By Gabriella Borter and Tim Reid
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Victories by abortion rights campaigners and Democrats in this week's U.S. elections pose a dilemma for Republicans: How to campaign on an issue that has long fired up their conservative base without alienating the moderates they need to win competitive districts.
The passage of an abortion rights constitutional amendment in Ohio, and Virginia Democrats' capture of both legislative chambers after abortion-focused campaigns, showed that Republicans' long campaign to end abortion rights has become a liability ahead of the 2024 elections, strategists from both parties said.
The Republican Party attained a long-sought win last year when the Supreme Court's 6-3 conservative majority, secured via the nominations of justices by former President Donald Trump, overturned the nationwide right to abortion. Republican officials moved quickly to impose stricter bans that now stand in nearly half of the 50 states, a development celebrated by conservatives but that has turned off some party moderates, particularly women.
That leaves Republicans grappling with how to turn out their culturally conservative base in what is expected to be a close contest with Democratic President Joe Biden - without putting off the independents and suburban women who opinion polls show oppose sweeping abortion restrictions.
"It's a wake up call for Republicans to figure out what the right messaging and the right policy is on abortion because whatever they have now is not popular with voters," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist.
"Republicans have to stop pushing policies that make people believe they are trying to ban abortion. They need to try and find a middle ground right now," Feehery added.
In the 2022 congressional elections, Republicans largely avoided discussing the issue on the campaign trail and were nevertheless held back by it, winning a narrow House of Representatives majority.
SEEKING A MIDDLE PATH
This year, Virginia Republicans, led by Governor Glenn Youngkin, leaned hard into plans for a 15-week abortion ban should they win control of the legislature. They were attempting to appeal to moderate voters with a more lenient policy than those in the rest of the U.S. South, but a much stricter one than the current 26-week limit. Republicans lost control of Virginia's House and failed to gain a majority in the Senate on Tuesday.
An adviser directly involved in Youngkin's 2023 campaign said Republicans would have lost by more had they not rallied around the plan, and that they came up short because of the Democrats' financial advantage and messaging that Republicans would go further than a 15-week ban if handed control.
"You have to push the attack aside and you have to go on offense aggressively. We did that. And it's what kept these races close," the adviser said.
MAJORITY OF AMERICANS AGAINST ABORTION BANS
Opinion polls show the majority of Americans support legal abortion in all or most cases. However, specific policies remain divisive, with Reuters/Ipsos polls showing over 40% support a ban after 15 weeks of gestation.
Virginia may force Republican candidates for federal office back to the drawing board to refine their messaging in 2024.
The Republican Party remains bitterly divided on abortion, with some pushing for a 15-week national abortion ban, while others, such as newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson, have supported a proposed federal ban on abortion as early as six weeks.
Top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination have differed on their messaging.
Frontrunner Trump has tried to have it both ways, taking credit for delivering the Supreme Court majority that overturned Roe but also criticizing some Republican-led states' six-week abortion bans as "a terrible mistake" in a NBC interview in September.
Of his rivals, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a six-week ban into law in that state, and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has called for a national consensus on abortion, without specifying a gestational limit.
Meanwhile, Democrats aim to maintain momentum by campaigning on abortion rights in 2024, when the White House, all seats in the House, 34 Senate seats and several state legislatures will be up for grabs.
"Last night's elections made it loud and clear that people feel very strongly about this issue. The level of intensity is still very high," said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist.
Abortion rights could also appear directly on 2024 ballots in states including Arizona and Florida, as they did in Ohio on Tuesday.
"The true lesson from last night’s loss is that Democrats are going to make abortion front and center throughout 2024 campaigns," Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of anti-abortion group SBA List, said in a statement on Wednesday.
"The GOP consultant class needs to wake up. Candidates must put money and messaging toward countering the Democrats’ attacks or they will lose every time," she added.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in Washington and Tim Reid in Los Angeles; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool)