Last week, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a 15-week federal abortion ban, to the consternation of many of his Senate colleagues. Republicans at every level of government are splintering over how far their abortion bans should go, and judging by the campaign trail, Graham’s proposal is yet another wedge. We took a look at how Republican candidates are responding in the 10 closest Senate races, according to our midterm forecast.1 They fell into three major categories:
- Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate in Georgia, said he would support a national 15-week abortion ban, as did Blake Masters, who is running for Senate in Arizona.
- Current Sen. Marco Rubio (Florida) and Rep. Ted Budd (North Carolina) co-sponsored the legislation, signaling that they’re on board with its content.
- Adam Laxalt, who’s running in Nevada, hasn’t commented, although he did write an op-ed in August saying that states should decide the issue. Ohio’s J.D. Vance has also refused to weigh in.
- Pennsylvania candidate Mehmet Oz issued a somewhat opaque statement where he implied that he wouldn’t support the legislation, but didn’t say that outright. His spokesperson said that he’s “pro-life with three exceptions: life of the mother, rape and incest,” but added that “as a senator, he’d want to make sure that the federal government is not involved in interfering with the state’s decisions on the topic.”
- Current Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and New Hampshire candidate Donald Bolduc both said the issue was for the states to decide.
- Colorado candidate Joe O’Dea said he does not support the bill and stands by his view that abortion should be legal in the first five months of pregnancy.
The candidates who came out in favor of Graham’s proposal tend to be in a stronger electoral position — but that’s not uniformly true. Right now, Rubio is in the best position according to FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast, where he’s favored to win against Democrat Val Demings. The other Republican who co-sponsored the bill, Budd, is slightly favored, with a 62-in-100 chance of winning his race against Democrat Cheri Beasley. But Walker’s race against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia is a toss-up in our forecast. And in Arizona, Masters is facing steeper odds — our forecast indicates that he has about a 1-in-5 chance of beating Democrat Sen. Mark Kelly.
The candidates who opposed Graham’s bill — or didn’t say anything about it — are in a weaker position in our forecast, generally speaking. The exception is Vance, who is favored to win the Ohio Senate race right now. Johnson’s race is a toss-up, Laxalt has a 39-in-100 chance, and things look worse for Oz and Bolduc, both of whom have slightly less than a 1-in-5 chance of winning. O’Dea — who came out most strongly against the bill — has the most distant odds, with only a 9-in-100 chance of winning.
The candidates’ responses make more sense when you look at public opinion on abortion in each of their states. Drawing on state-level data from Civiqs, we took a look at the share of registered voters who think abortion should be legal in some or all cases. Majorities of registered voters in every state think abortion should be legal in at least some cases, but support in some states is much higher than others. The four candidates in our subset who are publicly supporting a national 15-week ban — Walker, Masters, Rubio and Budd — are from states where relatively low shares of residents support legal abortion in some or all cases. Support for legal abortion is higher in the remaining states — particularly in New Hampshire, where Bolduc has been trying hard to distance himself from the ban. The only major exception is Vance, who has refused to take a stand on the 15-week ban despite the fact that Ohio residents are the least supportive of legal abortion of the group. Johnson’s opposition to the bill is noteworthy, too, given that support for legal abortion in Wisconsin is not especially high.
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It’s strange in some ways that a 15-week abortion ban is sparking so much controversy since it’s much closer to a consensus bill than anything that’s being implemented by Republicans at the state level. In Republican-controlled states, recent fights have hinged on whether to add limited exceptions to bills that ban abortion completely. And although it’s hard to pin down exactly when Americans want abortion to be legal, a 15-week ban is much closer to the mainstream of public opinion than a full ban.
But the mixed reaction to Graham’s proposal is a telling sign of the political status that any abortion ban occupies in the current electoral landscape. There’s mounting evidence that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion has galvanized Americans who might otherwise have been ambivalent about voting.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted from July 7-17, 60 percent of women voters between the ages of 18 and 49 said they are now “more motivated” to vote in the upcoming elections because of the Supreme Court’s ruling, up 19 percentage points from May, when registered voters were presented with a scenario based on the leaked draft of the opinion. (Many men also support abortion rights, and there’s evidence that the ruling may have galvanized some of them too.) Support for legal abortion grew by 5 percentage points between March and August, according to polling by The Wall Street Journal, which is a remarkable shift for an issue where public opinion is typically static. And even though some polls have suggested that Americans might support a ban on abortions after the first trimester of pregnancy, which is essentially what a 15-week ban would do, polls specifically asking about bans on abortion after 15 weeks show that respondents are divided.
And perhaps most worryingly for the Republicans who did throw their weight behind the proposed 15-week abortion ban, their own efforts to restrict or ban abortion don’t seem to be motivating the GOP base. That Kaiser Family Foundation poll from July found that 62 percent of Republicans say the decision to overturn abortion rights hasn’t made a difference for their vote in November. In fact, the share of Republican women who said that abortion is a “very important” issue for their vote dropped from 60 percent in February to 44 percent in July.
These political currents are reshaping many races, including in the Senate. Masters, the Arizona Republican, scrubbed a policy statement advocating for a federal “personhood” law from his website in August. In Georgia, Walker’s opponent is running ads highlighting his support for abortion bans with no exceptions. And in North Carolina, our model shows that the race has narrowed considerably over the past few months, with support growing for Budd’s opponent, Cheri Beasley, in recent polls.
So even if a 15-week abortion ban seems a lot more restrained than some of the bans that are currently in effect around the country, supporting one still might not be good politics for Republican Senate candidates right now. There’s not a lot of evidence that Republican voters will be galvanized by the proposal — and it could end up rallying Democratic voters.
CLARIFICATION (Sept. 19, 2022, 3:36 p.m.): This article, including the table, has been updated to clarify that respondents in the Civiqs and Kaiser Family Foundation polls are registered voters.