Speak more humanely about abortion, don’t opine on the female body’s abilities if you’re not a doctor, and mislead voters on your intentions to criminalize abortion.
These were some of the suggested messaging strategies on how Republican male candidates should engage female voters, offered by female members of Congress and conservative pundits at the Susan B. Anthony List’s Campaign for Life Summit in Washington, D.C., last week.
“We, of course, want to make abortion illegal,” said S.E. Cupp, a conservative commentator and co-host on CNN’s Crossfire. “We can’t be afraid to talk about that, but I think politically right now it’s probably more beneficial for our candidates to say, ‘Look, I’m not going to Washington to overturn decades-old legislation. I’m going to fight to keep abortion safe and rare.’ That’s how we get pro-life candidates elected and in positions of power to actually do something about abortion, to roll it back.”
Leading up to this year’s mid-term elections, Republicans have been trying to figure out how to appease the anti-choice views of their base while simultaneously appealing to female voters repelled by anti-choice policies and statements made by congressional candidates in 2012. Outrage over some of the more insensitive comments (
such as failed Senate candidate Richard Mourdock declaring that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen”) and the downright bizarre ( former Rep. Todd Akin [R-MO] musing, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”) has left the GOP somewhat vulnerable when it comes to the women voting bloc.
These episodes explain some of the advice from Cupp and female congressional leaders for candidates to appear more “humane” when discussing issues related to women’s reproductive health, such as abortion.
The SBA List’s Campaign for Life Summit—one in a series of fundraising events that the anti-choice lobbying group hosted last week—was geared toward the group’s donors and political allies. SBA leaders, media pundits, and members of both the U.S. House and Senate discussed campaign strategies for the GOP to gain electoral ground in the forthcoming elections, including targeted funding in select states. Speakers also discussed ideal framing of the anti-abortion message.
“We’ve got to be compassionate,” said Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) at Wednesday’s donor conference. “Let’s face it, there is no easy answer. For a woman that faces an unplanned pregnancy it is a difficult situation. And I think that’s what our guys need to do—since they can’t be in a situation of actually carrying the child—is empathizing with that woman, to say, right up front, ‘I am pro-life.’ Just acknowledge it; get it out there. ‘But I understand, this is a really, really tough situation, and I want to help you. I want to help you to make the best decision.’”
“And now you’ve gone all the way from all that rape and incest stuff,” she concluded.
Reps. Ann Wagner (R-MO) and Jackie Walorski (R-IN) echoed Black’s advice of extending compassion to women facing unplanned pregnancies and humanizing the discussion.
During a panel discussion titled “Exposing the War on Women,” Cupp and National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez furthered the idea that candidates should speak with compassion in order to crush the Democrats’ “war on women” narrative during this election season.
“They need to speak humanely about this issue,” Lopez said, referring to conservative candidates talking about abortion.
In addition to coaching candidates essentially to lie to voters, Cupp called on other conservative pundits and politicians to avoid appearing “mean” when discussing socially liberal issues, such as abortion and LGBT rights.
“Calling Wendy Davis ‘Abortion Barbie’ I don’t think is helpful,” Cupp said, referring to conservative writer Erick Erickson’s nickname for the Texas state senator running for governor. “That’s not a humane way to talk about the abortion issue. … That’s a missed opportunity. That allows Democrats and the media—liberals in the media—to characterize us as mean and anti-woman when our impulse on this fight is pro-woman, is pro-health.”
She similarly advised the GOP not to focus exclusively on banning abortion, but to take positive stances on adoption.
“After the  election, I wrote a number of times and talked a lot about talking more about abortion in better ways,” Cupp said. “And one of those ways that I thought would help us is if we championed that third option, adoption, and became the face of the adoption movement and adoption reform. In some cases I think that would require us to champion gay adoption, as well. But that’s not for everyone.”
Cupp’s advice to the audience at times resembled political media consulting in lieu of simple commentating. CNN did not respond directly to RH Reality Check‘s question regarding public-speaking guidelines for representatives of the network.
Alluding to Akin’s flameout after he articulated his scientifically creative ideas about “legitimate rape” in 2012, Cupp suggested that lawmakers should stop playing doctor—at least rhetorically speaking.
“When we are not scientists or medical doctors, we do not need to opine on what the female body does when it is raped,” she said. “That is an inappropriate line of answers and a rabbit hole that we don’t need to go down. So it’s talking better and, in some cases, talking a little less.”
Perhaps missing the lesson on empathy, Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes, who moderated the discussion between Lopez and Cupp, made light of reports that women were being forced to travel long distances to access abortion in their states due to legislative restrictions that have forced clinic closures, particularly in Texas—something RH Reality Check has been tracking. Barnes said he finds these stories to be good news.
“The New York Times specializes in stories about how difficult it is and how many miles women have to drive to get an abortion,” Barnes said. “Well, you know that it’s efforts to get mainly Planned Parenthood but other abortion clinics closed. It means there have been successes. The New York Times doesn’t realize when I read these stories how encouraged I am.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly named the executive editor of the Weekly Standard. It is Fred Barnes, not Frank Barnes. We regret the error.