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Pro-lifers think they can save the GOP

Social conservatives fear being blamed for Republican election losses, but believe the party should play offense, not defense, on the abortion issue.
Anti-abortion demonstrators bow their heads in prayer on the National Mall in Washington, Jan. 22, 2014, during the annual March for Life.
Anti-abortion demonstrators bow their heads in prayer on the National Mall in Washington, Jan. 22, 2014, during the annual March for Life.

A supportive tweet from Pope Francis warmed the anti-abortion activists who braved a winter storm to protest the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade in Washington on Wednesday, but the march comes at a mixed moment for social conservatives.

On the one hand, Democratic politicians, who are now almost uniformly pro-choice, have successfully used abortion rights as a wedge issue in races around the country. Republican Senate candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock blew winnable races in 2012 mainly because their opposition to a rape exception enabled opponents to paint them as extreme.

But while Democrats managed to dominate the last two presidential elections, Republicans’ success pushing conservative voters to the polls in 2010 helped create a mass takeover of state legislatures. As a result, states are passing anti-abortion measures at a breakneck pace. According to the Guttmacher Institute, states have enacted more laws aimed at restricting access to abortion in the last two years than they did in the entire previous decade.

“It's incredible to see what's happening primarily in the states,” Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, told msnbc. “It hasn't shown up here in Washington, but I believe in time it will."

National Republican leaders, despite their uneasiness with the Akins of the world, still see abortion as an important part of their platform moving forward. The Republican National Committee, which put its winter meeting on hold so members could attend the march, will consider a resolution this week calling on the GOP “to reject a strategy of silence on the abortion issue when candidates are attacked with 'war on women' rhetoric.”

"It's a core issue that’s part of our DNA,” said Chad Connelly, director of faith engagement for the RNC. “It's 15 degrees here and you're seeing people stand up for something they believe in."

But part of the reason such resolutions are popping up is to reassure religious conservatives who fear they’ll be scapegoated and sidelined if the party keeps blowing national elections.

Rick Santorum, one of the party’s most prominent social conservatives, told reporters at the rally that he had no doubt the party would remain pro-life indefinitely. That doesn’t mean he’s happy with the GOP’s approach, though: he’s concerned that candidates too often treat pro-life causes as boxes to be quietly checked to appease activists rather than a winning issue they could use on offense in ads and speeches.

“Unless we go out there and are not afraid to stand by the platform we have and talk about the issues and how extreme the other side is and have them play defense instead of us defending our record, then we're in for a very tough time,” he said.

Santorum added, “It’s one of the reasons we're not in the majority.”

He pointed to a state senate race in Virginia this week that gave Democrats control of the chamber as an example. The Democrat, Jennifer Wexton, made social issues a top issue while her pro-life Republican opponent, John Whitbeck, complained they were a distraction from economic issues. To Santorum it’s proof that social conservatives are better off loud and proud.

But Virginia’s gubernatorial election in November also looms large over the debate for the national party. Republicans are still trying to figure out just how rising star Ken Cuccinelli lost to Terry McAuliffe, who was considered an extremely vulnerable candidate when the race began. McAuliffe attacked Cuccinelli hard on abortion, gay rights, and birth control en route to his victory. To many moderate Republicans, the race showed that Cuccinelli had moved too far to the right. Conservatives, on the other hand, blame national Republicans for failing to properly fund Cuccinelli in the final stretch.

Dobson acknowledged that the GOP has differing views on how to move forward, but “they can’t win without us.”

“Some members of the GOP who’d like to go without conservatives would be making a huge mistake,” he said.