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GOP tries to steer clear of abortion politics as midterm plans take shape

<i>Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images</i><br/>Senate Republicans gathered behind closed doors on May 3 afternoon for the first time since a bombshell draft Supreme Court decision that would strike down Roe v. Wade was leaked.
Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Senate Republicans gathered behind closed doors on May 3 afternoon for the first time since a bombshell draft Supreme Court decision that would strike down Roe v. Wade was leaked.

By Alex Rogers, Manu Raju and Melanie Zanona, CNN

Senate Republicans gathered behind closed doors on Tuesday afternoon for the first time since a bombshell draft Supreme Court decision that would strike down Roe v. Wade was leaked.

But rather than celebrating a milestone that most of them have spent decades trying to achieve — banning abortion — Republicans instead focused on another issue: How the document became public, underscoring the political sensitivity of their potential and long-awaited victory.

The GOP senators lamented how the unprecedented breach of the draft opinion could damage the integrity of the court and privately mused about how the printer of the uploaded draft opinion could possibly be identified, according to two sources familiar with their conversations. They also discussed that whoever first gave the opinion to Politico did so on purpose, noting that the Supreme Court typically shreds sensitive documents and implements other techniques to prevent someone from finding them by chance.

Afterward, GOP leaders emerged, eager to talk about just about anything besides the substance of the draft opinion, which would overturn the constitutional right to an abortion and immediately impact millions of Americans across the country.

“I think the story today is an effort by someone on the inside to discredit the institution of the Senate, which continues a pattern that we’ve observed over the last couple of years,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters when asked whether he takes personal credit for the court’s potential decision given his decades-long effort to install conservative justices. “What’s unique about today is this is the first time we’ve had somebody on the inside try to attack the institution.”

Senate GOP Whip John Thune said that each Republican candidate in this year’s midterms may handle it differently.

“I don’t know (that) it’s necessarily a party issue,” Thune told CNN. “I think it’s more of an issue of conscience.”

The remark is a striking acknowledgment of how Republicans see the issue playing at a time when they have had the most favorable midterm environment in the past dozen years. While the Supreme Court’s ruling could validate the right’s nearly 50-year fight to overturn Roe, Republicans are deeply concerned that the looming decision could fire up the Democratic base and distract from what they believe is a winning message on crime, inflation and the border. Some Republican candidates are now conflicted over how to discuss abortion as a campaign issue with the future control of the House and Senate at stake.

“They’re like the dog that caught the bus,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “They know they’re on the wrong side of history. They know they’re on the wrong side of where the American people are. They know they’ll pay consequences in the 2022 elections.”

Most Republicans, even those who have been fierce opponents of abortion, have signaled that they don’t want to dive into the abortion debate — at least not right now. And polling shows that most Americans don’t want the court to overturn Roe: just 30% of Americans said they wanted to see the ruling struck down, according to polling conducted by CNN in January.

After months of internal wrangling over their party’s agenda and the White House’s handling of the country’s economic and immigration woes, Democrats in difficult races began to speak with one voice, with the likes of New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan standing behind her party’s leaders on the steps of the Capitol as they railed on the Supreme Court and Republicans. And others running for reelection, such as Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Mark Kelly of Arizona, were not shy about bringing up the issue.

“I think what we heard last night is a devastating message to women all across the United States,” Warnock said.

Republicans see the battlelines forming, even as many didn’t want to discuss the potential impact of the court’s upcoming decision.

Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, who is up for reelection in a swing state this fall, said the Democrats were talking about abortion because “Democrats love wedge issues” and “can’t defend their record.”

“You take a look at open borders, 40-year high inflation, record gas prices, rising crime,” Johnson said. “They can’t talk about the results of their governance, so they’ve got to try and find something else to run on.”

After Politico reported on the draft opinion on Monday, Senate Democratic candidates running against Johnson — including Wisconsin Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson — quickly urged Democratic senators to eliminate the filibuster in order to pass legislation protecting abortion rights.

Asked if the abortion ruling will play a role in his reelection race, Johnson said Tuesday that the leak was “an egregious transgression against the court. Anything beyond that is speculative.”

