And the campaign of Blake Masters, Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Arizona, has removed from his campaign website references to strict antiabortion positions he once championed, along with references to false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
At least nine Republican congressional candidates have scrubbed or amended references to Trump or abortion from their online profiles in recent months, distancing themselves from divisive subjects that some GOP strategists say are two of the biggest liabilities for the party ahead of the post-Labor Day sprint to Election Day.
“The Dobbs decision has clearly energized Democratic voters to the point where they have closed the enthusiasm gap with Republicans,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime GOP pollster, referencing the Supreme Court ruling that ended the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. Asked whether it hurts the GOP to have Trump back in the news, Ayres replied, “The best case for Republican candidates in the midterms is making the upcoming election a referendum on the Biden administration.”
He added: “Anything that distracts from that focus weakens the Republican position.”
Tracking back to the political middle after a primary is common practice long used by candidates of both parties. But the attempts by Republicans in competitive contests to pivot away from abortion and Trump have emboldened Democrats to mount an aggressive offense on those issues, which they see as key to their efforts to outperform once-dim expectations in congressional races.
A Pew Research Center survey earlier this summer found 57 percent of Americans disapproved of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, while a Washington Post-Schar School poll found 65 percent said the court’s decision represents a major loss of rights for women in America. Some states do not allow abortion when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest; a Washington Post-ABC News poll this spring found 79 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal in such cases, a consistent finding in polls for more than three decades.
Both President Biden and Trump, who has received renewed attention recently after the FBI searched his Mar-a-Lago estate, are unpopular, making them targets for the opposing party in the midterms. Trump’s favorability rating was just 38 percent and Biden’s was just 43 percent, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
But during the primaries, Trump was a big draw, as he remains popular among many Republicans. Many Republicans ran as candidates aligned with him, a dynamic that has caused some discomfort as the pivot to the general election started.
Vega, who is trying to unseat Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) in one of the key seats Republicans hope to flip to win back control of the House, used to say in her Twitter bio that she was a “Pres. Trump appointee,” a reference to her appointment in December 2020 to the President’s Advisory Commission on Hispanic Prosperity. Several weeks ago, after Vega secured the GOP nomination, it disappeared.
Asked about the change, Vega’s campaign consultant Sean Brown ignored the question and responded with an apparent reference to Biden’s recent announcement that he would cancel a portion of student loan debt held by many Americans. “Safe to say the story of Democrat candidates refusing to say whether they support Biden’s blatantly political tuition giveaway next?” Brown wrote.
Kirkmeyer is running in a new open seat in the northern Denver suburbs after the Colorado delegation gained an additional seat because of the state’s population growth in the 2020 Census. She once included in a section called “The Conservative Fighter” that she would “Defend the Sanctity of Life.” Now, a similarly positioned section at the top of the page is called “Colorado’s Choice.” It does not mention abortion.
“Our campaign recently completed a complete redesign of Barb’s website. Instead of addressing many issues (abortion among them), we are focused on the three issues in which voters express the most interest,” said Alan Philp, a campaign consultant. The page now references spending and inflation, energy, and crime as those top issues.
Both Democrats running against Vega and Kirkmeyer have attacked them over abortion. Spanberger recently released an ad hitting Vega for comments she made suggesting inaccurately that pregnancy may not result from rape.
Some Republican strategists cautioned against getting into debates over abortion with Democrats. Such strategies will only turn the midterms into contests favorable to the opposition, they said.
“The more Republicans are explaining their position on the Supreme Court ruling, the more they are playing in the field of battle that the Democrats want,” said John Brabender, a veteran GOP communications consultant. “I do think we’re letting the Democrats frame the issue, and candidates are falling into that trap in too many of our races.”
National Democrats have been quick to try to capitalize on these apparent attempts by Republicans to suppress their less popular stances. David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement: “Republican Senate candidates won’t be able to run away from their records. The truth is they’ve made their positions clear, and in many cases we have them on video tape.”
