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This Mike Pence tweet should be a wake-up call for Democrats

The Supreme Court's reversal of Roe has Democrats speaking out about abortion like never before.

President Joe Biden told attendees at a Democratic National Committee event last Wednesday that restoring abortion rights nationally would be at the top of his agenda in the new Congress — if Democrats retain control of both chambers, that is. Former Vice President Mike Pence tweeted in response that he’s “got news for President Biden”: Republicans will “have Pro-Life majorities in the House and Senate and we’ll be taking the cause of the right to Life to every state house in America!”

This back-and-forth highlighted one of the very few positive outcomes of the Supreme Court’s callous disregard for precedent and women’s rights in gutting Roe v. Wade this year: obliterating politicians’ cover to hide on the issue. That has given some the freedom to speak their minds about abortion more fully than ever before. It has left others open to tough questions that previously they would have preferred to avoid.

We’re seeing the sort of pronouncements from Democrats that years ago would more often have been limited to subtext.

Now we’re seeing the sort of pronouncements from Democrats that years ago would more often have been limited to subtext or couched in safe, halfhearted terms so as not to scare off “moderate” voters. And Republicans are torn between looking ahead to what’s next for the anti-abortion movement and reeling back some of the positions that seemed less feasible before Roe toppled in May.

For the GOP, eliminating Roe has been a goal almost since the decision was handed down — even as mainstream Republicans have sometimes bent over backward to pretend that wasn’t the case. Rather than target the constitutional protection Roe provided, the GOP’s previous strategy had been to chip away at the edges: narrow the window for legal abortions, prohibit doctors without admitting privileges at hospitals from performing the procedure and force the closures of clinics through absurd technicalities like mandatory hallway lengths.

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Meanwhile, most Democrats preferred to focus less on abortion itself than the possibility that a conservative Supreme Court might upend precedent. Now that their warnings have become a reality, Democrats are centering abortion in a way they’ve previously dodged. Biden’s promise to make codifying Roe his first priority in a Democrat-led 118th Congress is just the tip of the iceberg.

In political races around the country, Democrats have focused their advertising dollars on abortion. An Associated Press analysis of data from AdImpact, a nonpartisan research firm, estimated that by mid-September the party had sunk $124 million into ads referring to the issue. “That’s more than twice as much money as the Democrats’ next top issue this year, ‘character,’ and almost 20 times more than Democrats spent on abortion-related ads in the 2018 midterms,” the AP reported. NPR determined this month using AdImpact’s data that Democrats spent $73 million on TV ads about abortion in September alone.

Compare that enthusiasm for abortion as an issue to the discomfort the GOP is feeling. Instead of bragging about their victory over Roe, Republicans are divided but lack the cover to run their mouths that Roe gave them when it was the law of the land. Some, like Pence, want to put a ban on abortion — whether enacted federally or state by state — at the forefront of their politics. Others, like Senate nominee Blake Masters of Arizona, would rather hedge their bets in swing states and pretend they weren’t boldly calling for abortion bans without exceptions just a few months ago.

This election is the first time in my life that I can remember Democrats actually being on the offensive on abortion and Republicans on the back foot.

That isn’t to say Republicans are divided over abortion policy. House Republicans’ new “Commitment to America” lists a promise to “protect the lives of unborn children” as among the caucus’ top legislative priorities. House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., suggested that he’d support the kind of national ban Pence wants.

But the money being spent ahead of Election Day isn’t matching that energy. The AP’s analysis found that the majority of Republican ads featuring abortion aired during the primary campaign, when candidates dueled over who was the most anti-abortion. Since the Dobbs ruling, the data shows, the number of general election ads about the issue has dwindled every month. Those Republicans who have tried to force the issue have met with failure: Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., became a bipartisan punching bag when he introduced a bill to try to synthesize the GOP’s abortion positions into legislative language last month.

This election is the first time in my life that I can remember Democrats actually being on the offensive on abortion and Republicans on the back foot. The GOP, aware that abortion isn’t a winning issue it needs to reclaim a majority, would rather scare swing voters and rile up its base with other wedge issues, like crime and immigration. But whether control of Congress flips or not, the spotlight on abortion isn’t set to dim — and after years of being able to coast on promises, the GOP doesn’t seem to enjoy being so clearly exposed.