Analysis: There's a reason for GOP silence on abortion and guns
Yet another mass shooting and a new blow to nationwide abortion rights left Republicans facing pointed questions on two of the most emotive issues dominating American politics.
But the GOP had almost nothing to say, reflecting the way that it is locked into positions that animate its most fervent grassroots voters but risk alienating it from much of the public.
A controversial ruling from a conservative judge in Texas that could halt the use of a popular abortion drug nationwide, and another shooting spree – this time in Kentucky – sparked outrage among Democrats and calls for strengthening gun safety measures and protecting abortion rights.
Most Republicans stayed silent on the two issues on which they have achieved their political and policy goals but that are threatening the party’s long-term viability.
After the shooting in downtown Louisville on Monday, Kentucky’s Republican senators issued condolences but offered no solutions about how the tragedy, which killed five people and injured eight others, might have been avoided. The gunman used a rifle in the attack after being notified of his impending dismissal from a job at a bank, a law enforcement official said.
“We send our prayers to the victims, their families, and the city of Louisville as we await more information,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell wrote in a tweet that also praised first responders. And Sen. Rand Paul tweeted that he and his wife were “praying for everyone involved in the deadly shooting,” adding that “our hearts break for the families of those lost.”
Democrats offered condolences too, but also had a more practical response. President Joe Biden called for the kind of gun safety reform that is impossible with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and without Democrats holding more seats in the Senate. “Too many Americans are paying for the price of inaction with their lives. When will Republicans in Congress act to protect our communities?” Biden asked in a tweet.
Democratic Rep. Morgan McGarvey, who represents Louisville in Congress, called for action to tackle gun violence. “Thoughts and prayers for those we lost, those who are injured and their loved ones and families are appreciated, but today serves as a stark reminder that we need to address gun violence at the national level,” the freshman congressman said.
Over the last few decades, Republicans have expertly used gun rights and a push to overturn a constitutional right to end a pregnancy to energize their most loyal voters. And on each issue, in a purely political sense, it’s hard to argue that they have not racked up considerable wins.
There are more guns than ever in the US. Republicans around the country are leading efforts to slash firearms regulation and broaden citizens’ capacity to carry guns. Despite a murderous run of massacres in schools, nightclubs, places of worship and, on Monday, in a bank, the party has effectively closed down all significant attempts in Congress to make it harder to buy weapons – including the assault-style rifles used in recent shootings. A bipartisan effort to persuade states to embrace red flag laws, which could help authorities confiscate weapons from people thought to pose a risk, did pass Congress last year. But its success was all the more notable because of the paucity of other federal legislation in previous decades.
On abortion, meanwhile, the 50-year conservative campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade ranks as one of the most stunning victories for a long-term political movement in history. It reached its apex with the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last year.
Yet it’s possible that these famous wins could carry a significant risk for the party.
South Carolina Republican Rep. Nancy Mace calls herself “pro-life,” but also warns that GOP-backed state laws that don’t provide exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother alienate large and vital sections of the US electorate. Mace was a rare Republican to publicly respond to Texas Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk’s abortion drug ruling last week, which Democratic groups have seized on to renew claims Republicans want a national ban on abortion.
“We are getting it wrong on this issue,” Mace said on “CNN This Morning” on Monday. “We’ve got to show compassion to women, especially to women who’ve been raped. We’ve got to show compassion on the abortion issue, because by and large, most of Americans aren’t with us on this issue.” She called for the US Food and Drug Administration to ignore the judge’s ruling, aligning her with progressive Democrats like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
One reason Republicans have been successful in tightening abortion restrictions and loosening those on guns has been that their voters have embraced these two issues. They are make-or-break for many activists, and candidates have shaped their platforms as a result. Democrats, however, have traditionally been less successful in energizing their core supporters on both. The disparate intensity level among the parties was one factor in the sequence of events that led to a new conservative Supreme Court majority that overturned Roe. For years, Democrats trod carefully around the guns issue, wary of alienating more moderate or soft conservative voters.
But there are signs this could be changing. Abortion was a huge motivator for Democratic voters in last year’s midterms and the Supreme Court’s ruling clearly hamstrung Republican candidates in several key swing races. In Wisconsin, which reverted to a pre-Civil War law banning almost all abortions once Roe was overturned, the issue was critical to the victory of a liberal candidate in last week’s state Supreme Court race, which flipped the conservative majority.
Liberal fury over the failure to enact new gun laws stoked a political storm in Tennessee last week. Republicans expelled two Black Democratic lawmakers from the state’s House of Representatives for leading a gun reform protest inside the chamber after a mass shooting at a Nashville school the week before that killed six people, including three nine-year-olds. This highlighted a growing frustration among Democrats at their impotence in the face of endless mass shootings. (One of the lawmakers, Justin Jones, was sworn back into the chamber on Monday on an interim basis after the Nashville Metropolitan Council voted to appoint him.)
Despite this shifting political terrain, there are few signs that top Republican leaders are willing to change the party’s tack on guns or abortion. Or that they have the political room to do so. Even though it makes sense for Republicans to appeal to a more general audience to avoid alienating crucial suburban, moderate and female voters, the vehemence of their core supporters makes this an impossible straddle. It’s a similar dynamic to the one many GOP power brokers have long faced with Donald Trump. The former president remains so popular with base voters that his GOP critics risk their careers by publicly opposing him. And yet, he has long been a liability among general election voters – as proved by the GOP’s performance in 2020 and 2022.
The party’s failure to align with most Americans on abortion and on some aspects of gun safety may not be sustainable. Polls show that many voters, including younger Americans, are being driven away from the party because of its positions.
In a Harvard Youth Poll released last week, which was completed before the shooting in Nashville, 63% of 18-to-29-year-olds said that gun laws should be made more strict, with 22% saying they should be kept as they are, and 13% that they should be made less strict. Young Americans are generally on the same page as the public as a whole. In October 2022, 57% of all Americans said that laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, with 32% saying laws should be kept as they were and 10% that laws should be made less strict, according to a Gallup survey from October 2022.
On abortion, only 26% of Americans favor laws making it illegal to use or receive through the mail FDA-approved drugs for a medical abortion, while 72% oppose such laws, according to a PRRI report that analyzed polling on the issue over the last year. While 50% of White evangelical Protestants favor making it illegal to use or receive those drugs, less than half of any other racial, gender, educational or age group agree.
In a Gallup poll in January, 46% of Americans said they were dissatisfied with US abortion policies and would prefer to see less strict abortion laws. That’s a record high in the firm’s 23-year trend, up from 30% in January 2022 and just 17% in 2021.
Given these numbers, and recent election results, it’s not surprising that some Republicans not actively courting the base may choose not to speak at length on guns and abortion. And such data may also help to explain the GOP’s increasingly anti-democratic turn as it seeks to cling onto power – whether in efforts to expel Tennessee lawmakers for disturbing decorum with their anti-gun protests or through Trump’s insistence he won an election he actually lost.