Helen Kalla, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, issued a statement Tuesday saying, “It doesn’t matter how fast Republicans run to erase their toxic, unpopular, and dangerous positions — Democrats will make sure voters know exactly the threat that Republicans pose to our freedoms.”
Spokesmen for the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
The campaign of Masters, who is running against Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) in a race seen as central to the fight for the Senate majority, has scrubbed hard-line abortion positions from his campaign website, including his support for a federal “personhood law.” A section on abortion now opens by assailing Kelly’s position rather than calling Masters “100% pro-life.” It now calls specifically for a national ban on third-trimester abortions, an alteration first reported by NBC News. During the primary, he suggested support for a much stricter ban in public comments.
Zachery Henry, a spokesman for the Masters campaign, said the website “was updated post-primary to draw a sharp contrast with Mark Kelly’s radical left-wing views on a number of issues, including Kelly’s support for extreme no-limits abortion policies.”
Kelly voted for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have codified Roe v Wade — ensuring access to abortion up to the point of fetal viability and after that point when a health-care provider believes a pregnancy would jeopardize someone’s life or health. “If Blake Masters thinks that he can quietly delete passages from his website and disguise just how out of touch and dangerous his abortion stance is, he’s in for a rude awakening,” said Sarah Guggenheimer, a spokesperson for Kelly’s campaign, in a statement.
Masters’s website also used to say that “if we had had a free and fair election, President Trump would be sitting in the Oval Office today.” By Aug. 25, that line was gone from a section about “election integrity,” a change first reported by CNN.
Shortly after winning Pennsylvania’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in May, with the help of a Trump endorsement, Mehmet Oz removed many references to the former president from his website and social media. Trump is still listed on the page under Oz’s endorsements and the two are scheduled to campaign together later this week.
“I think you’re seeing some first-time candidates who realized maybe they weren’t very prudent during their primaries and now are trying to correct for that. They played the part in the primary, got the Trump endorsement, made calculations to win the primary that aren’t so great in the general,” said a former Trump campaign official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about GOP candidates.
Asked if Trump’s enhanced presence hurts Republicans, the former official responded, “Yes.”
Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich defended the former president, saying in a statement that Trump “is invested in seeing his endorsed candidates win.” He added that through endorsements and rallies, “Trump is able to infuse campaigns with media attention, volunteers, and donors in a way that has never before been seen in American politics.”
Jim Bognet, running in a competitive U.S. House district in Pennsylvania against Democratic Rep. Matthew Cartwright, once plastered his campaign website with references to Trump. Sometime after the election, he removed all but two. Among the deleted passages is one that said, “In 2020, I ran for Congress to fight against the Democrats’ witch hunt to remove President Trump from office. In that election, we saw Democrats break every rule they could to rig that election.”
Bognet’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment but told HuffPost, which first reported on the changes, that the campaign’s “entire website was rebuilt and redesigned.”
Other Republican candidates have tried to soften their language around abortion. Michigan state Sen. Tom Barrett (R), who is trying to unseat Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, had said on his website he would “protect life from conception.” He replaced it with a section called “Life” that calls him “a consistent pro-life state legislator” and then focuses on Slotkin’s abortion positions, as the Detroit News first reported.
“The website is regularly updated and these revisions bring into focus Elissa Slotkin’s extreme record on abortion, favoring abortion in nearly all circumstances. She has a 100% voting record on expanding abortion as measured by pro-choice groups. She does not, however, list these extreme positions on her website,” a Barrett campaign spokesperson said in an email.
Asked if Barrett had changed his position from what he had previously expressed on his website, the spokesman wrote back, “No.”
Bo Hines, a Republican running for an open seat in North Carolina, deleted from his website references to being “100% prolife” and “100 % pro-Trump” and a section called “life and family,” as first reported by the 19th, a news organization. Hines’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Brabender said Republicans risk looking insincere by hedging on the issue.
“The moment it seems you have no core values, [voters] start to question everything that you’re doing,” he said. “You have to be extremely careful in how you’re doing this.”
Hannah Knowles and Scott Clement contributed to this report.