IN-DEPTH: Pro-Life Leaders Say Candidates Must Change Messaging to Win Elections

After a string of election losses, pro-life advocates say candidates need to spend more time and money on proactive messaging to voters.
IN-DEPTH: Pro-Life Leaders Say Candidates Must Change Messaging to Win Elections
Pro-abortion and pro-life activists fill the street in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington during a protest in the wake of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, on June 25, 2022. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Masooma Haq
11/16/2023
Updated:
11/16/2023
0:00

In the wake of Republicans losing several important state elections last week, leaders in the pro-life community want Republicans to lean into the right-to-life message with the same passion Democrats bring to their message on abortion.

“If only Republicans would be as pro-life as the Democrats are pro-abortion,” Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, told The Epoch Times. She said candidates need to insist on debating Democrats on abortion, so voters can see how extreme their policies are.

Olivia Gans Turner is the president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, a state affiliate of National Right to Life. She said candidates need to be confident about their pro-life stance and communicate it clearly and compassionately.

“I think their handlers are often very afraid of this issue, so they don’t help them stand up and say, ‘This is the deal, I am pro-life because abortion ends the life of an unborn child and harms that child’s mother,’” Ms. Gans Turner told The Epoch Times.

In Virginia, Democrats ran a steady stream of ads against Republicans two months before the statewide November elections, claiming Republicans were trying to take away all access to abortion. In response, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin tried to rally voters around what he called a common sense policy: abortion banned after 15 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape, incest, and situations where the mother’s life was at risk.

Republicans “allowed Democrats to dominate the abortion narrative on the airwaves and sow confusion with voters,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, in a recent statement. “The GOP consulting class needs to wake up. Candidates must put money and messaging” into future elections.

Steven Law, president and CEO of One Nation and American Crossroads, agrees.

“Republicans have a continued problem with the politics of abortion. And we’ve been saying since June that the party is going to have to start to deal with that more effectively or we’re going to have more election nights like last night,” Mr. Law said in a Nov. 8 interview on Fox News.

More Money in Ads

Republicans have lost in several elections since the repealing of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court in 2022, most recently in Virginia and Ohio, in large part because Democrats used the abortion issue to raise more money.

In a Nov. 13 online event called “After Virginia Votes,” a retrospective discussion of the election hosted by the Virginia Public Access Project, Matt Moran, executive director of Mr. Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC, said their spending on abortion paled in comparison to Democrats.

“Democrats ran somewhere between 57 percent or 61 percent of their ads on abortion,” he said, keeping in mind that Democrats raised nearly $65 million this cycle. Republicans spent somewhere between 4 and 8 percent on abortion ads, he said.

Ms. Hawkins said early estimates for the Virginia elections showed that pro-abortion groups in Virginia outspent the pro-life organizations 9-to-1.

The Democrat Legislative Campaign Committee invested $2.2 million in Virginia elections, and Planned Parenthood Virginia PAC spent nearly $2 million.

“Democrats nationally and at state levels are all in when it comes to abortion, but that’s not what we’ve seen in the Republican Party,” said Ms. Hawkins. She wants to see Republican leaders coalesce around their pro-life messaging and funding for any future elections.

GOP Failed to Counter

In Virginia, some pro-life ads did get out in response to Democrats, but they were insufficient, said Ms. Gans Turner.

“That was too little, too late,” she said. “They want everyone to believe that pro-life candidates and pro-life people don’t care, don’t understand.”

Mr. Youngkin ran some ads clarifying the GOP’s position on abortion in response to the “unrelenting” Democrat ads but did not go on offense, said Mr. Law.

“It’s something that you have to dig into. You have to say where you are and why you stand for it,” and Republicans fell short of that, he said. Democrats know how to use the issue to raise funds and draw votes, he added.

Kristen Day, executive director of the pro-life group Democrats for Life of America, said the pro-life movement needs to figure out how to explain the consequences of limitless abortion laws, like the one passed in Ohio, in a sound bite.

“People are more apt to listen to the soundbite that’s easy to understand rather than the legal consequences of what will happen,” Ms. Day told The Epoch Times.

Ms. Gans Turner, who helped train some of the Virginia GOP candidates on their pro-life messaging, said stronger communication and coordination between pro-life organizations and Republican leaders would have helped voters understand the pro-life side better, and vote accordingly.

On the other side, Democrats had a thorough plan.

“Planned Parenthood Virginia PAC reached thousands of voters through phone banking, door-to-door canvassing, a robust direct mail program, and digital ads targeting thousands of voters,” Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, said in a statement after the elections.

Planned Parenthood signage is displayed outside of a clinic in Los Angeles on May 16, 2023. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)
Planned Parenthood signage is displayed outside of a clinic in Los Angeles on May 16, 2023. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Democrats Use Fear

“The reality is that the nonstop relentless droning of pro-abortion ads definitely influenced a section of the population who were at this moment in time in history, after the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the Dobbs decision, easily triggered by the fear-mongering that those ads induced,” said Ms. Gans Turner.

“That’s the magnitude of how abortion has affected our communities, our families, our culture,” she said. “It creates an easily triggered population,” which is why the television ads that Democrats ran were so effective, she added.

Ms. Gans Turner believes that women leading the pro-life movement, who know how to talk to people about this very sensitive issue, should have been hired to create strong messaging for Republicans.

“The pro-abortion element in our country has successfully created a mindset that abortion is just another aspect of women’s health care that is just like making decisions to do any other health procedure,” she said.

Ms. Hawkins said Democrats framed their message differently.

“They didn’t talk about abortion,“ she said. ”They use words like freedom and access.”

The pro-abortion ads targeted and ran repeatedly in swing districts, saying that Republicans were going to criminalize abortion, send women to jail, and try to completely ban all abortions if they achieved a trifecta in the Virginia government, said Ms. Gans Turner.

Ms. Gans Turner cited a letter to Congress in May 2022, in which the leaders of dozens of pro-life organizations across the country laid out their vision for the pro-life movement and future legislation protecting life.

“As national and state pro-life organizations, representing tens of millions of pro-life men, women, and children across the country, let us be clear: We state unequivocally that we do not support any measure seeking to criminalize or punish women and we stand firmly opposed to include such penalties in legislation,” stated the letter.

But the ads run but by Democrats made it sound like the first thing pro-life candidates were going to try to do if they were elected was to punish women, said Ms. Gans Turner, and voters believed them.

Instead, Republicans should have flipped the script and exposed how extreme most Democrats have gotten on the abortion issue, said Ms. Gans Turner.

Extreme

Republicans and pro-life groups should talk about alternatives to abortion and the underlying societal and mental health issues that are creating the environment in which people believe abortion is a good solution, she added.

Ms. Gans Turner said Democrats are the ones who have extreme abortion policies.

“Democrats did not want anybody to talk about how extreme they are. They want to pass a constitutional amendment like they just did in Ohio, that would make abortion legal through all nine months of pregnancy without any restrictions of any kind because that’s the effect these amendments have in the law,” she said.

Democrats try to mask the extremism by using words like reproductive freedom which really means, “unrestricted abortion for any reason for all nine months of pregnancy,” said Gans Turner.

Republicans want to limit abortions to 15 weeks, but Democrats refuse to even acknowledge the developing baby can feel pain, said Ms. Gans Turner. Virginia’s “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” which is being referred to as the 15-week ban, is not extreme, she said.

Conversely, Ms. Lockhart called GOP abortion policies extreme. “Voters were not fooled by the GOP’s attempt to rebrand their extreme anti-abortion agenda or distracted by their disingenuous tactics,” she said.

Ms. Gans Turner said her organization tried to direct voters’ attention to Democrats’ extremism before Election Day, by running some ads that talked about how Democrat lawmakers did not support a law that would have provided lifesaving medical care for a baby that survives an abortion procedure, or how they tried to pass a law that made abortion legal up until the delivery date.

Ms. Hawkins, however, said the 15-week ban does not do enough to protect babies because it would still allow about 90 percent of abortions to remain legal. Her organization will only endorse candidates who pledge to sign bills to prohibit abortion after a heartbeat can be detected.

Before Republicans’ Nov. 7 loss in Virginia, Ms. Hawkins publicly opposed the 15-week stance, saying it was a losing position.

