Arizona abortion ruling creates new dangers for Republicans

April 11, 2024

An Arizona Supreme Court decision imposing a near-total abortion ban is likely to have a massive impact on the politics of the state and shows there’s no safe position for Republicans to take on abortion.  

One day after former President Trump sought to neutralize the issue by saying abortion should be decided by states in the wake of Roe v. Wade’s reversal, the resurrection of an 1864 law in Arizona that will ban almost all abortions showed that position could boomerang politically on the ex-president and his party.

Vulnerable House Republicans and Trump-aligned Senate hopeful Kari Lake all sought to distance themselves from the surprise Arizona ruling.

“I don’t think there’s a single Republican candidate in Arizona that was prepared for the fallout of this particular decision,” said Stan Barnes, a Republican consultant who previously served in Arizona’s state Senate.  

“It is easy for an elected official to happy-talk themselves, and to not be grounded in reality about it … [so] Republican candidates are on their heels trying to figure out, what’s my way to talk to voters in the general election about this topic? And will voters believe me?” Barnes added. 

The Arizona court, which is composed entirely of Republican-appointed justices, ruled 4-2 on Tuesday that an 1864 law making it a felony to perform an abortion or help someone obtain one supersedes a 15-week ban state legislators passed in 2022. That law was first passed before Arizona was even a state.  

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) called for the ban to be repealed, and the state’s Democratic attorney general has said she will not enforce any attempts to prosecute doctors or women under the Civil War-era law. 

Trump was instrumental in ending Roe v. Wade. He appointed three of the judges who sat in the majority for the Dobbs decision, and he has repeatedly taken credit for striking Roe down.

Yet ever since the Supreme Court decision, it is Democrats who have been on offense over the issue. Polls show a majority of voters oppose abortion bans, and Republicans have suffered a series of losses at the ballot box that have been blamed on abortion.

The party has struggled to find a winning message. When Trump on Monday said he would oppose a ban on abortions after 15 or 16 weeks, he was criticized by some allies and his former vice president for not taking a tough enough stance.

“Republicans need to figure out a way to align their policy with where the majority of the electorate is. And they have not done this,” said Max Fose, an Arizona GOP consultant and longtime campaign worker for the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). 

In Arizona, which has been trending toward Democrats in recent elections, Republicans had hoped for a turnaround in 2024. The Supreme Court’s actions are now leading some to reassess.

“I think this has potential to be a generational shift for politics in Arizona,” Fose said. “We have a Democratic governor, Democrat attorney general — this could just reinforce the trend … and it might just throw a ton of fuel on it.” 

The end of Roe allowed states under Republican control to impose abortion bans or severe limitations, a long-sought goal for many GOP anti-abortion lawmakers.

Abortion access now is a state-by-state patchwork of laws; it’s almost completely banned in 16 states and is restricted by gestational age in three more.  

But Republicans have paid a high political price for those laws. Abortion has galvanized Democrats, and reproductive freedom of choice has been a winning message for candidates and state constitutional amendments in red states and blue states alike.

“The Republican position has been that [Roe] was a bad Supreme Court decision. We want it unwound ,and we want the states to have control of this issue. And all that has come to pass, and it is politically devastating for Republicans who have wanted it for decades,” said Barnes, who called it a “poetic irony.”  

Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R-Ariz.), who represents a district Biden won in 2020, said in a statement on the social platform X that the 15-week ban “protected the rights of women and new life” but that the 1864 law is “archaic.”  

Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), who also represents a Biden district and whose seat is being targeted by Democrats, said on X that abortion “should be decided by Arizonans, not legislated from the bench.” 

He urged the state Legislature to “address this issue immediately.” 

Before Roe was overturned, Schweikert was co-sponsor of the Life at Conception Act, which was introduced multiple times and would have amounted to a federal abortion ban.  

Trump on Wednesday tried to temper his seeming endorsement for letting states decide, telling reporters after landing in Georgia for a fundraiser that the Arizona ruling went too far and would “definitely” change. 

“That will be straightened out. And as you know, it’s all about states’ rights. That will be straightened out. And I’m sure that the governor and everybody else are going to bring it back into reason, and that will be taken care of, I think, very quickly,” Trump said.

But Democrats aren’t going to let Republicans off the hook, in Arizona or elsewhere.  

They are trying to harness the anger over GOP-led abortion bans to boost turnout at the local and national level.   

“Republicans are trying to contort themselves away from what they said, six months ago, 12 months ago, 18 months ago,” said Arizona Democratic strategist Stacy Pearson. “I think Republicans are spitting out some sort of AI-generated text that makes them sound more moderate, and it’s not going to fly.” 

Abortion rights groups are scrambling to put constitutional amendments on as many state ballots as possible this year, and many are trying to make clear that state abortion restrictions are a national issue. 

In Arizona, groups working to enshrine abortion protections up to the point of viability in the state’s constitution said they have collected enough signatures to put the amendment on the ballot in November.  

“The folks at the top of the ticket — and folks down ticket, too — need to not stray about their record supporting women’s rights and how important this is to real people in our real communities,” Pearson said.