GOP Candidates Strip Abortion and Trump Connections From Their Campaign Websites




  • In Politics
  • 2022-09-28 08:57:21Z
  • By The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast  

Right after Bo Hines won a crowded primary for Congress in North Carolina, a visitor to the Republican hopeful's campaign website would immediately find his declaration that he was "100 percent Pro-Life" and "100 percent Pro-Trump."

Just a click away was a section focused on "life and family" issues, which professed Hines' position that "life begins at conception" and his commitment to "protect the rights of the unborn."

Naturally, the first thing greeting any visitor to the site was the grinning face of Donald Trump-and his endorsement of Hines' campaign.

Today, all of that is gone.

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As Hines faces stiff competition from a Democratic rival in a swing suburban district, all but one of the images and invocations of Trump previously on his site have been removed, as have all references to abortion. Trump only appears in a photoshopped image with Hines in his site's section on border security.

The 27-year-old conservative would hardly be the first candidate, of either party, to adjust their brand post-primary in hopes of winning over independent-minded voters in the general election.

But the so-called tactic of "pivoting to the general" is being pushed to its limits for Republicans running in 2022. Trump remains as popular as ever among the GOP base and is as unpopular as ever outside of it. The Supreme Court's move in June to overturn abortion rights is a dream come true in the GOP base-but a nightmare to many more outside it.

Stuck between their past posturing and their current campaigning, a growing cohort of Republican candidates have turned to a simple solution for reconciling it all: just delete it.

According to a review of archived internet pages by The Daily Beast, at least five House GOP candidates in battleground districts wiped mentions of Trump or the 2020 election from their websites or social media after winning their primaries. And at least seven removed or significantly modified language about abortion on their web sites over the summer.

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Among GOP hopefuls for Senate, at least three have scrubbed their online pages of Trump or 2020: Blake Masters of Arizona, Mehmet Oz of Pennsylvania, and Tiffany Smiley of Washington. And at least two did the same for abortion: Masters and Adam Laxalt of Nevada.

Generally, it's uncommon to see candidates significantly change their platforms and branding during the course of a campaign. In responses to inquiries from The Daily Beast, and other news outlets in previously reported stories, a handful of Republicans offered explanations for their disappearing pro-Trump or anti-abortion rights content.

Some claimed they simply redesigned their websites or reshuffled the content to a different, usually more obscure, place. Other campaigns openly copped to removing anti-abortion rights content, but framed it as a move to focus their messaging on the issues they say matter more to general election voters.

Most of the GOP campaigns, however, blamed Democrats and the media for allegedly not focusing on issues like the economy, or attacked them for not focusing on Democrats' own positions about abortion.

Ken Spain, a Republican strategist, warned that erasing previous positions or aspects of a candidate's biography is "kind of silly at this stage" and is akin to "writing ads for the opposition."

"Unfortunately for all candidates, the Internet lives forever," Spain said. "At this point, it's too late to run away from who you are."

While GOP candidates have always attempted to appeal to the right and then tack to the center, Spain said the "chasm has become so wide that it's becoming incredibly difficult to pull off."

That difficulty could have major implications for control of Congress. Operatives like Spain say these campaign website scrubs contribute to bad news cycles for candidates and "end up becoming part of the story," he said.

In key districts-like Hines' in North Carolina-the margins will be so narrow that bad news cycles could have real impact. Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics at Catawba College outside Charlotte, said time would tell if voters buy the "delicate balancing act" Hines is attempting to pull off.

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Hines' website overhaul reveals a candidate "making a strategic decision to say, 'I need to be much more in the middle lane,'" Bitzer said. "In a district like the 13th, you can't just play to one party base." (Hines' campaign didn't respond to a request for comment.)

Although Democrats certainly have to deal with their own baggage in this midterm election, few candidates have been compelled to erase or overhaul sections of their websites to respond to political vulnerabilities on key issues.

There are a few examples of Democrats scrubbing their campaign websites for certain stances-typically on crime-related topics, which the GOP has turned into an election-year issue. Hillary Scholten, a Democrat running for Congress in Michigan, displayed a section on criminal justice reform on her website during her 2020 run, for instance. Running again for the same seat in 2022, that section is now gone, according to the Daily Caller.

But in 2022, Republican candidates have subjected their platforms to far more dramatic makeovers in the span of weeks and months, not years.

When it comes to their posture toward Trump and his conspiracy of a stolen election, GOP candidates' website changes have largely come after courting Trump-loving primary voters.

