In the post-mortems from the surprising August primary elections, one word keeps coming up to explain why Republicans had such a lackluster showing.
“Republicans did not address the abortion issue,” state Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, told The Herald, of Everett. “What transpired was lots of people who were passionate on the issue, independent and Democrat, showed up and voted. We got it wrong, and we need to change.”
Data shows there was a surge of ballots cast by voters who often sit out primaries, compelled in part by the U.S. Supreme Court tossing out Roe v. Wade in June, both parties say. Nearly 100,000 more women voted statewide than men.
Muzzall’s is a frank confession. It’s the kind that’s welcome to hear in politics, especially if you believe we need two sane, grounded-in-reality parties.
But it also contains a huge helping of denial.
The problem for Republicans wasn’t just that they focused too exclusively on inflation, crime and other issues. The problem is far more acute — it’s what their candidates were out there saying about the issue of abortion.
Take the party’s federal candidates. The Republicans running for federal offices in Washington state almost universally described themselves as “pro-life” and celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
That might be OK, if it weren’t for the specific ways that many of them approach the issue. In the details, this is the most reactionary batch of candidates on abortion I’ve seen in decades of covering politics in the state.
There’s a group called the American Family Association that’s compiling an extensive voters guide centered around Christian values. “Grounded in God, rooted in research,” is their motto. They ask the candidates a slew of simple questions, such as: “Under what circumstances should abortion be allowed?”
The answers from some of our candidates make Idaho look civilized.
“None, no crime justifies killing an innocent unborn child,” answered Joe Kent, the GOP’s nominee in the 3rd Congressional District.
“Only to save the life of the mother,” said Dan Matthews, the party’s standard-bearer in the 2nd Congressional District north of Seattle. He added: “When the conversation is about guns, they pretend to care about ‘the children.’ When the conversation is about abortion, they can’t kill ‘the children’ fast enough!”
It goes on like this. Of our 10 GOP primary winners for U.S. House, eight answered the questionnaire, and of those, six would ban abortions even in cases of rape or incest.
Requiring rape or incest victims to give birth was until recently an almost unheard-of position in elected politics. Even Idaho’s extreme near-total ban, which is being challenged by the federal and Washington state governments as medically negligent, at least allows some exceptions for rape and incest.
Another example is Matt Larkin, the GOP challenger in the 8th Congressional District east of Seattle. He said in debates he favors banning all abortions back to the moment of conception, unless the mother’s life is in danger.
Further, if a Republican wins the presidency in 2024, “I could see a strong conservative Congress putting forward that vote to ban it nationally,” Larkin said.
Don’t even get them started on funding for reproductive health care organizations like Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood “is in the business of killing babies and supporting sexualization of children,” contends Bernard Moody, the GOP nominee for state Senate in the 38th District in Everett, in the Christian questionnaire.
Another candidate called Planned Parenthood “killing fields.”
Said Kent: “I will never vote for a piece of legislation that appropriates funding to abortion providers, even if it means shutting down the federal government.”
These are not marginal cranks who got 2% and washed out in the primary. These are all GOP nominees.
A few candidates have struck the moderate notes the state party now is hoping to pivot to.
One is Vincent Cavaleri Jr., the GOP nominee in the 1st Congressional District of the Eastside suburbs. He said he’s personally “pro-life,” but that “there is never a simple one-size-fits-all solution. … Ultimately, this should be left to the states and their respective legislatures.”
Not bad. But it’s also kind of: “Trust us. We won’t go all Idaho on you.”
Will a laissez-faire nod like that be enough to save the GOP from another drubbing in this state?
Polling suggests: Probably not. What’s fascinating about abortion polling is that male and female voters don’t differ that much on the key question of whether the procedure should be legal. Researchers find the real dividing line is about power — about who gets the final say.
It’s why pro-abortion-rights women — the dominant voting bloc in this state — may be more animated to vote than either pro-choice or pro-life men. Because “it’s not about a procedure, it’s about women’s place in the world,” one researcher told the polling site FiveThirtyEight.
On cue, after a year of economic concerns, 35% of women voters suddenly listed abortion as the No. 1 issue in our Seattle Times WA Poll last month. For men, inflation was still tops, but for just 22%. That difference right there was enough to blunt any red wave.
We’ll have to see if the tide shifts back by November. Some forces may simply be too existential to be altered with new messaging — especially with a lineup of candidates straight out of Idaho.