And some of the party’s most vocal members traffic in extreme and inflammatory rhetoric — from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) claiming that heterosexual people will disappear while denouncing “trans terrorist” educators, to Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) calling abortion rights protesters ugly: “Nobody wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb.”
Uncompromising positions and loaded rhetoric on key social issues are escalating concerns within GOP circles that the party is moving too far out of sync with popular opinion, projecting new hostility to gay people and potentially alienating women voters in high-stakes races. The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade and ending a nationwide right to abortion last month has spawned strict new bans and stirred fears that gay rights and access to contraception could be next — shifting the focus from other culture-war battles where Republicans felt they had a winning message.
“I feel we’re on this sort of seesaw where one party sort of gets the upper hand on social-cultural issues, then they overplay that hand,” said Christine Matthews, a moderate Virginia Republican and longtime strategist for GOP candidates. “Republicans have taken things too far.”
She warned of fueling Democratic arguments that Republicans “want to take our country back to the 1950s” and said she swore out loud after reading one antiabortion advocate’s comments that a 10-year-old rape victim, under model legislation, would have to give birth.
But other Republicans call Democrats extreme for opposing restrictions on abortion later in pregnancy, as a fetus nears viability. They also say their opponents are stoking unfounded fears that the Supreme Court’s ruling could pave the way for rollbacks of other rights — a bid to distract from the economic concerns likely to dominate the election.
“It’s not a winning issue for us,” California-based GOP strategist John Thomas said of abortion. “But on the other hand, our job is to meet the electorate where they’re at. And right now they care about inflation, they care about gas prices, the economy.”
Even in tight swing-state races, some candidates have embraced sweeping abortion restrictions. The leading GOP candidate for Senate in Arizona, Blake Masters, has called for a federal “personhood” law banning abortion nationwide. Asked about Georgia’s ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, Republican Georgia Senate nominee Herschel Walker said this spring that he generally opposes exceptions.
In Wisconsin, Democrats have hammered Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) for his statements on abortion, including his comment that the end of Roe “might be a little messy for some people.” He recently put out a lengthy statement saying he supports exceptions for rape and incest and free contraception for those cannot afford it; this month he also said he has “no reason to oppose” a federal bill protecting same-sex marriage rights now under consideration in the Senate.
“The vast majority of America … are not where the extreme sides are,” said Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who has the endorsement of major antiabortion groups and criticizes the stance of both Republicans and Democrats. “They want guardrails, and they want to be reasonable about it and particularly compassionate to women who’ve been wronged.”
Mace was among a handful of Republicans to vote for a federal bill guaranteeing access to birth control and walked around the U.S. Capitol last week with a message taped to the back of her blazer: “My state is banning exceptions — PROTECT CONTRACEPTION.” She has been advocating for exceptions in cases of rape and incest and says she dropped out of high school after being sexually assaulted.
“I went to a couple events this weekend and every 60 seconds, every one to two minutes, somebody was coming up to me, mostly women, and all they said was thank you,” Mace said in an interview this week.
Republicans have cited a range of reasons for opposing the contraceptives bill, which was blocked in the Senate on Wednesday, saying it would make religious groups violate their beliefs and also allow the use of abortion-inducing drugs.
A federal bill to prevent states from banning travel for abortion also met Republican opposition in the Senate this month, underscoring a contrast with public opinion. About 8 in 10 Americans — including 64 percent of Republicans and 85 percent of independents — say states that ban abortion should not be allowed to outlaw travel for the procedure, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted a month after the Supreme Court struck down Roe.
Even among GOP strategists who warn about alienating women, there is uncertainty whether the issue can break through as Republicans blame Democratic leaders for inflation, crime and fears of a recession.
“Talking to, you know, these college educated suburban women — I would say that the issue with abortion is that the economy still looms very large,” said Sarah Longwell, a moderate D.C.-based Republican strategist who has been running focus groups of voters across parties.
Still, she said the end of Roe and the elevation of extreme candidates in many GOP primaries “has given Democrats the opportunity to go on offense” and press a broader case that their opponents hold views outside the mainstream. Three-quarters of politically independent women say they see the end of Roe as a major rollback of women’s rights, the Post-Schar poll shows.
“This isn’t just anti-women rhetoric,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn). “This is an anti-women agenda that is actually becoming law in a very scary and quick way.”
Some conservatives wish that sexism in the abortion debate would draw more forceful denunciations. In Minnesota, a candidate for lieutenant governor claimed that “our culture loudly but also stealthily, promotes abortion, telling women they should look a certain way, have careers.”
Gaetz, at a Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Tampa, referred to female abortion rights advocates as “disgusting” and “odious on the inside and out,” portraying them as overweight and too unattractive to get pregnant. He later stood by his remarks and told detractors, “Be offended.”
In interviews, many Republican strategists thought such comments were unlikely make a difference to voters already desensitized by right-wing celebrities’ embrace of offensive and personal attacks. Former president Donald Trump paved the way, some noted: When one woman accused him of sexual assault in 2016, Trump said, “Believe me, she would not be my first choice.”
“Every village has an idiot, and we have several villages,” said one prominent GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid. The strategist added, “I don’t think there’s probably anything said before Oct. 15 that’s going to stick around till Election Day. And it’s got to be said by a high-enough profile [figure].”
Others saw the demeaning words as part of a long-running problem for a party that has lost crucial support from moderate women in past elections. “Comments like that do a tremendous amount of damage to the Republican brand,” said GOP consultant Lauren Zelt, who worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.
Jennifer Lim, the executive director of Republican Women for Progress — which has criticized the GOP’s transformation under Trump — agreed. She said LGBTQ rights are another social issue where Republicans are “moving in the wrong direction” without a cohesive response from the party.
The offices of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, Danielle Alvarez, said in a statement that “Democrats are out-of-touch on every single issue from the economy to abortion and voters will be sure to remind them in November.”
Some Republicans have warned for months that backlash against discussions of LGBTQ issues in schools could brand the party as anti-gay, as right-wing stars embrace unsubstantiated accusations that teachers who broach sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom are “grooming” children and making them vulnerable to abuse. The concerns intensified in June as the Texas GOP added language to their party platform calling homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice.”
“I hope that conservatives and Republicans don’t get into reactionary mode and really listen to where the public is and respond responsibly to legitimate concerns instead of just simply playing to an audience,” said Marco Roberts, a gay Republican who worked to remove condemnations of homosexuality from the platform in 2018.
Charles Moran — the president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national group for gay conservatives — pointed to significant GOP support for the federal same-sex marriage bill as evidence of progress. Forty-seven House Republicans joined Democrats to pass the measure, and supporters in the Senate have been working to get 10 GOP votes.
Approval in the Senate, Moran said, would be “a huge benefit for us as conservatives … because when we go to gay and lesbian voters in November, the Democrats are not going to be able to say, well, the Republicans are going to try to take away your gay marriage.”
Moran also said he found nothing problematic in a recent social media post from Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, which ranked politicians by their likelihood of getting monkeypox, a disease that in the U.S. is spreading mostly between men who have sex with men. On one end was Donald Trump; on the other was Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic transportation secretary, who is gay. In the middle was Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), whose criticism of Trump has drawn the right’s ire.
The Trump Organization, which Trump Jr. helps lead, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did a longtime representative for Trump Jr. Moran noted that Trump Jr., who has a huge online following, has publicly criticized the Texas GOP’s decision to exclude the Log Cabin Republicans at their convention.
“I hate to repeat a Matt Gaetzism, but if you’re offended by this, be offended,” Moran said.