What abortion ban? GOP candidates abruptly ditch long-held positions in post-Roe scramble

With abruptly scrubbed websites and "well, actually" op-eds, anti-abortion Republicans claim they never meant it

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published August 31, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Republican U.S. senatorial candidate Blake Masters speaking during his election night watch party on August 02, 2022 in Chandler, Arizona. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Republican U.S. senatorial candidate Blake Masters speaking during his election night watch party on August 02, 2022 in Chandler, Arizona. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Numerous Republican candidates who have long campaigned on restricting abortion access and perpetuated false theories about the 2020 presidential election now appear to be recalibrating their extreme views. This change comes as candidates move toward the general election in a shifting political landscape that has at least partly been reshaped by the Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade — and perhaps also by the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago. 

The recent special-election victory by Democrat Pat Ryan in an upstate New York swing district – where Ryan campaigned on protecting abortion rights and the future of democracy, issues his Republican opponent sought to avoid — and the statewide vote in Kansas rejecting a constitutional amendment that would have permitted abortion bans, have sent Republicans scrambling to adjust their positions on reproductive rights, and sometimes other issues. 

Last week, Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters, a Republican supported by Trump and tech billionaire Peter Thiel, released an ad criticizing incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly's "extreme abortion policies." Masters said he supports a ban on "very late-term and partial-birth abortion" – a stance he claimed most Americans agree with. But that's a dramatic shift not just in tone but policy: Not long ago, Masters was on record as favoring a federal personhood law "that recognizes that unborn babies are human beings that may not be killed." He has previously called Roe v. Wade a "horrible decision" and referred to abortion as "genocide."

Masters' campaign website has also been altered. Previous language about being "100 percent pro-life" has been scrubbed from the site, according to reporting by NBC News, and replaced with softened rhetoric in support of  a third-trimester federal abortion ban.

Michigan GOP congressional candidate Tom Barrett's website has undergone similar changes. Barrett, who is running against incumbent Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin and formerly branded himself as "100% pro life — no exceptions," has erased that position from the website and  retracted a statement about working "to protect life from conception."

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These are not isolated examples, and it's reasonable to expect many more. Minnesota Republican gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen, for example, previously said he would "try to ban abortion" as governor and opposed exceptions for rape or incest unless a "mother's life is in danger." But in a recent video he reversed that view, saying he supports legal abortion for victims of rape or incest.

Barb Kirkmeyer, the Republican nominee in Colorado's 8th congressional district, has also recently shifted her stance on abortion. When iVoterGuide asked her about allowing abortions "under extenuating circumstances," Kirkmeyer responded with a flat no. But in a recent interview, she answered the question differently, saying: "If something's presented at the federal level… then I will look at it and evaluate it at that time." 

Others, like Kansas Republican congressional candidate Amanda Adkins, have gone to extra lengths to present themselves as newly-converted moderates on abortion rights. Adkins published an op-ed in the Kansas City Star saying she did not "support a federal ban on abortion" and believes "it's not Congress' place to impose a national abortion policy on Kansans." She did not, however, mention her past record as chairwoman of the Kansas Republican Party when the state organization officially supported "a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," and "legislation to make clear the Fourteenth Amendment's protection applies to unborn children."

Kansas GOP candidate Amanda Adkins recently wrote that "it's not Congress' place to impose a national abortion policy." When she was state Republican chair, the party supported a "Human Life Amendment" to the U.S. Constitution.

In Nevada, where polling suggests that abortion rights is one of the top factors driving voters to polls, GOP Senate nominee Adam Laxalt — in a neck-and-neck race against Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic incumbent — has also dialed back his well-known views. Despite referring to Roe v. Wade as a "joke" and saying it was "sad" that Nevada is not an anti-abortion state, Laxalt published an op-ed in the Reno Gazette Journal earlier this month, declining to support a nationwide abortion ban and saying the choice should be left to voters.

Similarly, Zach Nunn, the Republican candidate in Iowa's tightly-contested 3rd congressional district, published an op-ed in the Des Moines Register retreating from his "no exceptions" abortion stance after Rep. Cindy Axne, the Democratic incumbent, released a campaign ad highlighting Nunn's support for making abortion illegal.

Two Republican members of Congress in Southern California swing districts, Reps. Mike Garcia and Michelle Steel, have abruptly retreated from an anti-abortion bill they co-sponsored last year. Both now say they back exception to abortion bans in cases of rape, incest or threats to the mother's health, which is a departure from the actual language of the bill, according to the Los Angeles Times.

After decades of expressing support for extreme abortion bans without facing political consequences, even some far-right Republicans are rapidly changing their tone. Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who has been associated with Christian nationalism and supported Donald Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election results, now seems reluctant to mention his long-standing anti-abortion views, saying he will leave it up to voters to "decide what abortion looks like" in the state. Democrats will no doubt depict this scramble toward the supposed middle on abortion rights as both desperate and hypocritical; the verdict of voters, just over two months from now, is what really matters.

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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2022 Midterms Abortion Blake Masters Elections Reporting Republicans