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Can Democrats Win on Abortion in 2014? Not Necessarily.

Pro-life activists are streaming into Washington for tomorrow’s annual March for Life on the Mall marking the anniversary of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Weather permitting, Republicans will be out in force to join the pro-lifers, while liberals continue to hope the issue will work in their favor this year as it did two years ago. After successfully persuading many voters that the GOP was waging a “war on women” in 2012, many Democrats believe the issue could help stave off an electoral disaster in this year’s midterm elections. As the New York Times reports, both parties traditionally look to abortion to help mobilize their bases, but for Democrats it has become a rallying cry to convince women that their freedom depends on turning out to defeat conservative Republicans.

Are they right? Given the impact that Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin’s ignorant comments on abortion and rape had not only on his own losing race in 2012 but on the entire GOP that year, it’s hard to argue with the conclusion that the faux war on women meme was a big winner for Democrats. The demonization of Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinielli that helped him lose the women’s vote in November also points to the way liberals have manipulated abortion to their advantage. But the assumption that the Democrats can play this card again this year may be wrong. Moreover, Democrats may also be underestimating conservatives’ capacity to present the issue in a way that will help boost their turnout and diminish sympathy for candidates who march under the pro-choice banner.

The electoral facts of life on abortion have always been focused on each party’s base and not the political center. It’s a litmus test for single issue voters on both ends of the spectrum. But most Americans don’t base their ballot choices solely on the issue of abortion.

Polls have consistently shown that the majority doesn’t want to overturn Roe v. Wade or to criminalize abortion. But they also demonstrate that a clear majority approves of significant restrictions on the practice, such as requiring parental consent and enacting bans on late-term procedures. The latter point is a crucial weakness for liberals because the advances in medical science, particularly sonograms, since the court ruled on Roe in 1973 make such abortions look more like infanticide than a woman exercising her “right to choose.” Last year’s gruesome Kermit Gosnell murder trial in Philadelphia opened the eyes of many Americans who had never understood exactly what late-term abortion meant or the possibility that such horrors involving the slaughter of babies born alive as a result of botched procedures might be more common than they had realized or than the liberal media had ever sought to inform them.

Thus, messaging is the key to whether the discussion of abortion can stampede voters away from Republicans or, as the GOP hopes, help boost their turnout in a year in which Democrats can no longer count on President Obama’s coattails. That’s why GOP gaffes such as the one committed by Akin are fatal to Republicans and tarnish the national image of conservatives. But the notion that Democrats can keep their stranglehold on the women’s vote ignores the way sonograms and the Gosnell case influence public opinion on late-term abortion. Though Wendy Davis vaulted to national liberal stardom last year on the strength of a filibuster against a bill that banned late-term abortions after 20 weeks—the period after which most fetuses become viable outside the womb—if the GOP can focus its candidates on this issue, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that it will work against them. Republicans also think they have another, related winning issue in the attempts to push back against the ObamaCare mandate forcing employers to pay for abortion and/or requiring the use of public funds to pay for them.

As long as Democrats can portray Republicans as troglodytes who think, as Akin did, that women’s bodies magically protect them from pregnancy in cases of rape, they are on firm ground to pursue their war on women theme. But if Republicans can manage to stay on message on late-term procedures and the impact of ObamaCare, there’s every reason to believe widespread concerns over  abortion will attract more voters to their candidates.


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