In a recent Talbot Spy commentary, I wrote that in the 2022 Congressional elections, pro-choice advocates who were angry over the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, channeled their anger into get-out-the-vote (GOTV) initiatives.
I also wrote a key element of those GOTV initiatives was messaging repeated early and often by Democratic congressional candidates: many Republicans oppose abortions anywhere and at any stage of a pregnancy. The goal was to energize and mobilize pro-choice voters, especially, but not limited to independents and women, to vote for Democratic candidates.
This messaging strategy worked well in the election cycle 2022.
It may work again in the 2024 election cycle based on recent “off year” election results in two red states — Ohio and Kentucky and in one purple state – Virginia.
In a statewide referendum in Ohio, more than 56% of voters approved a grassroots initiated measure to add the right to abortions into the state constitution.
In Virginia, Democrats won back full control of the state legislature after Republicans led by Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin campaigned on the promise of a “sensible limit” that would ban most abortions past 15 weeks of pregnancy, a measure Democratic candidates said was an extremist “agenda”.
In Kentucky, voters reelected a Democratic governor over an anti-abortion Republican opponent who had won statewide previously as a candidate for Attorney General.
Democratic messaging strategy on abortion rights may not work again in 2024 based on the results of a special election last week in Utah to fill a vacated congressional seat.
In that election, the Democratic candidate (a moderate state senator) said her Republican opponent’s position on abortion rights was “too extreme.” The Republican candidate responded to her opponent’s comment by not responding to it. In fact, she completely ignored it. She explained her decision to a local media outlet thusly: “I’ve avoided a lot of the social issues and red meat issues that people get wound up about.”
Instead, the Republican candidate focused on issues that she believed would resonate with a majority of voters in the congressional district. Those issues included securing America’s borders, addressing deficit spending at the federal level, and taming inflation. She also focused on three other issues she believed were of particular importance to voters in the district: less federal control over private land use, less federal control over natural resources, and keeping a local military base open.
The Republican candidate’s unconventional and risky messaging strategy worked.
Despite a pre-election poll forecasting a close outcome in this special election, the Republican candidate got 57% of the votes cast, the Democratic candidate got 34% of the votes cast and 9% of votes cast went to third party or independent unaffiliated candidates.
Going forward a “silence is golden” messaging strategy used by this Republican candidate on abortion rights should be of great interest to both Democratic and Republican campaign strategists.
Both need to heed the timeless advice of Eric Hoffer, who once said “In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the future, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.”
David Reel is a public affairs/public relations consultant who serves as a trusted advisor on strategy, advocacy, and media matters who lives in Easton.