates in 2012 about rape and abortion,” wrote the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes.
Barnes might be overly optimistic. It’s far from clear that this new round of anti-abortion lawmaking will be good for the GOP. Even if the public supports restrictions on late abortion, there’s no evidence it considers them a priority. According to a survey by Democratic pollsters Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, 63 percent of Texans said that their state already has enough restrictions on abortion, and 71 percent said their government should spend less time on the issue and more on jobs and the economy. There’s no evidence that voters nationally are any more eager for new challenges to Roe v. Wade.
But in the end, what matters isn’t what voters think. It’s what Republican primary voters think— and, more than that, what Republicans think their primary voters think. Already, there’s speculation that Rick Perry might be using the battle over Texas’s abortion law to set himself up for another run at the presidency. “"I do think that what's going on here in Texas shows that Perry has courage and is a principled leader, and ultimately this is a good fight for him,” his former gubernatorial campaign manager told CNN. If Republicans believe they can win by doing what they’ve always done, why would they do anything different?