Republicans seeking Iowa's federal offices take some important advantages into the November election. Most are incumbents with more money to spend than their challengers. Recent history suggests midterms favor the party out of power in Washington, and President Joe Biden has low approval numbers in Iowa.
One wild card complicates the equation for GOP candidates here, as in many other states. Republicans are on record supporting near-total abortion bans, while a majority of voters favor keeping abortion mostly legal.
Republican campaign messaging has emphasized other topics, such as inflation, taxes, or unpopular Washington politicians. When they can't avoid talking about abortion, Republicans have claimed their Democratic opponents are the real extremists on the issue.
Several races may hinge on whether moderate voters buy into that distortion of the facts.
REPUBLICANS KNOW THE PUBLIC'S NOT WITH THEM
For years, national and Iowa polls have shown that banning abortion is unpopular. A Pew Research Center national poll that was in the field soon after the U.S. Supreme Court published its Dobbs decision found that by a 57 percent to 41 percent margin, respondents disapproved of the court's action. Furthermore, 62 percent of adults surveyed said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while just 36 said it should be mostly or always illegal. Pew noted, "These views are little changed since March."
The latest Iowa Poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom, released in July, found 60 percent of Iowans "say abortion should be legal in most or all cases," while just 34 percent said abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. A Selzer poll from September 2021 asked the same question and found similar results: 57 percent to 38 percent. (I anticipate Selzer will release new Iowa numbers later this month; I'll update as needed.)
Abortion has become a more salient issue for voters since the Supreme Court allowed states to ban the practice. The recent Grinnell College National Poll, conducted by Selzer & Co, was consistent with many nationwide surveys since the court overturned the Roe v Wade precedent. Support for Democrats on the generic Congressional ballot was significantly higher than Biden's approval rating, Democratic political engagement was high, and 67 percent of respondents said abortion would be a major factor in how they vote.
It's notable that Iowa politicians calling themselves "pro-life" rarely try to convince voters abortion is murder, or should be banned in almost all circumstances. Instead, they pretend the real threat facing Iowans is abortion expansion. As Bleeding Heartland discussed in more detail here, GOP lawmakers rewrote a proposed state constitutional amendment—which would enable them to ban abortion—to trick voters into thinking the measure is needed to "protect unborn children from efforts to expand abortion even to the point of birth."
Private polling commissioned by the Christian conservative group The FAMiLY Leader influenced the new wording. Selzer's Iowa surveys have consistently found that only about a third of Iowans support amending the constitution "to say it does not recognize a right to abortion or require public funding of abortion." The FAMiLY Leader's spokesperson told me last year that polling is different "when Iowans understand what the amendment is actually about," adding that "Iowans overwhelmingly do NOT support the taxpayer-funded abortion or expansion of abortion to the point of a baby’s birth [...]."
ABORTION "UP TO THE DAY OF BIRTH" IS NOT A THING
No one advocates for unlimited abortion "until birth." Iowa has banned third-trimester abortions for decades, and Democrats did not attempt to change that law when they had full control of state government from 2007 through 2010.
Most Democratic candidates, including all running for U.S. Senate or House this year in Iowa, support a proposed federal law that would protect abortion rights across the country. But just like when Roe v. Wade was in effect, states would be able to limit the procedure in some ways. In fact, several states that have already codified Roe protections, such as New York, California, and Washington, mostly ban abortion after the point of fetal viability (usually around 24 to 26 weeks from the date of the last menstrual period).
Conservatives routinely—and falsely—claim codifying Roe would allow abortion until birth. But the bill, commonly known as the Women’s Health Protection Act, guarantees access to abortion after viability only "when, in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health." Some states have enacted similar language; for instance, New York's Reproductive Health Act allows abortions after 24 weeks "if the fetus is not viable or the abortion is necessary 'to protect the patient's life or health.'"
U.S. government data indicates that in 2019, 79.3 percent of abortions nationwide were performed at 9 weeks’ gestation or earlier, and 92.7 percent were performed during the first trimester (up to 13 weeks’ gestation). Less than 1 percent of all abortions occurred later than 21 weeks.
As a practical matter, few clinics anywhere in the country will terminate pregnancies in the third trimester. That complicated procedure takes days and happens mainly when something is terribly wrong. (In 2017, I interviewed an Iowan who traveled to Colorado for an abortion after learning around 26 weeks that her baby could never survive outside the womb.)
The caricature of someone casually deciding to get an abortion seven or eight months into pregnancy has no relation to reality. If a pregnant patient develops a life-threatening condition and the third-trimester fetus is healthy, the standard medical practice would be to induce labor, not terminate the pregnancy.
