Kari Lake campaigned for governor of Arizona last year as a fierce ally of former President Donald J. Trump who was in lock step with her party’s right-wing base, calling abortion the “ultimate sin” and supporting the state’s Civil War-era restrictions on the procedure.
This week, she made a remarkable shift on the issue as she opened her bid for the U.S. Senate: She declared her opposition to a federal ban.
“Republicans allowed Democrats to define them on abortion,” Ms. Lake said in a statement to The New York Times about her break from the policy prescription favored by many anti-abortion groups and most of her party’s presidential contenders. She added that she supported additional resources for pregnant women, and that “just like President Trump, I believe this issue of abortion should be left to the states.”
The maneuvering by Ms. Lake, along with similar adjustments by Republican Senate candidates in Pennsylvania and Michigan, is part of a broader strategic effort in her party to recalibrate on an issue that has become a political albatross in battleground states and beyond.
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, eliminating federal protections for abortion rights and handing Republicans one of their most significant policy victories in a generation, voters have turned out repeatedly to support abortion rights, even in red states.
The campaign arm for Senate Republicans, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is now coaching candidates to take the same tack as Ms. Lake — that is, clearly state their opposition to a national abortion ban, according to people familiar with the new strategy.
The group has also urged candidates to state their support for “reasonable limits” on late-term abortions with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, the people said. Rather than trying to avoid the topic, like many candidates did last year, it is advising Republicans to go on offense.
Senate Republicans were briefed last month on detailed research commissioned by One Nation, a nonprofit group aligned with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, showing that many Americans equated the term “pro-life” — traditionally used by Republicans — with support for a total ban on abortion without any exceptions.
The research also showed that while voters opposed the idea of a total ban, there was wider support for restrictions after 12 to 15 weeks of pregnancy, particularly with exceptions for rape, incest and the life or health of the mother.
The nonprofit has suggested that Republicans communicate their views on abortion with empathy and compassion. Steven Law, who is the president of One Nation, is also the president of the Senate Leadership Fund, which has spent more than $1 billion on federal campaigns since 2016.
Whether or not Republican candidates for Congress — and the White House — can persuade voters that they have become more moderate on abortion promises to be one of the central questions of the 2024 elections.
“Voters have repeatedly rejected Republican politicians for supporting dangerous policies that deny a woman’s right to access abortion,” Sarah Guggenheimer, the spokesperson for the Senate Majority political action committee dedicated to electing Democratic candidates. “This cynical effort by Mitch McConnell and Republican candidates to mask their positions won’t change that.”
The already challenging rebranding effort also carries significant risks, none more so than alienating anti-abortion activists in the party.
Since the fall of Roe v. Wade and the nationwide rollback of abortion rights, the party’s base of anti-abortion voters, which include mostly evangelical Christians, has had heightened expectations that Republican politicians will push to implement the strict anti-abortion policies they have spent decades promising.
Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students For Life of America, an anti-abortion organization with more than 1,000 groups on campuses across the country, said equivocating on abortion would be viewed as a betrayal by these voters.
To counter the shifting views among some Republican candidates, Ms. Hawkins’s group has distributed a nine-page memo to members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The memo, which was previously unreported, urged the members to continue their support for strict measures but also encouraged them to be personal, caring and specific in their opposition to abortion rights.
Ms. Hawkins said that only “squishy Republicans” would back away from a federal ban, as Ms. Lake has, by insisting that abortion was now an issue that should be decided by states.
The Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe, known as Dobbs v. Jackson, provided an opportunity to debate the issue on all levels of government, she said.
“They obviously didn’t read the Dobbs decision very well,” Ms. Hawkins said in an interview. “It doesn’t say abortion is only a state issue — it says this issue can be acted upon at the federal, state and local levels.”
Still, Mr. Trump has made an apparent political calculus, insisting that hard-line positions on abortion cost the party a red wave of victories last year, and that it must avoid similar mistakes in 2024.
Blaming abortion allows Mr. Trump to sidestep the sense among many Republicans that it was in large part his elevation of candidates who embraced his lies about the 2020 presidential election — which ultimately proved unpopular to general election voters in key states — that cost the party control of the Senate and delivered just a razor-thin House majority. He also ignores his own role in appointing three of the five Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe. But there is ample evidence that the abortion issue mattered.
Mr. Trump has refused to take an explicit position on whether he would support a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks, the baseline position of many Republicans as well as Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a leading anti-abortion group. Last month, he criticized Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a presidential rival, for signing a six-week abortion ban into law.
Republican candidates in competitive states appear to be increasingly siding with the former president, even as the shifts represent a clear break from his base of evangelical voters who care deeply about the issue.
In Michigan, former Representative Mike Rogers’s platform for his Senate campaign includes opposition to a national abortion ban, even though he voted as a House member in 2012 and 2013 to enact federal abortion restrictions. In 2010, he said he supported exceptions “only to prevent the death of the mother.”
But Michigan voters adopted a measure last year to enshrine abortion rights in the State Constitution. At a campaign stop last month, Mr. Rogers promised not to support national proposals to restrict abortion that were “inconsistent with Michigan’s law.”
“Will I go to Washington, D.C., and try to undo what the citizens of Michigan voted for?” Mr. Rogers said last month in DeWitt, Mich., according to The Detroit News. “I will not.”
In Pennsylvania, David McCormick began his second Senate bid last month and announced on the same day that he did not want a national ban.
In his campaign for Senate last year, Mr. McCormick gave multiple responses to questions about abortion exceptions. At a Republican primary debate in April 2022, he said that “in very rare instances, there should be exceptions for the life of the mother.” At other events, he suggested that rape and incest should be included as exceptions.
This year, he has backed all three exceptions. In a Fox News interview last month, he said that he was opposed to a national ban.
“This is also an issue where I think we have to show a lot of compassion and look for common ground,” Mr. McCormick told Fox News. “We should have contraception and we have reasonable limits on late-term abortion, and that is a compassionate position and a consensus position — and that’s the position I support.”
Mr. McCormick has collected endorsements from Republicans across the state, and no other serious challengers for the party’s nomination have emerged.
Ms. Lake spent several minutes talking about abortion during her first speech as a Senate candidate in Arizona last week, which she acknowledged was rare for a Republican to bring up. She described her position broadly, saying she wanted to “save babies and help women.”
“The Republican Party is going to put their money where their mouth is,” Ms. Lake said to the cheering crowd. “We are going to give them real choices so they can make better choices and not live with that regret.”
Still, Ms. Lake didn’t mention her opposition to a national ban to the crowd, even though it is laid out on her campaign website.
“Kari Lake has repeatedly said she is a pro-life candidate,” said Cathi Herrod, the president of the Center for Arizona Policy, a nonprofit group that promotes anti-abortion policies. “I think the advice to oppose a federal ban is misguided.”