McConnell calls US abortion ban 'possible,' says he won't change filibuster to pass it

GOP officials are advising to candidates to soft-pedal the prospects of anti-abortion legislation as they battle Democrats for control of Congress.

  • Republicans are trying to figure out how to deal with the abortion issue in the 2022 midterms.
  • The Supreme Court's review of the Roe vs. Wade ruling is complicating GOP campaign strategy.
  • Democrats believe the loss of abortion rights will energize their voters, helping them win close races.
  • Republicans say their anti-abortion voters are more intense and remain fired up.

WASHINGTON – Republicans could be on the verge of a long-sought legal victory – striking down Roe v. Wade – but their political candidates are in no rush to talk about it on the campaign trail.

GOP campaign officials are advising candidates to downplay and soft-pedal the prospects of anti-abortion legislation as they battle pro-choice Democrats for control of Congress and various statehouses across the country.

"Be the compassionate, consensus builder on abortion policy," said an advisory document from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP's campaign arm in the battle for control of the upper chamber currently split 50-50 between the two parties.

The fight to end Roe:Anti-abortion groups could win a 50-year fight to end Roe. They aren't stopping there.

A post-Roe world:After Roe? Pro- and anti-abortion rights groups face new landscape in 2022 midterms – and beyond

Republicans are feeling their way, in part because the uptick in activity came after a Supreme Court draft opinion leaked last week indicating that the justices were likely overturn the landmark 1973 case; the actual ruling has not yet been issued.

The GOP will also have to deal with Democrats who are raising millions, energizing their base of voters, and planning to campaign by warning people about the loss of abortion rights, an issue that polls show most Americans support, and plainly has Republicans wary six months before Election Day.

"With regard to the abortion issue, I think it's pretty clear where Senate Republicans stand," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview Thursday. "And if and when the court makes a final decision, I expect everybody will be more definitive. But I don't think it's much secret where Senate Republicans stand on that issue."

Earlier last week, the GOP leader said overturning Roe was "not the story," preferring to draw attention to the extraordinary leak of a Supreme Court ruling striking down abortion rights.

'Compassionate on abortion policy'

Behind the scenes, Republican campaign officials are advising candidates to keep their focus on the economy and on President Joe Biden. Those issues, they said, will help them win back control of the House and Senate.

When pressed on abortion – as they surely will be – candidates are being advised not to promote harsh state proposals that would ban most abortions, without exceptions for the health of the mother.

In its memo, the National Republican Senatorial Committee said GOP candidates should talk instead about how Democrats oppose nearly any restrictions of abortions, They cited polls showing that most voters oppose late-term abortions and public assistance to poor women needing abortions.

"The Democrat position is extreme and strident, our position should be based in compassion and reason," said the memo from the NRSC.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (L) makes brief remarks before meeting with Judge Brett Kavanaugh (R) in McConnell's office in the US Capitol, in Washington, DC, on July 10,  2018. President Donald Trump nominated Kavanaugh to succeed retiring Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The memo gives candidates sample language for statements and media ads. All are soft in tone and avoid the desire by many Republicans to end all abortions, a position that draws fierce opposition.

Example: "I am pro-life, but in reality, forget about the political labels, all of us are in favor of life."

Democrats and Roe:Could Roe fire up Democrats the way Joe Biden hasn’t? Maybe, but the GOP would be energized, too

What polling shows:More than half of Americans in new poll say Supreme Court should uphold Roe v. Wade

Democrats who are making abortion bans a major campaign issue said Republicans will not be able to escape their support for removing a fundamental right for women. They cited polls showing voter opposition to shutting down access to abortions.

"No memo can change the fact that Republicans are grossly out of step with the American public," said Nora Keefe, deputy communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The Architect: Mitch McConnell   

The emerging Republican strategy is coming in large part from McConnell, in many ways the architect of the Supreme Court 's 6-3 conservative majority that is considering the fate of Roe v. Wade.