IOWA REPUBLICANS FOLLOWING SAME PLAYBOOK
Here's how abortion has factored into Iowa's 2022 races for most federal offices. I'm leaving out the fourth Congressional district, because Republican incumbent Randy Feenstra has refused to debate, and Democratic challenger Ryan Melton has not been running paid advertising.
Democratic challenger Mike Franken highlighted Senator Chuck Grassley's stance on abortion in a television commercial launched on October 3. (Grassley was a longtime co-sponsor of a federal constitutional amendment to ban abortion.)
During the candidates' October 6 debate on Iowa PBS, Grassley described himself as "pro-life, pro-mother, pro-family." He said he supported the Supreme Court's ruling in Dobbs, which will let people decide "through their elected representatives." Then the senator tried to turn the tables:
[I]f you look at what my opponent wants to do, he has the most extreme position on abortion you can have. He wants abortion to be available to the last minute of birth. He wants taxpayers to pay for that abortion. And he doesn't want parents to have a voice in the abortion of a minor. I think that is a very extreme position.
Franken could have been more indignant and direct in his response. Instead of calling out the distortion and noting that most Iowans share his views on abortion rights, he observed wryly, "Some of those are a surprise to me."
He went on to contrast Grassley's longstanding position against "a woman's right to choose" with his career of supporting people's rights. Franken said that late in a woman's pregnancy "is the most personal time of all." If "a malady happens" and a life is in danger, "This is a private time where a tough decision has to be made where a lawyer being in the room is not part of the equation, nor is an intrusive government and a Supreme Court that is idealized after Senator Grassley."
Grassley responded by saying Franken should be "ashamed" to run that tv ad. He claimed to support exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or life of the mother. The senator then tried to dodge a question about whether he would vote for a nationwide abortion ban, then said he would vote no ("it's a state issue") before moderators moved on.
FIRST CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT
Neither Republican incumbent Mariannette Miller-Meeks nor Democratic challenger Christina Bohannan has focused on abortion in their television advertising so far, but Bohannan's campaign has highlighted reproductive rights in several digital ads. A couple of recent examples, from Facebook's ad library:
UPDATE: Bohannan launched a tv ad about abortion on October 12.
Moderators raised the topic during the candidates' September 26 debate on Iowa PBS. Asked about co-sponsoring a nationwide 15-week abortion ban, Miller-Meeks claimed she has always been "pro-life with exceptions for life of the mother, rape and incest," adding,
The Dobbs decision has turned the decision for abortion back to the elected representatives, and elected representatives can be state officials, but they could also be federal officials. And I think that is a position that is held by many within the United States and I think a majority, and it's not the extreme position of what we were also asked to support, which almost every single Democrat in the House supported, and that was abortion on demand up until the time of birth and even after birth, which is an extreme radical position which is not supported by the majority of Americans.
Bohannan pushed back hard. Excerpts (click here for the full Iowa PBS video and transcript):
Bohannan: Yeah, this whole thing about abortion on demand until the day of birth or after birth, I don't even know what that means. The fact is that I don't support that and I don't know anyone who does.
Mariannette Miller-Meeks is not telling the truth when she says that this has been her position all along. The fact is that she has sponsored not one, but two nationwide abortion bans, one of which is called a life at conception bill, which bans all abortions from the moment of conception, with no exceptions at all including not for rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. She sponsored that bill.
And then she now has also signed onto a second nationwide abortion bill, this 15-week bill. Both of those bills will put women's lives at risk, and both of them would throw doctors in jail for providing health care that has been legal in this country for nearly half a century.
So I support Roe v. Wade. 70 percent of Americans support Roe v. Wade. This is a very dangerous path that we are going down. It will put women's lives at risk and it is one of the worst examples of government overreach that we have seen in a very, very long time. It inserts politicians into the most private, personal aspects of a person's life. And for someone who talks a lot about unnecessary government overreach, she has sure signed onto some pretty terrible bills involving government overreach.
Miller-Meeks: I think what is extreme and terrible are all of the House Democrats voting for a bill that would permit abortion up until the time of birth. That is what they voted for, all of the Democrats.
Acknowledging that life begins at conception as a scientist and a doctor, you can acknowledge when life begins but also have an abortion [law] with restrictions but that there is life of the mother, exceptions for life of the mother, exceptions for rape, and exceptions for incest. I also passed a bill in the State Senate for oral contraception over-the-counter in order to help prevent pregnancy. I have also been supportive of adoption and making adoption easier.
So there are a variety of ways that I have done to both support mothers, support infants. But the extreme radical position is the position of the Democratic Party, which is abortion until the time of birth. That is their position, that's what they voted for.
