‘THE central issue’: How the fall of Roe v. Wade shook the 2022 election

Five weeks after Election Day, on Dec. 12, two more groups of women convened in Phoenix to talk about how they voted.

They were a mix of unaffiliated, independent and Republican voters, all of whom either split their ticket between Democrats and Republicans, voted for a Libertarian candidate, or left at least one race blank on their ballot. Their home county, Maricopa, one of the fastest-growing in the country, voted Democratic in a presidential race in 2020 for the first time in decades.

The women were frustrated and embarrassed by the election. They described Trump as a “central and unwelcome figure,” while others largely viewed Biden as a non-factor who they didn’t blame for inflation or problems at the Southern border.

But when it came to abortion, it was personal: When the moderator asked if the women themselves or someone they knew had an unplanned pregnancy or abortion story, every single hand in the room shot up.

For them, it wasn’t just about a medical procedure. “It’s about control, controlling women and suppression of women,” said one independent voter.

“It’s a slippery slope,” said another, a Republican. “If they are demanding control here, where does it end?”

“Every single woman [who] has been in a relationship has experienced the ‘being late’ moment,” said Jessica Pacheco, an Arizona-based Republican strategist. “Every woman can relate to that, but it’s an intangible that’s hard to explain to men.”

The women were gathered by GOP strategists trying to sort through what happened in 2022. The focus groups, described in a memo obtained by POLITICO, were conducted by Republican pollster Nicole McCleskey — and they represent likely the first post-election data on how abortion shaped swing women voters’ decisions in a suburban county in a battleground state.

“Aside from Trump,” the memo stated, “abortion was THE central issue of the campaign.” What the women “considered extreme abortion positions,” plus Trump’s “influence,” it said, “took Republican candidates out of consideration for many of these women, including women who consider themselves pro-life.”

The document pointed to some success stories, like Republican Arizona state treasurer Kimberly Yee and Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell. But it was blunt in its assessment that GOP nominees Blake Masters for Senate and Kari Lake for governor were “the caricatures of extreme Republicans this election according to these women.”

Masters, who challenged Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), backtracked on his abortion position during the general election, scrubbing “I am 100% pro-life” from his campaign website. Lake, who lost to Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs, struggled to precisely define her position.

“Gone are the days where you can say, ‘I’m pro-life,’ ‘I’m pro-choice,’ and leave it at that. Because those labels are confusing, they mean different things to different people,” Pacheco said. “To win, you need to walk through your values and what the issue means to you.”

Without Roe, Republicans now face an array of existential questions heading into 2024: Do they unify around a national abortion ban, like Graham’s bill? Do anti-abortion activists push for even stricter restrictions federally? Or do they let candidates decide their own positions?

An open presidential primary could help define the contours of the party’s position. But some GOP operatives argue that it might be best to let this play out race-by-race, so candidates can adapt based on their personal beliefs and the values of their particular state or district.

Still others say Republicans need to turn the issue around on Democrats by arguing that abortion with few or no limits is the extreme position.

At the same time, Republicans acknowledge privately that there’s broad discomfort in taking on this issue, in part because it tackles deeply personal, often religious beliefs.

“I think some of my male colleagues didn’t and don’t see [abortion] as a major factor [in 2022], but I think when campaigns had women on their [campaign] teams, women at the table, I think those candidates handled and messaged the issue better,” said Amanda Iovino, a Republican pollster who worked on Youngkin’s 2021 campaign. She cited other successful anti-abortion rights candidates, including Rep.-elect Jen Kiggans (R-Va.) and Nevada’s Gov.-elect Joe Lombardo, as well as Youngkin.

“They got that it was going to be a factor, and they needed to figure out a way to respond,” she continued. “Abortion has always been an Achilles heel for Republicans talking to independent women. It’s really tricky … but with good candidates who are trained well, who know how to talk about this, I think we can still thread the needle.”

Alice Miranda Ollstein and Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.