Some Republican candidates shy from specifics of federal abortion law positions

By: - September 10, 2022 3:06 pm

People protest in response to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022. The Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health overturned the landmark 50-year-old Roe v. Wade case and erased a federal right to an abortion. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

On the campaign trail, Iowa Democratic congressional candidates say their Republican opponents want to fully ban abortion in Iowa and nationwide – but many GOP candidates competing in the November election shy away from outlining specific policies.

U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne’s campaign released a video advertisement of her opponent, state Sen. Zach Nunn, raising his hand during a WHO-TV Republican primary debate, when candidates were asked to raise their hand if they believed all abortions should be illegal. Nunn raised his hand, and the advertisement narrates that he does not believe in exceptions for rape, incest or if the mother’s life is at risk.

But Nunn has told reporters that he does not support a total ban on the medical procedure. He pointed to his vote supporting Iowa’s fetal-heartbeat law, which would ban most abortions at six weeks of pregnancy, but which allows for exemptions.

Nunn has not clarified at what point in a pregnancy he believes abortion should be illegal.

“I think that’s probably a conversation that Iowans need to weigh in on before we go much further on this,” he told reporters at an August campaign event.

Nunn also published an op-ed in the Des Moines Register pushing back on the Axne campaign ad, saying that he supports medical procedures which would save the life of a mother.

“I wholeheartedly support the sanctity of life and believe that life begins with conception, but I also understand that there are real-world scenarios that aren’t black-and-white,” Nunn wrote.

Republican representatives opaque on federal abortion law goals

Axne is not the only Democratic candidate to talk about how their competitor would support an abortion ban following the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

At the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox during the Iowa State Fair, Democratic candidate Christina Bohannan said her opponent, U.S. Rep. Marianette Miller-Meeks, supported a total federal ban on abortion. She was citing the Life at Conception Act, introduced in February 2021 which Miller-Meeks cosponsored. Fellow Iowa Republican U.S. Reps. Ashley Hinson and Randy Feenstra also cosponsored the legislation.

The legislation, which would criminalize abortion without exceptions but would not authorize prosecuting the woman who had the procedure, has not been brought for a vote in Congress.

“It’s too much,” Bohannan said at the soapbox. “That is not where Iowans are, it’s a dangerous and extreme position.”

But Miller-Meeks told the Iowa City Press-Citizen that she supports a ban on abortion which includes exceptions for rape and incest. Her campaign did not respond to a request from the Iowa Capital Dispatch for clarification.

Miller-Meeks also voted against legislation that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in July that would guarantee people the right to use contraception without government interference. While birth control was not affected by the U.S. Supreme Court decision that abortion is not a constitutionally protected right, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion in the case called out birth control access as another court decision to reconsider.

All three of Iowa’s Republican representatives voted against the measure. But Miller-Meeks and Hinson introduced their own legislation to make U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved oral contraceptives available over the counter.

While conservative candidates have emphasized their nuanced view on laws surrounding reproductive rights ahead of the election, Iowa Republican candidates have also all affirmed they are “pro-life,” and support legislation restricting abortions. Iowa’s conservative representatives also all voted against the Women’s Health Protection Act earlier this year which would have codified abortion rights.

Abortion could be a deciding factor at the ballot

Dave Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University, said its “obvious” Republicans are concerned about the Supreme Court decisions’ impacts on the November election. Republican candidates in Iowa have taken note of how abortion has impacted other races across the country. In August, Kansas voters chose not to approve an amendment to the state constitution which would have removed the right to abortion. Other special election races in states like Minnesota and Nebraska showed Democratic gains after the overturn of Roe, the Brookings Institute reported.

“The referendum in Kansas sent a shockwave across the Republican Party and made them pretty afraid of the electoral implications of the Dobbs decision,” Peterson said.

Abortion, alongside improving approval ratings of President Joe Biden’s tenure and a stabilizing economy, are improving Democrats’ chances in the midterms, according to election forecasters. While FiveThirtyEight’s predictor shows that Republicans remain poised to take back the U.S. House, it now predicts that Democrats may retain control of the Senate.

The Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll taken in July found 60% of Iowans say abortion should be legal in most or all cases. But national polls still show that inflation remains many voters’ top issue.

Peterson said abortion has the potential to be a “defining” issue of the election this year that helps the president’s party hold power, like the Iraq War was in 2002. But, he said, voters have to decide whether they are more dissatisfied with the court’s abortion decisions or with the Biden administration’s economic policy.

“There’s going to be a fair amount of voters who are conflicted,” Peterson said. “… They’re not happy with the state of the country. For a lot of voters, some of that unhappiness is going to be economics, and for some, that unhappiness is going to be the Dobbs decision. Which one matters more to them is the question.”

This story was published earlier by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom network, which includes the Florida Phoenix.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. Robin has experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.