Bohannan: I'm sorry, that is flatly untrue.
Miller-Meeks: It is not untrue.
Bohannan: It is flatly untrue. And I will tell you, first of all, I am not the entire Democratic Party. Let's just be clear. You're running against me. My position is -- I ran against a 20 year Democratic incumbent from my own party when I thought neither Republicans or Democrats were doing right by Iowa. I will always stand up to my party. What I believe is that we should go back to Roe v. Wade. No more, no less. That was the law of this country for half a century, it was settled law until the Supreme Court overruled it this summer. [...]
Bohannan handled that exchange well because she spoke directly and repeated a few key points. She supports Roe v. Wade, as do most Americans. Banning abortion is a government overreach that threatens women's lives. And Miller-Meeks isn't telling the truth about the Democratic position.
SECOND CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT
Republican incumbent Ashley Hinson's campaign messaging has focused on a range of issues, but hasn't highlighted abortion. Some ads are designed to give women (who largely support reproductive rights) other reasons to back Hinson. Here's one Facebook ad:
Hinson's campaign started running this testimonial style tv spot on September 21.
Democratic challenger Liz Mathis has run numerous Facebook ads urging like-minded users to "Stand with a Reproductive Rights Champion." One recent example:
In late September, Mathis launched a brutal tv ad, inspired by Hinson co-sponsoring the "Life at Conception Act" in March.
In a statement released when the ad came out, Mathis said, "Politicians like Ashley Hinson should not be making personal health care decisions for women. In Congress, I will vote to codify Roe and protect Iowans’ reproductive freedoms.”
Hinson called the ad a lie and tried to portray Mathis as the extreme one.
This is a lie. I’m unapologetically pro-life and I’ll keep working to save as many lives as possible. I support exceptions for rape, incest, & life of the mom. @LizMathis1 supports elective abortion up until birth - she’s the only one in this race who is extreme on abortion. https://t.co/TCOzq40hJ6— Ashley Hinson (@hinsonashley) September 24, 2022
As noted above, there is no "elective abortion up until birth," in Iowa or other parts of the country.
The candidates in the second district have agreed to debates on KCRG-TV on October 12 and Iowa PBS on October 18. I'll update this post with details on their comments regarding abortion.
THIRD CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT
Democratic incumbent Cindy Axne is among the most vulnerable U.S. House members. She's voted twice to codify Roe, and drawing a contrast between herself and GOP challenger Zach Nunn is a key element of her re-election strategy.
The first Axne ad featuring this issue went up in August, weeks before Nunn's campaign was on the air. Here's "No Exceptions":
When I saw that happen in a GOP primary debate, I knew it would end up in commercials.
Nunn has said Axne misrepresented his views, noting that an abortion ban he supported in the Iowa legislature did contain some exceptions. (That law was struck down as unconstitutional, but Governor Kim Reynolds is asking the courts to reinstate it.)
Just before Labor Day, Associated Press reporter Thomas Beaumont featured Nunn in a story about Republican candidates "who are trying to distance themselves from their past statements" on abortion.
Before long, Axne's campaign was up with a new ad, running in all three media markets that reach the newly-drawn third district (Des Moines, Omaha, Ottumwa/Kirksville, Missouri).
I would guess that internal Republican polling showed this line of attack was hurting Nunn, because in late September, he addressed the issue in his own tv ad. "Look, good people can disagree on abortion," the candidate says to the camera. "But Cindy Axne is too extreme."
Why is Nunn saying Axne "voted against lifesaving care for a baby who survives an abortion"? He's referring to a Republican amendment that "would have required health care providers to immediately take a baby that survives abortion to the hospital for life-saving care." KCCI's Scott Carpenter reported last month,
Axne voted against adding that amendment to a bill addressing tobacco use among young Americans.
Her spokesperson told KCCI that Axne felt the amendment was unrelated and should not be attached to that specific bill.
KCCI asked whether Axne supports the Born-Alive bill, the campaign told us, in part, "Babies born alive have had federal protections for 20 years. Claiming Cindy Axne has voted to kill babies is beyond offensive [...]."
The topic came up when Nunn and Axne debated on KCCI-TV on October 6. (You can find the full debate video here or here.) In an hour filled with hostile moments, this exchange was one of the most heated.
Asked to clarify his position on abortion, Nunn began by saying,
Look, good people can disagree on abortion, but there are important things and I want to be clear on my position. I am pro-life. I support the mother and the baby, and we voted repeatedly here in Iowa to provide exceptions for the health of the mother, something my opponent's lied about repeatedly. We provide exceptions for rape, incest and fetal abnormalities.