The longtime GOP leader infuriated Democrats in 2016, when he blocked then-President Barack Obama from filling a court vacancy created by the death of conservative Antonin Scalia. The future of the Supreme Court animated much of the conservative based who fueled Donald Trump's victory in 2016.

McConnell and elections:A tamer Trump? McConnell confident GOP can retake Senate with 'restrained' former president

During Trump's single term in office, McConnell shepherded dozens of conservative judges into the judiciary, including three Supreme Court nominees to Senate confirmation: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

In 2018, amid the heated confirmation battle for Kavanaugh, McConnell said putting conservatives on the court was "the single most important thing I've been involved in in my career."

McConnell expressed optimism last month about the GOP's chances at retaking Congress this year, when he told USA TODAY the "atmosphere could not be better" for Republicans.

“I think clearly the (Republican) campaigns are going to be running against the Biden administration, and history tells us that there's usually some buyer's remorse,” he said in April.

A national abortion ban? McConnell says 'it's possible'

But McConnell has refused to spike the ball on the possibility of dismantling Roe and instead focused on how the draft opinion came out, saying whoever leaked the draft should "be dealt with as severely as the law may allow." 

He evaded questions about whether Republicans would seek a national abortion ban, which is what anti-abortion leaders seek, should they seize the Senate.

“All of this puts the cart before the horse,” he said.

Asked Thursday if a national ban is something worthy of a debate now, or whether it should wait until after the election, McConnell acknowledged the possibility, even though he considers the discussion premature. 

"If the leaked opinion became the final opinion, legislative bodies – not only at the state level, but at the federal level – certainly could legislate in that area," McConnell said. "And if this were the final decision, that was the point that it should be resolved one way or another in the legislative process. So yeah, it's possible. It would depend on where the votes were."

McConnell said that even if the GOP reclaims the Senate, he would not entertain ditching the 60-threshold rule to pass a national abortion ban.

"No carve out of the filibuster – period," he said. "For any subject." 

Trump, who backs a number of Republicans up and down the ballot, also had a low-key reaction to the likely reversal of Roe vs. Wade. Trump told Fox News, "I don't think it is going to have a tremendous effect." 

Roe opponents cautiously optimistic

In the wake of the Roe revelation, conservatives close to McConnell are beaming at what the draft opinion could mean for the anti-abortion cause.

"What I'm hearing across the landscape, a lot of folks within the conservative movement and pro-life advocates across the country are very excited with what might ultimately be a published decision from the Supreme Court," said Republican Daniel Cameron, a McConnell protégé who serves as Kentucky's attorney general.

Cameron said it's right for Republican candidates to keep their focus on the economy and the "incompetence" of the Biden administration.

Addia Wuchner, an anti-abortion activist in McConnell’s home state, said the contents of the Alito opinion are a good sign for the 50-year struggle to overturn Roe. But she said there is a lingering concern among right-leaning grassroots advocates about the final decision, given how the draft was released.

"Our excitement was held at bay because of the disappointment at this appalling breach of trust," she said.

A Democratic adrenaline boost?

McConnell’s inner circle, for the moment, downplays the possibility of an abortion rights surge at the ballot box this fall, hoping to avoid making abortion a banner issue for the midterm elections.

“The entire country is on fire over inflation, the economy, immigration, schools, crime, etc.,” CNN political commentator Scott Jennings, a former McConnell adviser, said in a tweet May 3. “And Democrats new message is to reveal themselves as one issue party (abortion). Not sure this is the midterm panacea they think it is.”

A survey suggests Democrats are more likely to get an adrenaline boost if the court’s conservative majority strikes down Roe.

 A Morning Consult/Politico poll released Tuesday found liberals are more likely to be energized should Roe fall. It showed 42% of registered voters who lean Democratic say it would be more important to vote for a candidate who agrees with them on abortion, even if they disagree on other issues.

