The false premise at the heart of Sean Hannity’s GOP abortion strategy

Sean Hannity is a Republican Party operative with close ties to Donald Trump and other Republican leaders, and with the approval of the network’s executives, he explicitly uses his Fox News show as a platform to help its candidates win elections. So his Tuesday night meltdown, in which he blamed the GOP’s string of defeats that day to its unpopular opposition to abortion rights, bears careful scrutiny.

Hannity put his finger on what he considered the problem as results rolled in showing a series of Democratic victories

“Democrats are trying to scare women into thinking Republicans don't want abortion legal under any circumstances,” he said.

The host and his guests urged Republicans to coalesce around banning abortion beginning at 15 weeks, which Hannity argued would be less risky politically, and focusing attention on right-wing lies about the purportedly extreme positions of Democrats.

Hannity, who says he is “pro-life,” has repeatedly sought to limit the political damage caused to the Republican Party when its Supreme Court nominees overturned the protections for abortion rights that had been enshrined in Roe v. Wade in their 2022 decision. He instructed Republican Senate candidates to dodge questions about the subject during the 2022 cycle, only for his hand-picked nominees to falter. Hannity carefully led newly minted House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) to say that he didn’t intend for Congress to take action on abortion this term during Johnson’s first interview in that role last month, and the issue didn’t come up at all during Hannity’s on-air pep rally for House Republicans last week. 

Hannity’s reticence is relatively canny — abortion rights played a major role in GOP defeats across the country on Tuesday, and if Republicans can’t somehow defuse the issue, it threatens the party’s political success in the 2024 elections. A new Navigator Survey poll shows Democrats in a dominant position in battleground districts, with majorities saying that the GOP position is “too extreme” and would lead to national abortion restrictions, that the Democratic position is not extreme, and that voters want abortion to be legal in all or most circumstances.

Hannity is an influential figure within the GOP, and it’s possible that Republicans will try to publicly position themselves in line with his suggested remedy. But his proposed cure for the party’s ills is nonsensical — indeed, as Hannity was speaking, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s identical plan to use a 15-week ban to hold the state House and take over the state Senate was going up in flames

Voters have not been somehow fooled by Democrats into believing that Republicans support banning abortion. Voters rightfully don’t trust Republican intentions because Republicans say they want to ban abortion, and they generally use whatever political power they obtain to prevent as many abortions as they can.

The text of the party’s most recent platform claims that “the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed” and calls for a constitutional amendment that would ban all abortions by granting 14th Amendment rights to fetuses. 

Johnson says that “life begins at conception” and called abortion a “holocaust,” and he has sponsored national abortion bans beginning as early as six weeks. Anti-abortion activists are gleeful at the prospect of his leadership if the party regains the Senate and the White House.

But Republicans at the state level do not generally stop with 15-week abortion bans — they push the envelope as far as their legislative majorities allow. That has meant a total abortion ban in 13 states, nine caused via “trigger” laws which took effect immediately after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In Florida, Republican state legislators passed and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a 15-week abortion ban in 2022. Then, after DeSantis won reelection and Republicans increased their majorities, they went back and established a six-week ban. And in addition to making abortion illegal within their states, far-right legislators have enacted laws which create bounties for private citizens who file lawsuits against anyone who knowingly “aids or abets” an abortion and ban helping a minor leave the state to obtain abortion care. There are countless stories about the devastating impacts these laws have already had on women and girls placed in dire situations.

Nor do Republicans confine their efforts to states where they win majorities. The right-wing movement’s lawyers, with the help of Trump-appointed judges, are currently trying to overturn the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the abortion medication mifepristone, which would effectively institute a nationwide ban on a drug currently used in more than half of U.S. abortions. If their effort succeeds, they will likely deploy a similar strategy against an alternative drug, misoprostol. Meanwhile, in Congress, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-MS) is blocking hundreds of military promotions — to cheers from the right — in hopes of forcing the Biden administration to end a policy that reimburses service members for out-of-state travel to receive abortions.

And of course, the reason Republican legislators have been able to pass state-level abortion bans and threaten to pass national ones is that Trump and a Republican Senate added the Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe in the first place.

The good news for Republicans is that Trump, the party’s likely presidential nominee, has very few genuine policy convictions, and recognizes that the issue poses a danger to his prospects in a general election. He was noticeably cagey in a September interview when asked about what type of abortion legislation he’d support, stating vaguely that he “would sit down with both sides and I'd negotiate something, and we'll end up with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years,” and criticized his rival DeSantis’ six-week ban. 

But that led to a chorus of criticism from Trump’s primary opponents, anti-abortion groups, and right-wing pundits, to which Trump later responded by crowing, “I was able to kill Roe v. Wade.” And there are signs that a Hannity-esque strategy of downplaying the party’s unpopular abortion stance could face fury from right-wing media figures who make their money by loudly proclaiming stands that appeal to a tiny, fervent minority.

If interviewers and debate moderators do their jobs, Trump should face a slew of questions between now and next year’s election where the desired answers of right-wing anti-abortion activists and average Americans diverge. Journalists have a responsibility to try to elicit a clearer position not only about what type of abortion bans he’d sign or veto, but about what he would do on federal regulatory issues like the availability of abortion medications. 

“Polls are now closed in several key states, where close races could serve as maybe a small preview of coming attractions for the 2024 election,” Hannity said last night, before the carnage for the GOP became apparent. That’s true, and support for abortion rights is a big part of the reason why.