President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a visit to the southern.
President Joe Biden visited the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a push for stricter immigration legislation. Evan Vucci/AP

Republicans and Democrats Are Finally Ready to Talk About Their Biggest Weaknesses

Reproductive rights and immigration have long been tough issues for politicians. This year, they plan to tackle them directly.

Republicans are talking directly about reproductive rights. Democrats are talking tough about the border. And both parties say their new, more aggressive message is meant to correct a mistake made during the 2022 midterms.

How well each party executes its newfound approach could go a long way toward determining which controls Congress and the White House next year.

Both abortion and immigration hurt Republicans and Democrats at the ballot box in 2022, according to political strategists from both parties, in part because each preferred to talk about more politically favorable subjects rather than tackle the issues head-on.

Evidence is mounting that will change this year. Senate Republican candidates, led by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, almost uniformly coordinated a message last week in support of IVF treatments after the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that embryos should legally be considered children. Just days prior, the wife of Senate GOP candidate Sam Brown talked to NBC on camera about her abortion. Party operatives say it’s all part of a sustained effort encouraging candidates up and down the ballot to talk openly and forcefully about abortion and reproductive rights.

“We made it clear to candidates that they should address this issue and voters should hear from them directly,” said a national Republican strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly about party strategy. “We’re not running away from it.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have pivoted to the right on immigration politics. Even before a bipartisan border deal was officially unveiled in February, its nominee in a high-profile special election House race in New York, Rep. Tom Suozzi, had taken an aggressive position on the issue, talking about it often on the campaign trail and in TV ads — what party strategists said was a preview of how Democrats would address the issue during the general election.

“The president should lean into that immigration issue, and I think he’s doing that, [he] should lean into immigration,” Suozzi told a gathering of reporters Thursday. “And he should say, ‘OK, we have a bipartisan deal on the table. It’s been negotiated by very reasonable people. Why are you not going forward with them? That doesn’t make sense.’”

Joe Biden visited the country’s southern border Thursday, his first visit since becoming president in 2021 and another indication that Democrats were wading into the subject more than they had in years.

The shift in tactics marks a stark acknowledgment that ignoring these issues doesn’t work. In 2022, Republicans unexpectedly failed to retake a Senate majority while Democratic House candidates unperformed expectations in a series of congressional districts, especially in New York.

But their respective efforts are also not exactly the same: Democrats have paired the new immigration message with a change in policy, infuriating some progressive allies. Republicans have been slower to adopt a similar shift in policy on reproductive rights, talking openly about protecting IVF treatments but, as of yet, failing to back legislation that would offer national protections for the procedure. While the party has tried to shift its messaging to pro-family vs. anti-abortion, lawmakers continue to push for abortion bans at the state and national level.

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson
Speaker Mike Johnson pushed a pro-family message at the 2024 March for Life. Julia Nikhinson/Sipa USA via AP

Absent those changes, one GOP strategist said, there’s little the party can do to win over most voters on reproductive rights.

“There’s no good answer here, folks,” said the Republican operative, granted anonymity to speak critically of his party. “Voters just do not want to hear it. Folks have tried everything possible on this stuff, different ways to talk about it. They just do not want to hear it.”

Abortion rights are politically popular: A CNN poll last year found nearly two thirds of Americans, 64%, disapproved of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the federal right to an abortion. Since 2022, voters have supported abortion rights in ballot measures in Kansas, California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Vermont and Ohio.

Other leading GOP strategists disagree that there’s nothing the party can do to mollify its image on abortion, but cautioned the party needed to continue talking about the issue in much different ways than it had.

Robert Blizzard, a veteran Republican pollster, said focus groups he conducted last year with moderate voters in Virginia revealed a deep problem with the party’s messaging: Most of the participating voters thought that a candidate who described themselves as “pro-life” wanted a total ban on abortion without exceptions, even if the candidate in question supported banning the procedure at or after 16 weeks of pregnancy.

If GOP candidates discuss the issue correctly, they can at least partially insulate themselves from criticism over abortion rights, he said.

“There are some situations, some races, especially in suburban districts, you know what Democrats are going to do,” Blizzard said. “And you have to go out and preempt that attack and wrap a little bit of a flak jacket around yourself.”

Democrats face their own challenges with immigration, which is becoming increasingly pivotal for voters. A Gallup poll in February showed 28% of Americans named immigration as the most important issue facing the U.S., an 8-point rise from the 20% who said so the previous month.

Poll after poll after poll shows voters aren’t happy with how Biden is handling immigration, including large swathes of Democrats themselves.

But Democrats say they are learning from past mistakes. In 2022, some voters felt their concerns on crime weren’t being heard and were waved away by the party, said Lis Smith, an adviser to Suozzi’s campaign. And because they felt voters were predisposed to distrust them on crime and immigration, Democratic candidates often “shied away” from the topics to begin with, she said.

“It is a losing electoral strategy to tell people that their concerns are made up or that they’re a figment of their imagination,” Smith said. Suozzi “went on the offense on immigration. He didn’t wait for the Republicans to bring it up. He didn’t hide from talking about it.”

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A Democratic strategist also argued for making the border deal’s collapse part of a bigger message about the GOP’s failures in this Congress.

“For Democrats, and I think for House Democrats, especially, this is just one proof point in a broader narrative about House Republicans not wanting to get anything done. They like the fact that everything is broken, and they have no desire to fix it,” they said.

The day after Suozzi’s victory, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut circulated a memo to Democrats, saying the party “should learn a lesson from NY-03. Quite simply, we risk losing the 2024 election if we do not seize this opportunity to go on offense on the issue of the border and turn the tables on Republicans on a key fall voting issue.”

“Democrats can win by proactively messaging about our priorities when it comes to immigration, rather than running away from the issue,” his office told NOTUS in a statement.

Alex Roarty is a reporter at NOTUS. Nuha Dolby is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.