Roughly 31% of Republican voters say the same thing about the midterm elections

Democratic candidates are making McConnell and his influence on the Supreme Court major campaign issues.

“The Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe would never have been possible without leader McConnell and Senate Republicans spending years packing our courts with hard right judges,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the floor this week.

He planned a vote Wednesday that will showcase "where every single senators stands" on women's reproductive rights.

Abortion opponents: Go on offense

Abortion opponents who have advocated for the elimination of Roe v. Wade for decades said Republican candidates should celebrate the achievement on the campaign trail.

They said that abortion is a more animating issue for conservatives than liberals and that the solid base of anti-abortion voters helped elect the senators who put the Supreme Court in place.

Conservatives and Roe:Conservatives spent decades pushing to upend Roe v. Wade. And it's 'only the beginning'

Wednesday vote:'Sense of urgency': Senate to vote Wednesday on bill that would make abortion legal nationally

Those voters are eager to elect Republican members of Congress and state legislatures who can pass anti-abortion legislation that would probably be held constitutional, while Democrats seek abortion laws with no restrictions at all.

"Go on offense and expose the extremism of the Democratic Party platform," said Mallory Carroll, vice president of communications with the Susan B. Anthony List, which plans to spend millions this fall in support of anti-abortion candidates.

Wuchner, who serves as executive director of Kentucky Right to Life, said that if she were advising Republican candidates on how to address Roe being on the brink, she'd tell conservatives to stand firm.

"Our candidates are fiscal conservatives, they're family value conservative and they bring all of that to the table," she said. "So to me it's not something to navigate, you have your first principles and you run on those principles. Those convictions that you stand for – you're unwavering in those convictions."

Some conservatives said they worry that Republicans are too sanguine about the fall political storm over abortion. They expressed concern that it may peel away some voters who would otherwise be attracted to the Republican messages on Biden, inflation, gas prices and crime.

GOP candidates must explain their support involves reasonable restrictions on abortion, they said.

"Republicans have to get out ahead of it," said Heather Higgins, CEO of the organization Independent Women's Voice, which does not take a stance on abortion issues. She said the GOP must "get away from the hyperbole and the rage machine" of the Democrats.

State-by-state wild card    

Many Democrats expect that if Roe is overturned, more abortion rights supporters  will come out to vote because the prospect of banning abortion is real.

The issue may not make that much of a difference in U.S. House races because so many districts lean heavily Republican or heavily Democratic.

Primaries matter:Think Congress is too partisan now? Primaries could magnify division as the number of swing districts shrinks

The focus of many political professionals is on the Senate, which is split 50-50. Democrats control the chamber because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast tiebreaking votes.

The fate of the Senate probably rests in six closely contested states: Nevada, Georgia, Arizona, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Any of those races could turn on the abortion issue, and Democrats point out that abortion rights have strong support in all of them.

Democrats hope abortion can turn the tide in GOP-leaning states.

In Ohio, for example, Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan began attacking Republican opponent J.D. Vance over abortion hours after the state primaries.

"J.D. Vance and these other folks are telling a mom or a young woman that if she gets raped ... the government is going to make you bring that pregnancy to term. That’s insane in a free society.” he said,

Vance responded Thursday by attacking the Democrats' support for no abortion restrictions. Describing Ryan as a "Kamala Harris stooge," Vance tweeted that support for late-term abortions is "a barbaric position anywhere in the world (even European nations typically don’t allow abortion after 12 weeks). But it’s an especially radical position in Ohio."

Analyzing the impact of the Supreme Court's decision on Roe v. Wade is an evolving process that is hard to calculate at the moment, political experts said.

For one thing, the high court has not issued its definitive ruling.

"Republicans are in good position to have a strong midterm," said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "Abortion remains one of the few wild cards that could hypothetically change that.

"The scope of the ruling will matter, and despite the leak, we do not know the scope of the actual ruling. I think it's premature to guess at the possible impact."