RWM abortion rhetoric
Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Abortion rights have proven popular with voters. Right-wing pundits have struggled to respond.

Right-wing media outlets have responded to voters in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky, Montana, and Kansas embracing abortion rights by panicking about losses for the GOP and the anti-choice movement, with many pundits saying that Republicans should tone down their extreme proposals against abortion due to their evident unpopularity. 

The state contests have taken several different forms, but all were widely seen as proxy votes on whether abortion should remain safe, legal, and accessible — or highly restricted. These state-level contests have all occurred since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade in June 2022.

Here’s how right-wing media outlets and pundits have reacted to each defeat.

  • August 2023: Issue 1 in Ohio

  • On August 8, Ohioans rejected a Republican initiative to change the way the state’s constitution is amended just months before the state is expected to vote on an amendment that would safeguard the right to an abortion. The effort, known as Issue 1, would have amended the state constitution to require 60 percent of the vote to pass all new amendments, rather than a simple majority. If passed, Issue 1 would have diluted voter power to decide whether to enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution in November. 

    • When Issue 1 was discussed on the network, Fox personalities reflected on the outcome of the vote. Outnumbered co-host Kayleigh McEnany admitted that “every pro-life ballot initiative post-Dobbs has failed, and drives turnout” and Fox analyst Josh Kraushaar said that “abortion is a tough issue for Republicans and frankly a lot of Republicans haven't figured out how to message the issue.” On Fox & Friends, Congressional Leadership Fund president Dan Conston said, “We think that it is an issue, but there are so many more profound issues that the country has cared about.”

    • On his Daily Wire Show, Ben Shapiro said, “Republicans saying over and over to themselves that if we take the hardest, pro-life position in every state in the union this will lead to electoral victory is dumb. It is not correct.” He added, "You are going to have to gradually convince the American people of the rightness of your positions. Because if you don’t, the backlash is going to come strong from the other side. You’re seeing this in state election after state election.” 

    • On Fox News, former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien remarked that there “shouldn’t be any sugar coating over what happened,” calling it “a major setback.” He went on to add, “This happened in Ohio, which is not a pink state anymore. This is a state that is red, it's a state that Trump won both times by more than 450,000 votes.”

    • The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal had a sobering outlook for Republican messaging on reproductive rights, writing, “Antiabortion organizations are fooling themselves if they think this won’t continue.” Going on to state that the GOP failed to plan for a policy debate post-Roe and that “this political liability will persist until the GOP finds an abortion message that most voters can accept.”

    • Ann Coulter bashed GOP strategy, writing, “This is the ‘Change Hearts and Minds’ phase of the pro-life movement, NOT the ‘Make Every Republican Lose by Pushing Abortion Restrictions’ phase.” 

    • Replying to Coulter, Scott Morefield of Townhall suggested that “instead of focusing on mid and late term abortions that most Americans agree should be restricted, ‘pro-life’ has overplayed their hand and made the issue an albatross around the GOP’s neck.” He called the current GOP strategy on abortion “bad, bad politics that will cost us on a lot of other issues as we continue to lose.”

    • Far-right troll and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich seemed to come to terms with the loss, writing, “Americans love abortion and Trump was right about how overruling Roe v Wade would go electorally.” 

    • As a guest on the Mark Levin show, Outkick’s Clay Travis suggested the GOP change strategy, saying, “I think every Republican that wants to win a national election needs to come out and say, ‘We can disagree about where exactly the line should be,’” but that there can be exceptions, and that states should decide individually. He goes on to add that Republicans should “then immediately pivot and say, ‘But the really radical position and this is the position of the entire Democrat party, is abortion should be legal up to the 9th month of pregnancy. And that is murder and that is wrong,’” claiming that will “get 90% of the American public on your side.” 

    • On Twitter, podcaster Liz Wheeler completely denied reality and claimed the loss amounted to voter fraud. She wrote, “What happened today in Ohio… Same thing that happened in 2022… Same reason we lost in 2020… Because Democrats ballot harvest. Because Democrats early vote. And Republicans refuse. Mark my words, we’ll keep losing—even on issues where we own public opinion—until we compete.”

  • April 2023: Supreme Court race in Wisconsin

  • On April 4, Wisconsin voters elected Janet Protasiewicz, a Milwaukee County judge, to the State Supreme Court in a major win for abortion rights activists. Wisconsin is now expected to reverse its abortion ban. After anti-choice Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Daniel Kelly’s defeat, commentary from right-wing media blamed GOP messaging on abortion and made references to young voters’ stark refutation of Republican candidates and their ideas, especially on the issue of reproductive freedom.  

