DES MOINES, Iowa — During a primary debate in May, Iowa Republican Zach Nunn and his two rivals were asked to raise their hand if they thought all abortions should be illegal. “All abortions, no exceptions,” the moderator clarified.
Nunn's left hand went up.
The image has shadowed the Iowa state senator as he seeks to unseat U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, one of the most vulnerable House Democrats this election season. The two-term congresswoman has featured video of Nunn from the debate in TV ads she's been running since early August.
Nunn is among well more than a dozen strictly anti-abortion Republicans running in competitive House, Senate and governor's races this fall in Minnesota, Nevada, Kansas, Arizona and elsewhere who are trying to distance themselves from their past statements.
In newspaper op-eds, during interviews and on their campaign websites, Republican challengers who expressed support for banning most or all abortions — some in cases of rape, incest and to protect the life and health of the mother — are at a minimum downplaying those positions and at most backtracking at a time when abortion rights have complicated Republicans’ focus on the economy heading into the November midterm elections.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision recognizing a federal right to abortion, has prompted a backlash from abortion rights supporters and shined a light on politicians whose anti-abortion positions were only hypothetical when Roe was the law of the land.
"I think that the bait and switch will matter for those for whom abortion rights is a very important voting issue, which is an expanded group since Roe was overturned," Christine Matthews, a pollster who has worked for Republicans, said of GOP candidates trying to soften their profile on the issue. “And it may matter to a wider group if it appears that they are deceptive.”
Accusing Axne of misrepresenting his position, Nunn wrote in an op-ed published in The Des Moines Register last month that he supported exceptions for rape, incest and the life and health of the mother when he voted in 2018 for a ban on abortions after six weeks — a measure that was blocked by the courts.
Asked in an Associated Press interview why he raised his hand to the “no exceptions" question during the debate, Nunn misstated the question as “Do you support life?” instead of the actual wording, “In your mind, should all abortions be illegal in this country? Hand up if you say yes.”
“Let me be perfectly clear. I believe life begins at conception,” Nunn said in the interview. “I recognize the viability of a child. I recognize the health of the mother.”
Still, in 2017, Nunn voted for a measure requiring women seeking an abortion to wait 72 hours, which included an exception to protect the life of the mother but made no mention of rape or incest.
In Kansas, Republican Amanda Adkins — who is running against two-term Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids — wrote in a Kansas City Star op-ed published last week, “I don't support a federal ban on abortion."
The mention came after months of silence by Adkins after the May leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion signaling Roe was in jeopardy. A decade earlier as Kansas' Republican chair, Adkins had supported a strict abortion ban in the party's platform.
Adkins' Star piece also followed close on the heels of Kansas voters’ decisive rejection of a constitutional amendment that would have nullified a state Supreme Court decision guaranteeing the right to an abortion. Notably, the referendum failed in Johnson County — the teeming, suburban heart of Davids' district — by more than 2-to-1. Adkins publicly supported the amendment.
Nunn's and Adkins' efforts to deemphasize their previous conservative stances on abortion are conspicuous. Others have been more subtle.
In a northwest Indiana district that includes working-class cities outside Chicago, Republican Jennifer-Ruth Green answered “none” in a 2022 online questionnaire before the Supreme Court overturned Roe that asked under “what circumstances should abortion be allowed?”
Yet, as the GOP nominee facing Democratic Rep. Frank Mrvan, Green says she supports an anti-abortion measure passed by the Indiana legislature in August that includes exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother.
In suburban Minneapolis, Republican Tyler Kistner, who lost narrowly to two-term Democratic Rep. Angie Craig in 2020, is challenging her again. In 2020, his website included a section on abortion that stated he wanted to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood. In this year's campaign, his website does not mention abortion.
Republicans running statewide in battleground races have undertaken similar efforts.
Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters called abortion “demonic” during the GOP primary and called for a federal personhood law that would give fetuses the rights of people. He’s toned down his rhetoric more recently, deleting references to a personhood law from his campaign website and dropping language describing himself as “100% pro-life.”
In Nevada, where a 1990 referendum guarantees the right to abortion, Republican gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo said during a May primary debate that he would consider signing a ban on the Plan B pill. The pill, which is different from the abortion pill, can significantly lower the chance of pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.
In August, after Justice Clarence Thomas indicated in the Roe reversal that other high court rulings, including ones protecting the use of contraceptives, should also be reconsidered, Lombardo said he would not block contraceptives and has since noted on his website that he would “ensure that contraceptives stay accessible to Nevadans.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Dobbs v. Mississippi decision overturning Roe, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll showed 22% of U.S. adults named abortion or women's rights, in an open-ended question, as one of up to five problems they wanted the government to address. That’s more than doubled since December, when an AP-NORC poll found a notable uptick in mentions of abortion from years before, likely in anticipation of the Dobbs ruling.
In Iowa, 60% of adults say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll taken in July, higher still in the suburbs.
That would seem to be a consideration for Nunn, running in Iowa's 3rd Congressional District, which includes the metro area surrounding the capital Des Moines and its booming suburbs to the north and west, as well as vast tracts of more conservative, rural southwestern Iowa.
“While it's a small group on both sides, it energizes them because it's an important issue,” Nunn said, adding that Axne is “not even willing to have a conversation about where she's been on this.”
The counterpunch is a veiled reference to bills including one passed in July in the Democratic-controlled House with Axne's support that block limits on abortions late in a pregnancy — a position Republicans have characterized as extreme.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said Dobbs has reversed earlier Republican momentum by increasing enthusiasm among abortion rights advocates.
“Clearly there's been movement in the Democrats' favor,” said Ayres, who is an adviser for a super PAC supporting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's campaign. “The Dobbs decision gave them a reason to get engaged, and that's evident in increased Democratic enthusiasm.”
Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix, Hannah Schoenbaum in Raleigh, N.C., and Gabe Stern in Reno, Nev., contributed to this report.