Mark Z. Barabak: On abortion, New Mexico Republican shows GOP strategy to neutralize problem – paint Democrats as extreme | Nation

Mark Ronchetti, a former TV weatherman, knows which way the wind is blowing.

In a new campaign ad, the Republican candidate for governor of New Mexico looks straight into the camera and speaks, in a voice of patience and reason, about his support for abortion in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. . This is a change from his previous position.

“I believe we can all agree on a policy that reflects our common values,” said Ronchetti, who is seen in the final images enjoying a pleasant stroll with his wife and two daughters. “We can end late-term abortion while protecting access to contraception and health care.”

The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade and making abortion illegal in much of the country introduced sudden uncertainty into November’s midterm elections, which once looked likely to end in a Republican romp.

It could still happen.

But Democrats hope the decision, capping a 50-year conservative crusade, will energize their base, destabilize independent voters and distract political attention from the burden of runaway inflation, high gas prices and doubts about the leadership of President Joe Biden.

Republicans, fearing the same thing, have found a way — exemplified by Ronchetti’s announcement this week — to try to take offense at abortion or, at least, make the issue a little less potent. The strategy is to reach common ground while portraying Democrats as extremists who support unrestricted abortion.

New Mexico was once a very competitive swing state. But over the past 20 years or so it has become a Democratic stronghold.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was elected in a landslide in 2018 and her party enjoys large majorities in the Roundhouse, as the Legislature is called – which meets in the nation’s only circular Capitol.

But in a sign of how much the political climate has deteriorated for Democrats, Grisham faces a significant reelection challenge from Ronchetti, a well-known face from his Albuquerque television days and a 2020 U.S. Senate bid.

Part of the difficulty is Grisham’s doing, following scandals involving her personal use of public funds and a sexual harassment settlement she paid to a former staffer. But much of his vulnerability stems from issues like crime, the economy and Biden’s streak on Democrats across the country.

Last month’s Supreme Court decision may have offered a lifeline of sorts.

New Mexico is one of the most permissive states in the country when it comes to abortion, allowing the procedure throughout pregnancy without restriction. Even before the overturning of Roe v. Wade was a magnet for patients who were denied treatment elsewhere.

This week, a group linked to the Democratic Governors Association released a TV spot citing Ronchetti’s support for the Supreme Court decision and noting the role governors will play in crafting abortion policies now that the matter was referred to the States for them to decide.

“Extremists who would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest have declared it their choice for New Mexico, making Ronchetti the wrong choice for governor,” a narrator said. .

The Republican quickly fired back with his own stance, backing down from his earlier stance — “Life must be protected at all stages,” Ronchetti once said — and suggesting that Grisham is the one with radical views.

“The governor supports abortion, right up to birth,” Ronchetti said. “It’s extreme.”

(Asked if the governor favored limits, a campaign spokeswoman responded with generalities about Grisham’s defense of abortion rights.)

Republicans running in other blue and purple states, where abortion rights are generally favored, will likely adopt strategies similar to the one adopted by Ronchetti.

That’s because repeated polls have shown that most voters are more ambivalent about abortion than the bigotry around the issue suggests. While a majority supports legalized abortion rights — and most disapprove of the decision overturning Roe — a substantial majority voices support for restrictions on the procedure, such as a ban after the first trimester of pregnancy.

These are the voters Ronchetti addresses in an ad that is evidently the first of its kind in the country. It probably won’t be the last by November.

“What you see in New Mexico is an example of Republicans not being afraid to show where they think Democrats have crossed the line,” said a GOP national strategist, who did not want to be quoted for the Ronchetti’s campaign. “If Democrats want to confront them on the issue, they won’t back down, they won’t back down from the conversation.”

Abortion will never be a favored issue for the GOP in places like New Mexico, California, Colorado, or others where abortion rights run deep. And Republicans could blur their message by promoting drastic measures like a nationwide ban on abortion.

But shifting the debate from whether abortion should be legal to whether it should be restricted is much more politically fertile ground for Republicans running in the first national elections after Roe’s end.

And if it seems like all the politicians are just pointing fingers – “Democrats accuse Ronchetti of being extreme, Republicans accuse Grisham of being extreme, TV ads are doing their rounds,” as the pollster put it. New Mexico’s Brian Sanderoff – voters may well decide to focus on other issues. Like, say, gas prices or fears of a recession.

Then the Democrats are probably in on the action they are desperately trying to avoid.