“I came out very clearly, before the election, saying this is not going to work. That’s not a compromise. It’s a capitulation,” she said. Pro-life candidates and Republican leaders need to unapologetically support a heartbeat bill, not a bill that would still allow most abortions, she added.

“Advancing legislation to protect children with beating hearts that are detectable could save 60 to 70 percent of children from abortion,” she said.

Meanwhile, Ms. Day is working on getting consensus in her party for some limits on abortion.

“I have a hard time really comprehending why Democrats are opposing resources to people in need, because that’s the whole foundation of our party,” she said, referring to pro-life pregnancy resource centers, which some Democrats are now targeting and calling for their closure. “I really see the Democratic Party becoming pro-abortion, the one-choice party.”

Ms. Gans Turner said Democrats have not supported legislation that provides alternatives to abortion.

In 2022, Democrats in the Virginia Senate blocked a bill that would have required the Virginia Department of Health’s website to list all private and public offerings in the state to pregnant women from the time of their pregnancy, up to the 18th year of their child’s life, she said.

Based on her organization’s work on college campuses, Ms. Hawkins said she knows you must show voters how extreme many of these pro-abortion policies are and then you can win over people who don’t want that type of extremism.

Canvassers hold pro-life signs at Columbus Christian Center ahead of Election Day during a pro-life canvasing meeting in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 4, 2023. (Megan Jelinger/AFP via Getty Images)
Canvassers hold pro-life signs at Columbus Christian Center ahead of Election Day during a pro-life canvasing meeting in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 4, 2023. (Megan Jelinger/AFP via Getty Images)

Constitutional Amendments

Ohio was a precursor to similar ballot measures expected to be introduced next year in several states, including Arizona and Nevada, which are often pivotal to deciding the presidential winner.

Constitutional amendments are interpreted in ways that lead to a stripping away of any kind of protection for the unborn, stripping of parental consent laws, and nullifying laws that require abortion centers to provide women with information about all their pregnancy options, said Ms. Gans Turner.

States including Michigan, Vermont, and California—which have abortion access written into the state constitutions—are finding out that these amendments have all types of unintended consequences, she said.

Ms. Day agreed and said many times, voters don’t fully understand the implications of passing a constitutional amendment like they just did in Ohio, but states that passed similar amendments are finding out how these laws take away other rights.

“I think Michigan is starting to find out because there are a lot of reasonable laws that will now be overturned, like parental support, parental notification—those laws are now unconstitutional,” she said. “There was a lot of misinformation on the constitutional amendment, in Ohio and other states, saying that it’s just protecting a woman’s right to choose, and they don’t realize that it goes much farther.”

Ms. Gans Turner said the Republican pro-life message must educate voters on how the GOP is the party trying to provide every resource and alternative to women, so they can deliver and keep their babies.

When women are made aware of all their options, they often choose to carry the baby to term, “because what we’re looking for are answers. We’re looking for resources,” said Ms. Gans Turner, “We’re looking for support, and we’re looking for a path that gives us a sense of our own integrity and our own dignity and respects our children.”

Unlike many other states, Virginia does not allow a simple vote to get an amendment added to their state constitution, but instead, it requires a multiple-step process in Virginia’s General Assembly, said Ms. Gans Turner.

Issue 1 supporters cheer as they watch election results in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 7, 2023. (Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo)
Issue 1 supporters cheer as they watch election results in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 7, 2023. (Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo)

Democrats More Motivated

The recent data shows that abortion is much more of a motivating factor for Democrats than Republicans.
A University of Mary Washington poll showed that last year’s Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade would be a significant factor in the 2023 elections, with 70 percent of Democrats saying they considered abortion a major factor for them in the upcoming elections, compared to 35 percent of Republicans.

“Fundamentally, the public’s been really clear. They do not want to see restrictions on this right, and we leaned into that in our messaging,” said Democrat political consultant Jesse Ferguson during the After Virginia Votes discussion.

Stephen Farnsworth, a professor at the University of Mary Washington who also participated in the discussion, came to a similar conclusion.

“The consequence of the Supreme Court decision is bad news for Republicans,“ he said. ”The idea of further restrictions is just simply not where the public is.”

Masooma Haq began reporting for The Epoch Times from Pakistan in 2008. She currently covers a variety of topics including U.S. government, culture, and entertainment.