WASHINGTON — Republicans have perfected the art of keeping the heat on Democrats on the searing social issues of the day, but this election year, it seems to be Republicans who are getting scorched.
During a midterm cycle that seemed tailor-made for significant Republican gains in the House and Senate, Democrats have managed to grab the advantage on abortion rights and same-sex marriage, steering the conversation away from topics that are thornier for them, such as inflation and crime.
They have had substantial help from Republican miscues, confounding Democrats who typically expect more craftiness from across the aisle.
“They can’t seem to get out of their own way,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, one of the Democratic incumbents on the ballot in November.
One reason for their struggles is that a large swath of the Republican base has fallen out of step with broader public opinion on these issues. Most Americans favor same-sex marriage rights and at least some abortion rights, but many Republican voters continue to oppose same-sex marriage and want strict abortion limits if not an outright ban. The disconnect makes navigating those topics treacherous for Republicans, who are faced with the choice of turning off their core supporters or alienating the independents whose support they need to prevail in November.
The trouble shows.
On Thursday, Democrats announced they would postpone until after the election a vote to protect same-sex marriages because its backers had failed to secure enough Republican support to overcome a G.O.P. filibuster.
It was an intriguing decision by Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader, who is not usually inclined to pass up an opportunity to inflict political pain on the opposition. But he acquiesced to a request from bipartisan backers of the legislation for more time — and a less charged environment.
While it spared Republicans what was looking like a difficult moment, damage had already been done.
The threatened filibuster made it clear that some Republicans weren’t comfortable voting in favor of same-sex marriage before the midterm election, and others didn’t want to go on record against it at an inopportune time. Either way, Republicans looked shaky on an issue that most Americans consider to be long resolved.
The Republican posture in the Senate was sufficient to prompt hundreds of prominent Republicans, including Senate candidates in Pennsylvania and Colorado, to sign a letter calling for passage of the same-sex marriage legislation to “reaffirm that marriage for gay and lesbian couples is settled law.”
The State of the 2022 Midterm Elections
With the primaries over, both parties are shifting their focus to the general election on Nov. 8.
- Midterm Data: Could the 2020 polling miss repeat itself? Will this election cycle really be different? Nate Cohn, The Times’s chief political analyst, looks at the data in his new newsletter.
- Republicans’ Abortion Struggles: Senator Lindsey Graham’s proposed nationwide 15-week abortion ban was intended to unite the G.O.P. before the November elections. But it has only exposed the party’s divisions.
- Democrats’ Dilemma: The party’s candidates have been trying to signal their independence from the White House, while not distancing themselves from President Biden’s base or agenda.
On abortion, Republicans knew that the Supreme Court ruling striking down Roe v. Wade would complicate their push to reclaim Congress, and they sought to quickly rid themselves of the problem. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said a G.O.P.-controlled Congress could pursue a nationwide abortion ban, but Republicans soft-pedaled that idea and instead chose to emphasize that the ruling returned the question of abortion rights to each state, where they said it belonged. Case closed.
Enter Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who surprised his colleagues on Tuesday by rolling out his plan, backed by anti-abortion groups, to enact a nationwide ban on abortions after 15 weeks, which would impose federal restrictions on blue and purple states that have not joined the post-Roe race to enact strict new limits on the procedure.
To cringes from many of his Republican colleagues, Mr. Graham declared that the coming election was essentially a referendum on abortion — and that if his party won control of Congress, it would, in fact, consider a ban.
Despite their determination to shift the issue away from the Capitol, Senate Republicans — and their midterm candidates — suddenly found themselves forced to answer whether they backed such a prohibition, potentially driving off suburban women who will be crucial to the election outcome. Again, some Republican lawmakers and candidates sought to distance themselves from the proposal.
Privately, many of Mr. Graham’s colleagues wanted to throttle him. Others were more diplomatic.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “I don’t know what his motivation was.”
Democrats could not believe their good fortune. On the day new inflation numbers were driving down the stock market, Mr. Graham had turned the conversation back to a topic that has so far proved advantageous for Democrats in the aftermath of the court ruling, which Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, said had already shocked much of the nation.
“Republicans, having succeeded in putting in a conservative majority to overturn Roe v. Wade, are proposing to go even farther,” Mr. Coons said of the Graham legislation.
Mr. Graham insists he will be proved right in the end.
“I think that my position is reasonable and logical and over time, I feel good about it winning the day,” he said. “When the dust settles, this will all make sense.”
Until then, Democrats are gleefully running ads portraying Republicans as reactionaries.
Republicans were also in danger of running afoul of public opinion on another volatile social issue — immigration — after Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida sent air charters of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, the island retreat in the blue state of Massachusetts. The stunt was aimed at highlighting the uneven impact of federal border policies, and had many Republicans celebrating having steered the campaign conversation to the dysfunctional immigration system.
But it also risked spurring a backlash. While polls show that most Republicans draw a hard line on immigration, they also find that the majority of Americans regard immigration as a positive and are particularly sympathetic to refugees, suggesting that the G.O.P. stunt — which stranded vulnerable people in a place unprepared for their arrival — could also prompt outrage among voters who regard it as cruel.
Republicans concede they could do without the turmoil surrounding the abortion rights and same-sex marriage battles, but contend that the focus on those issues is mainly a Washington preoccupation.
“Could we do without the distractions?” asked Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota. “Perhaps. But I think the voters are still focused on the main things.”
“At the end of the day, I think it is still the economy, stupid,” he added, quoting the famous line from Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign. “Everybody is still paying too much for groceries and other things, and that’s what the election is going to be about.”
Republicans are also trying to regain the upper hand on abortion, portraying Democrats as extremists who don’t support any restrictions at all, a position that is also at odds with those of many Americans.
“The Democrat position used to be Roe v. Wade,” said Mr. Cornyn. “Now it is abortion without limitations up to the time of delivery. It is just shocking to me. Most people’s views on this are more nuanced. They may be pro-choice but would say there is a limit.”
Democrats have not explicitly proposed such a sweeping policy, but they have put forward legislation that would protect abortion access nationwide by prohibiting a long list of abortion restrictions, including some enacted after Roe was decided in 1973. It failed in May when Senate Republicans, joined by one Democrat, blocked it.
Mr. Cornyn joined the Republican chorus in saying that the economy, border security and rising crime would remain the decisive topics in the election, even as he conceded that Democrats had been successful in stoking voter enthusiasm on the social issues.
“Inflation is not going away, the Fed is going to raise interest rates more,” Mr. Cornyn said. “People are still going to be grumpy.”
Democrats, more accustomed to being on the losing end of the culture clash, say Republicans are misreading where the public stands on such issues and will pay a price for it.
“Republicans are just way out of the American mainstream,” said Mr. Blumenthal. “On a woman’s right to make a personal decision, individual women may make very different decisions. But the vast majority think they ought to be trusted to make those decisions — not some government official.”