POLITICS
10/31/2014 03:10 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2014

GOP Candidates Appear More 'Pro-Choice' Ahead Of Election

After losing badly among women voters in the 2012 elections, some Republican candidates seem to have undergone a "pro-choice" makeover.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who has previously said he opposes legal abortion even in cases of rape and incest, told voters earlier this month that an anti-abortion bill he signed "leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor."

New Hampshire GOP Senate candidate Scott Brown (R), who was endorsed by an anti-abortion group in 2012, now insists that he is "pro-choice."

Two GOP Senate candidates who previously supported fetal personhood measures, which would ban abortion without exceptions, have since been running from those measures. Joni Ernst in Iowa assured voters the personhood measure she supported wouldn't have actually done anything, and Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) claimed a federal amendment he cosponsored didn't exist. Multiple Republican candidates have also come out in support of over-the-counter birth control since August.

Planned Parenthood told reporters on Friday to be skeptical of the apparent change of heart.

"It's a little like the Red Sox rooting for the Yankees -- I'll believe it when I see it," said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the group's political arm.

"We're not a partisan organization," she said. "We're not for a party, we're for positions. Should any of [these GOP candidates] prevail next week, we're going to be trying to hold them to those positions. But I think based on their past records, there is very little evidence for why one should be hopeful."

But Republicans are aggressively trying to get the message across to women that they will not interfere with health decisions. PPAF pointed to research conducted by the progressive group America Votes that shows Republican candidates have spent about $32 million on ads this cycle that mention women’s health, abortion or women’s rights. That's "almost as much as all campaigns and outside groups spent on ads related to these issues in the whole 2012 cycle," PPAF wrote in a memo. America Votes said it based its analysis on data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

While Republicans have managed to narrow the gender gap compared to 2012, women still prefer Democrats by an average of 7 points this cycle, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. By comparison, in the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats lost women by 1 point overall.

And a recent CNN poll showed that 53 percent of women plan to vote for the Democratic candidate in their district, while 40 percent said they would vote for the Republican.

"In a world where women are subject to the same political headwinds as men, what would it be like if Democrats weren't talking about these issues?" said Geoff Garin, president of Hart Research Associates, a left-leaning political research firm. "In the CNN poll, for example, women are as likely to disapprove of Obama's performance as they are to approve, and yet they are still preferring a Democrat for Congress by a 13 point margin."

Garin said he wonders "whether Republican candidates for president will have the same ability to run away from their positions on these questions that candidates have in general election campaigns." Because presidential candidates have to go through the Republican nominating process, "there is still a demand for them to take very conservative positions on abortion and women's access to health care," he noted. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney drew criticism in 2012 when he tried to moderate his positions on abortion and birth control after sounding far more conservative in the primaries.

The takeaway for midterms, Laguens said, is that even if Republicans take control of the Senate on Tuesday, the election has already been a "win" for women's health and reproductive rights.

"It's becoming clearer and clearer that you cannot win if you're seen as an opponent of safe and legal abortion," she said.

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