    • On April 5, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel took to Fox News and addressed Republican losses head-on, saying, “When you're losing by 10 points, there is a messaging issue, and abortion is still an issue. … and we can't allow the Democrats to define Republicans and put millions of dollars up in lies and have it go unanswered, because the lies become the truth if they go unanswered.” She went on to add, “I'm a suburban woman. I know this is an issue. I hear it with my friends, with my young daughter. This is not an issue that’s going away for our party in a post-Dobbs world, and we can't put our head in the sand and think it's going to heading in 2024."

  • Video file

    Citation From the April 5, 2023, edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom 

    • The next day on the same program, Fox contributor Kellyanne Conway agreed with McDaniel on the issue of messaging, saying, “There’s no question,” and “Ronna and I are both 100% pro-life, but we're having a hard time, especially with young people, assuring them that what is being peddled by the left is not true.” She went on to drive the point home, saying, “Ronna is correct on the messaging piece. I just don't think the pro-life movement of which I'm a member has figured out how best to assure people that they won't be denied something that's important to them.”

    • Brian Kilmeade responded to a listener comment: “They don’t know how to message it. You’re right about that. There is no question about that.” 

    • The night of the state Supreme Court election, Coulter tweeted her frustration with Republicans who continue to support strict anti-abortion policies after the fall of Roe v. Wade. Coulter wrote, “The demand for anti-abortion legislation just cost Republicans another crucial race, " and pleaded, “Please stop pushing strict limits on abortion, or there will be no Republicans left."

    • Megyn Kelly said that “with abortion on the ballot in the way it is, it's going to be a lot of GOP losses unless they get a better message.” Kelly argued, “You can't have a total ban of abortion in a state like Wisconsin, and the voters just said so.” She added, “The Republican Party has, let's face it, done a piss poor job since Dobbs of coming up with a national strategy, which means state by state. You know, you can't go ‘one uniform policy’ like just banned, banned, banned everywhere, that's not going to work.”

    • Fox News anchor Bret Baier said Republicans are “losing on the abortion issue” with Generation Z, calling the topic “a vulnerability” with young voters.

    • Columnist Kimberly Strassel made this point abundantly clear in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on April 6, calling out Republicans’ “glaring abortion problem.” Recommending a political middle ground, she noted: “Conservatives need to decide if they want GOP majorities that will enact common-sense protections, or Democratic takeovers that will open the abortion floodgates."

    • A similar sentiment was expressed in the conservative Washington Examiner in a piece on April 6 titled “Abortion helped sink conservatives in pivotal Wisconsin Supreme Court election.” In it, one GOP consultant interviewed called the issue of abortion the Republican Party’s “kryptonite” and warned that, as the Examiner summarized, “the GOP needs to get on the same page or it will end in another Wisconsin disaster."

  • November 2022: Proposal 3 in Michigan

  • During the 2022 midterm elections, voters in Michigan resoundingly voted in favor of Proposal 3, an amendment to the constitution enshrining access to abortion in Michigan. After its victory, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer positioned Michigan as a safe haven for those seeking reproductive care from out of state, announcing, “Visitors to Michigan must know that they can access reproductive health care within our borders without fear of extradition.” Right-wing media personalities seemed confused at the outcome, either reasoning that the failure was due to an issue agenda error or a misunderstanding of the proposal itself. 

    • Blaze Media’s Allie Beth Stuckey called Proposal 3 “a radical protection of the right to kill babies in the womb through all 9 months of pregnancy” She also decried it as “wicked.”

    • Fox News host Laura Ingraham asked The American Spectator’s Scott McKay how “pro-lockdown” and “extremely left-wing” governors like  Whitmer won re-election. McKay noted that Proposal 3 “got all the abortion people out to vote” which “turned abortion into an issue in Michigan when Tudor Dixon was talking about COVID, which of course Gretchen Whitmer is the worst governor in America on COVID.” He suggested that it was “a missed opportunity there because voters were kind of looking at a different issue than our side wanted.”

    • Fox News contributor Kellyanne Conway said, “We got our clocks cleaned in Michigan” after noting high turnout among young voters at University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Conway noted that Whitmer “was not punished for locking down Gen Z during COVID and beyond but they were animated because Act 3 was on the ballot.” 

    • Students for Life president Kristan Hawkins tweeted a bible verse and suggested that “the majority of MI voters have no clue what their vote Prop 3 really means and how extreme it is.” 