The 2017 law that banned abortions after 20 weeks (and remains in effect) did not include exceptions for rape, incest, or fetal abnormalities. The 2018 law that would ban most abortions after around six weeks had limited exceptions, which would leave out many pregnant people who had been sexually assaulted or have health problems.
Nunn went on to tout other legislation he has supported that would help mothers, people who want to adopt, or women who need oral contraception. Then he tried to put Axne on the defensive.
My opponent unfortunately also has a voting record, that's very extreme, that will allow abortion up until the day of birth. Additionally, it would provide taxpayer-funded abortions, even if the child was viable. This is more extreme than places we see in anywhere else in the world, other than China and North Korea and it's wrong. Most Iowans don't agree with that.
Axne came out swinging. My transcript:
Well, I think my stance on women's reproductive health is very clear. There's no one that should be making a decision for women's reproductive health [other] than the woman. She should have the involvement of her doctor and her family as her choice, but the choice certainly belongs with her.
My opponent on the other hand, can slice and dice this however he wants. We saw him on stage in a primary debate questioned if he supported abortion when it came to cases of rape, he said no. He raised his hand, no. He raised his hand, no, when they asked him if he would support cases of incest, he said no. And he said no to the mother's life. This was just a few months ago, folks, when he said he did not support abortion in any of those cases.
To clarify, the primary debate moderator, WHO-TV's Dave Price, didn't ask separate questions about those three scenarios. He asked candidates once: "Should all abortions be illegal in this country? Hand up if you say yes [...] all abortions, no exceptions."
Axne pointed out not all of the abortion bans Nunn has voted for in the legislature had exceptions. "This man's positions on abortion are extreme. They're out of touch with Iowans, and they're out of touch with what women and people across this country, especially here in Iowa want to see."
When KCCI's Stacey Horst followed up to ask whether Axne is for abortion up until the time of birth, the Democrat spoke passionately.
Oh my—I find that to be one of the most offensive statements I could ever hear. As a mother of two boys and is the only one on this stage who's actually given birth, I certainly find that to be completely offensive.
I can't talk to any other women who—we've heard this business before. Do they really? Does he really think women are having babies? And then all of a sudden we're saying, "kill the babies"? That's crazy talk. That's just absolute crazy talk.
He's running around on TV talking about it. I mean, I take such great offense at that, because you have no idea what it's like to be a mother. You have no idea what it's like to bear a child. You have no idea what it's like to take care of a child, from the framework of being a mother—
Nunn interrupted to talk about his four kids and two foster kids, but the moderators cut him off, since Axne still had time to finish.
So to answer your question, Stacey, no, I don't support that. It's a complete fabricated lie by the Republican Party that they've tried to push this false narrative consistently. Nobody believes that a child should be born and then you should murder it. To say so is absolutely ridiculous and offensive at best.
"Well that's exactly what you voted for, Cindy Axne," Nunn retorted.
I think Axne struck the right tone, other than using the phrase "crazy talk." (I've said it too, but we should all get away from language that stigmatizes mental illness.)
Republicans are being ridiculous and offensive when they robotically repeat their talking points about the supposedly "extreme" position of Democrats.
Incidentally, Axne's campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are advertising heavily on YouTube. I saw an anti-Nunn spot featuring his hand raised for "no exceptions" on the YouTube page containing the full KCCI debate video.
SO, WILL VOTERS BUY IT?
I doubt many moderates will decide Democrats are just too extreme on abortion. If you know anyone who terminated a pregnancy after 20 weeks, you understand the heartbreaking circumstances that are usually involved. Most often, those people wanted to have a baby, but learned that life outside the womb was impossible for their child.
Democrats should forcefully call out the lies and keep reminding voters that wanting to codify Roe v Wade is not some way-out-there position. The majority of Americans and Iowans believe abortion should be mostly legal.
In contrast, Grassley, Miller-Meeks, Hinson, and Nunn believe abortion should almost always be illegal. They may talk up some narrowly-drawn exceptions. But the bottom line is, if they had their way, it would be impossible for thousands of pregnant Iowans to control their own destiny. Under laws like the 2018 ban, which Hinson and Nunn helped pass and the others support, abortion would be prohibited before many Iowans even realize they are pregnant.
From where I'm sitting, GOP candidates lose credibility when they claim Democrats favor abortions up until birth. It would be smarter for them to focus on persuading voters who disagree with them on this issue to prioritize other concerns, where polls show Republicans have an advantage.
We'll find out in about 30 days.
Top image, from left: U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks, U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson, and GOP Congressional candidate Zach Nunn.