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Abortion policies could make the Republican Party's 'suburban women problem' worse

Abortion rights demonstrators attend a rally at the Texas state Capitol in Austin on May 14, 2022.
Eric Gay
Abortion rights demonstrators attend a rally at the Texas state Capitol in Austin on May 14, 2022.

Tiffany Sheffield lives in Round Rock, Texas, a suburb north of the capital, Austin. She describes herself as — for the most part — a conservative Christian. Abortion is not just a political issue for her, it's also a moral issue. She says it's not something she'd ever consider for herself. But, Sheffield also has a problem with the government interfering in these kinds of decisions.

"That is completely up to her and there is no judgment and there is no right for me to tell her otherwise," she said. "I do think that sometimes when the government gets a little too — they step in a little too much — we end up having a lot of other social issues."

Suburban women voters have become an increasingly important bloc for both political parties. Because suburbs across the country have been shifting politically in the last few elections, voter behavior in these areas can be harder to predict. Abortion policies being pushed by Republicans across the country, however, could be tipping many women in these areas squarely out of favor with Republicans.

That's no more evident than in Texas which has been ground zero for abortion restrictions. The state has had some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country for years now. It passed a six-week abortion ban in 2021 and its novel enforcement strategy stood the scrutiny of the Supreme Court and it was upheld and has been in effect since then.

Emboldened by the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Republican lawmakers in the state took it a step further when they enacted a near total ban on the procedure that only includes very narrow exceptions to save the life of the pregnant person.

Like many Americans, Sheffield supports some restrictions on the procedure, but she does not agree with a total ban.

"I think there are certain extenuating circumstances, like people always say like rape or, you know, a 14-year-old cannot have a child," she said.

The 'suburban women problem'

Polling showsa majority of Americans disagree with policies that outlaw the procedure, which has become a political liability for Republicans.

And the biggest fallout could be with women, like Tiffany Sheffield, who live in the suburbs.

Rachel Vindman co-hosts a podcast called "The Suburban Women Problem," which she says is a reference to something South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told Fox News ahead of the 2018 midterms.

"We've got to address the suburban women problem, because it's real," Graham said, after the network projected Republicans would lose control of the House of Representatives.

Vindman says Graham "said the quiet part out loud" that day.

"The Republican Party has a suburban women problem," she said. "And it kind of keeps getting bigger and bigger because they don't seem to understand what women want."

Vindman says the Republican Party's backing of policies that shut out access to both surgical and medication abortions are unpopular among suburban women like her because they go too far.

"It falls into this extremism as a whole," she said. "I mean I was a Republican for a long time. And what used to be part of the Republican Party for a long time. And what used to be part of the conservative movement was this individual responsibility and smaller government."

But Vindman says that's changed. The party's recent support for cutting off access to one of the two pills used in a medication abortion is just the latest example.

Rebecca Deen, a political science professor at UT Arlington, says these more extreme policies have also made the issue of abortion more salient. Voters hear about it more often and that means they're thinking about it more often.

"There is this weird feedback loop of: politicians do things, they get in the news, and so the thing that they might want to be settled is just more talked about and so it is top of mind for voters and then becomes more problematic for them," Deen explained.

Before the Supreme Court decision, Deen explains suburban women were not as motivated by the issue of abortion. Because this was mostly settled policy, it wasn't top of mind for these voters. But that's not true anymore.

Elizabeth Simas, a political professor at the University of Houston, thinks Democrats in particular could have an opening in upcoming elections.

"[Suburban women] are not always the most solid voting bloc that the candidates can count on," she said. "But I think women in general as voters and women who have issues that are going to start hitting their households should not be underestimated by either party. So, these women can be mobilized and it's a strong mobilizing force."

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Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.