  • November 2022: Proposed constitutional amendment in Kentucky

  • In November 2022, voters in Kentucky rejected a constitutional amendment to their state constitution that would’ve paved the way for a total ban on abortion in the state. While the result was a win for pro-choice advocates, a “near-total” abortion ban remains in place while the state supreme court hears arguments over the matter.  After that vote, right-wing pundits struggled to justify why a consistently red state was voting against the agendas of Republican politicians. Oftentimes, commentators or politicians who took to TV continued to argue that the state was still conservative on the issue. 

    • On One America News, Rep. James Comer (R-KY) maintained that his state is “70% pro-life” but argued that the amendment failed “because of the lack of exclusions in there for rape, incest, or health of the mother.” 

    • On The Charlie Kirk Show, right-wing YouTuber and serial plagiarist Benny Johnson claimed, “They're not pro-abortion in Kansas,” but the measure was worded poorly. He asserted that “they're just idiots who wrote the wrong language into their proposition and that would have won if you had been clear, concise, consulted lawyers, consulted legal experts as to how to write your props.” 

  • November 2022: “Born Alive” ballot measure in Montana

  • In November 2022, Montanans voted against a ballot measure that would have required medical professionals to provide care for either premature births or rare cases in which an abortion procedure does not end a pregnancy or face criminal prosecution. The initiative described fetuses as legal persons and was objected to by those in the medical community.  Across right-wing media during the on-air coverage following the 2022 midterm elections, conservative figures were steadfast in their opinion that the anti-choice movement was taking the right path forward, but in many cases admitted their political effectiveness was dwindling. 

    • Host Kara McKinney of One America News noted that “red states like Montana” couldn’t pass these types of extreme pro-life laws, but reaffirmed her opinion that “overturning Roe, the Supreme Court, that of course is the right thing to do.” She went on to admit that “we see right now it's hurting us somewhat electorally at least a little bit in certain races. Hopefully we kind of fix that.”

    • Anti-abortion activist Lila Rose took to Fox & Friends Sunday to complain that pro-choice campaigns outspent anti-choice efforts. She claimed,“The reality is, the pro-life message is a winning message, if people have access to it, if people can actually hear it,” arguing that “we need resources to be able to keep up with the other side and that’s what these future fights are going to be."

    • On his show, Charlie Kirk asserted that Montana’s measure “must’ve been a massive out of state campaign,” and says the bill asks, “Would you provide medical care to a baby that is born alive?” He concludes by doubling down on his theory, “I guarantee you there was probably a lot of money spent on ‘Vote No for Prop. 131.’”  

  • August 2022: Proposed Constitutional amendment in Kansas

  • In August 2022, Kansas voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have “said there was no right to an abortion in the state.” The measure was overwhelmingly defeated, with 59 percent voting against the proposal. Kansas became the first state after the fall of Roe to vote on abortion rights and the outcome was clear. Pundits on Fox News and elsewhere were hesitant to foreshadow what that could mean for the upcoming midterm elections, focusing rather on 2020 election denialism and culture wars, but what was clear was that this was not going to be a winning issue for Republicans moving forward. 

    • Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway, who is also editor-in-chief of the right-wing site The Federalist, claimed the defeat was because “so much money was spent by hardcore abortion supporters.” Hemingway also seemingly conceded that “pro-life initiatives do much better when they're incremental.” At the same time, she said that there would be continued work for years in fighting “the scourge of abortion,” implying that even incremental restrictions would only be a political means toward a hardline end.

    • On Fox News, Rep. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) was asked whether Kansas’ vote could be “a warning” that the midterms may be closer than expected and pivoted, saying, “I think the midterms are gonna be about public safety, inflation, how you're doing at home, how you feel about your family's safety and kitchen table issues.” He did concede that “they say that 170,000 people voted on the constitutional referendum that didn't vote in any other race so that was a pretty well organized effort to get people out. So, we gotta get our people out, is the message to me from Kansas.” 

    • On his radio show last year, Sean Hannity admitted that “the voters overwhelmingly rejected” the ballot measure in Kansas.” He added that while it’s “not exactly a liberal state … the people of Kansas spoke out loudly and clearly that they want abortion legal in their state.” 

    • On Fox News Sunday, Fox News contributor and Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee drove this idea home, pointing out that Republican primary candidates “are more focused on issues like election denialism” than abortion, and remarked that “20% of Republicans, about, voted with the Democrats and the independents to protect abortion rights.” He went on to conclude that Democrats are making an effort to speak to centrists while “Republicans who were speaking to the CPAC crowd might end up being the ones a little bit more out of step.”

    • Last year, anti-abortion activists went on Fox News and claimed they were under attack in Kansas. Hawkins argued, “We are seeing a tremendous increase in violence against pro-lifers where these abortion supporters are now pairing their advocacy with the violence, for the violence of abortion with violent acts against pro-lifers.”