Some in White House worry abortion message bungled before midterms

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some senior White House officials have been second-guessing their messaging to voters around abortion in recent weeks, sources familiar with the matter said, as forecasts turned in Republicans' favor in the run up to the midterm elections.

Many Democrats are no longer optimistic about retaining one or both houses of Congress in Tuesday's midterms, and some have asked if party leaders and the Joe Biden White House should have spent more time talking about the U.S. economy, and less about women's reproductive rights.

Inflation is the top voter concern, dampening consumer confidence, even as the U.S. economy remains stronger than economies of other developed nations, with low unemployment and healthy household savings.

Some White House officials believe they should have linked abortion to economic concerns more, rather than fundamental rights and privacy, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter said. More than 70% of U.S. women who have an abortion cite the cost of having a child as a top reason, a Guttmacher Institute survey found.

"It became clear a couple of months ago voters were not opening the conversation with abortion or bringing it up as much as they were talking about the economy and we should have done a better job tying those two issues together," said one of the sources with direct knowledge of the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another source with direct knowledge said "the number of families facing a decision on abortion is far less than those worrying about the economy at any given point in time."

The White House faced a similar situation when trying to expand the child tax credit earlier this year, both sources noted. Democrats hoped the credit would be popular but polls showed voters cared more about prescription drug costs and expanding Medicare.

White House spokesman Kevin Munoz dismissed "any notion of over focus" on reproductive rights and said Biden has addressed multiple issues. He shared a memo from reproductive rights groups saying abortion remains at the top of voters minds.

"This is an issue that has been motivating" for voters, a Democratic National Committee (DNC) spokesman said.

The White House has asked the DNC to gather data for an election postmortem to identify what messages worked and what didn't, party sources said.

"This feels like there is an effort in the 11th hour to shift the narrative to the very classic sort of political operative thing," said Mini Timmarjau, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group that has been working with the White House on the issue. "Let's start fingerpointing because we are worried about the outcome of the election."

GEORGIA, ARIZONA SURPRISES?

In the months since the Supreme Court's May decision to overturn Roe v Wade, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have said they will push to codify abortion rights if Democrats expanded control of Congress.

The White House signed executive orders on the issue and met with state legislators, grassroots activists and coalitions to finetune abortion messaging.

Timmaraju predicts surprises in Georgia and Arizona. Senate races are tight in both states and a Republican favored to win the governor seat in Georgia. Young and women voters are energized, she said, and registration and vote-by-mail numbers are "looking good."

States including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin witnessed a big jump in women's voter registration just after the Supreme Court ruling, according to data from TargetSmart, a research group run by Democratic political strategist Tom Bonier.

Women in these states account for a larger share of their early vote at this point than they did in 2020 or 2018, Bonier said, a statistic he believes helps Democrats.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington, Editing by Heather Timmons and Deepa Babington)