Chris West, for instance, campaigned in a contested primary for a southwest Georgia congressional seat as an "Air Force Officer, Job Creator, America First Fighter" who prominently displayed a photo of him grinning and giving a thumbs-up with Trump.

Now that he faces Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop, West removed that photo of Trump from his website, and rebranded himself as an "Air Force Officer, Job Creator, Fighter For Middle and Southwest Georgia Families." (West's campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the change.)

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To win their primaries, many Republican candidates have usually been forced to pay lip service to the idea of "election integrity"-either outright questioning the outcome of the 2020 election themselves or alluding to public concerns about it in order to send the right signal to the party base.

Understanding that issue to be toxic, or at least a nonstarter, with much of the general public, several GOP candidates have deemphasized it or erased it from their websites.

In August, CNN reported that Masters, the GOP nominee to take on Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), had removed language from his website declaring that the 2020 election was stolen.

Tiffany Smiley, who Republicans hope will mount a serious challenge to Sen. Patty Murray in typically blue Washington state, had "election integrity" prominently displayed on her agenda page during the primary before removing that language afterward, HuffPost reported.

Smiley's website does now allude to the issue, but the content is only reachable by clicking a "learn more" link at the bottom of her revamped agenda page. Now, Smiley professes support for "ensuring efforts to increase voter participation do not undermine confidence in our elections."

It's a far more modest message than Smiley's initial platform statement that "the 2020 elections raised serious questions about the integrity of our elections and caused millions of Americans to question their confidence in our electoral process."

If Trump had faded from public life after leaving office, such scrubs might have been successful, said Julia Azari, a political science professor at Marquette University. "But he hasn't and in that sense, it feels much more like 2018 than it really should," she said, referencing the wave election year in which Democrats rode anti-Trump sentiment to a House majority.

While Republicans may have anticipated pivoting away from Trump and 2020 after their primaries, the Supreme Court's decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade immediately put their candidates on the defensive nationwide.

It's Time for Republicans to Go Nuclear and Dump Trump

Previously, it cost Republicans very little to proclaim their opposition to abortion. But now that new abortion restrictions pushed by the party could become law-and are widely unpopular with voters-candidates in competitive races have resorted to tweaking or otherwise removing their past unequivocal opposition to abortion access.

JR Majewski, for instance, put "protecting innocent life" as his top issue as he campaigned in the GOP primary in a newly redrawn northwest Ohio district.

"The American people must defend innocent life and upholding the Judeo-Christian values of our founding," Majewski said on his website. "I will support all legislation that protects life in the womb. I believe in life at conception, and I believe our laws should protect all living souls, including those who are the most vulnerable."

Now, that language is gone-as is Majewski's entire platform section on abortion. He faces longtime Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), but his campaign suffered a major blow after the Associated Press reported that he exaggerated his military service record. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

In suburban Chicago, Catalina Lauf-who previously mounted a MAGA-tinged challenge to Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) before redistricting put her in a purple seat-ran in a primary as a "pro-life conservative," according to her website. "I will continue as a vocal opponent of the Left's radical position in support of late-term abortion, partial-birth abortion, and infanticide," she said.

In Defense of Late-Term Abortions

Now, as she garners establishment support to take on Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), that language has disappeared. Lauf's campaign also did not respond to a request for comment.

To Democrats, the signal sent by this spate of website edits is clear.

"MAGA Republicans have made their extreme positions clear-there is no going back just because they have all of a sudden realized that they are out-of-touch with voters," said Tommy Garcia, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Voters know exactly who these cowardly candidates are."

Republican campaign organizations have argued that abortion will not be a decisive issue for voters, or if it is, it will hurt Democrats.

When asked about Republicans' platform changes, Chris Hartline, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, responded by noting that all Senate Democratic candidates have backed legislation to ensure there are virtually no limits on abortion access.

"Democrats are outside the mainstream on this issue," Hartline said. "Republican candidates will keep talking about the issues that matter to voters."

There is a broader fundamental problem for Republicans, however, that is belied by the website edits. Trump's continued dominance in the party, and the unprecedented scrutiny on their abortion positions after the Dobbs decision, has changed the dynamics of the 2022 midterm, said Spain, the GOP strategist.

"This election was tailor-made to be a referendum on Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress," Spain said. "To date, this has become an election about competing political narratives. And that leaves opportunity on the table for Republicans."

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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