“It was a draft from February,” noted Johnson, who has consistently supported anti-abortion legislation and judges, adding that “there’s potential for hundreds, maybe thousands, of edits,” and that “the justices’ positions could change.”

Two Republican senators who are retiring this term — Richard Burr of North Carolina and Roy Blunt of Missouri — downplayed whether abortion would affect the races for their seats.

Blunt said, “It’s too early to anticipate.”

Burr said, “I’ll save comment until I see the final decision.”

Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who has previously introduced a 20-week abortion ban, similarly said she thinks the left’s call to amplify abortion rights in the midterms is just an attempt to distract from other issues that are a potential liability for Biden and the Democrats.

“We’ve got so much other stuff going on,” Ernst said. “One, we need to get to the bottom of who leaked this. … But then we’ve got the gas price issues, the inflation issues. So it’s almost like they are trying to detract from the issues that Americans are being affected (by).”

Added Thune: “They’re trying to change the subject. … They’ve got an intensity gap going into the elections — so I think they’re hoping this issue would cure that.”

Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, a member of GOP leadership, expressed confidence that the midterms will be an “up-or-down vote on Joe Biden” and insisted Republicans aren’t talking much about the ruling itself because it’s a draft that is three months old — not because it’s bad politics for his party.

And Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who voted to remove former President Donald Trump from office for inciting an insurrection at the Capitol last year, called the leak an “assault upon an institution.”

“It is the judicial version of a January 6,” Cassidy said.

Not all Republicans were keeping their distance: several of the GOP’s most outspoken anti-abortion voices cheered the news on Tuesday, while others credited Trump for appointing a trio of justices who titled the ideological balance of the court and made overturning Roe possible.

Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, who is up for reelection, said Tuesday that he supported a state bill signed by his governor this year that would outlaw abortion “except to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency” and make it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison to attempt to perform one.

“They were trying to speak up for the value of every child,” Lankford said of the state legislators. “I think it’s hard for some people to understand. I don’t understand someone that can say a baby’s inconvenient, so I’ll just kill it because they’re inconvenient. And if I want another baby, I’ll just make another one. But I’ll just kill this one until it’s more convenient for me.”

“I can’t process that,” he added. “And there’s many people in my state that can’t process that. … That’s still a child at the end of the day.”

But another Republican, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, would not say explicitly if he supports the so-called trigger law in his state, which would make providing an abortion a felony if Roe is overturned.

“It’s up to the state legislature,” Cornyn, a member of Senate GOP leadership, said when asked if he backs his state’s abortion ban.

Still, there’s an acknowledgment inside the GOP that they need to be prepared for Democrats using the ruling as a new rallying cry to unify their base and paint Republicans as extreme.

That’s why the Senate GOP’s campaign arm was quick to put out a three-page messaging memo on Tuesday advising Republicans to “be the compassionate, consensus builder on abortion policy,” while hammering Democrats for supporting “late term abortions.”

“The Republican Party believes in compassion for everybody,” said Florida Republican Rick Scott, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman. “We’re pro-life and we don’t believe in late term abortions.”

But Scott argued that he did not think abortion will be a defining issue in the midterm elections, even as the Senate Democrats’ campaign chair, Gary Peters of Michigan, told CNN the issue would be “front-and-center” and Democrats would “aggressively” message it.

“I think when you talk to people, the big issue they’re dealing with right now is inflation, crime, the border — stuff like that,” Scott said.

Across the Capitol, the conservative Republican Study Committee already released messaging guidance in anticipation of a scenario where Roe v. Wade is struck down. The group also recently heard from the head of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, where sources said members were encouraged to take the lead on messaging and not let Democrats define their positions.

Republicans also don’t plan to shy away from the issue if they win the House or Senate, and have started internal discussions about which anti-abortion bills they might bring to the floor if they’re in power.

But when asked Tuesday about whether he thinks a federal abortion ban is necessary, McConnell dodged the question and once again pivoted to attacking the leaker.

“Look, all of this puts the cart before the horse,” McConnell said. “You need, it seems to me, a lecture to concentrate on what the news is today. Not a leaked draft. But the fact that the draft was leaked.”

™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Morgan Rimmer and Ryan Nobles contributed to this report.

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