In a Facebook ad targeting voters in four states that could decide control of Congress next month, a young woman announces to her grandmother that the Supreme Court’s decision eliminating constitutional protections for abortion is “such a big deal.”
“And you know what’s a bigger deal?” her grandmother replies gently. “Unsafe communities, soaring prices and schools that don’t care about their kids or their parents.”
The young woman furrows her brow. “But you fought so hard for abortion rights,” she says.
“And we’ll both keep fighting,” her grandmother assures her. “But we must send a message on other issues hurting other people every day. And that’s what’s on my mind now.”
The ad, which seeks to marry the pro-abortion rights position with Republican talking points on other topics, is part of a broader effort by a conservative nonprofit, Independent Women’s Voice, to blunt the impact of June’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision on next month’s midterms.
A fundraising proposal and other internal memos prepared by Independent Women’s Voice were obtained by the watchdog group Documented and shared with The Washington Post. They illustrate the fear among conservatives that new restrictions on abortion could hurt the GOP’s chances of retaking control of Congress. They also reflect the quest among conservative groups to develop strategies to neutralize the issue for abortion rights supporters who otherwise lean Republican.
“As we predicted last May, the left has used the Dobbs decision to manufacture through misinformation a War on Women 2.0-playbook, updated from 2012, to drive women away from common-sense conservative positions and no one is effectively countering it,” argues the September proposal, titled “A WINNING STRATEGY.”
Independent Women’s Voice is led by Heather Higgins, an heiress to the Vicks VapoRub fortune, who once touted her group as a tool in the “Republican conservative arsenal” because: “Being branded as neutral but actually having the people who know, know that you’re actually conservative puts us in a unique position.”
Higgins declined to be interviewed for this article but issued a written statement saying, in part, “Our starting premise is that intelligent public policy requires honest and accurate discussion about underlying facts.” She said her group has “no electioneering plans to advocate for or against any candidate.”
A separate fall proposal for donors promises the group will “execute targeted campaigns … to drive moderate or slightly left-leaning audiences toward conservative policies and ideas.” The aim, the proposal states, is to “WIN.”
A third document, called “campaign strategy,” says Independent Women’s Voice is “the only group on the right” that’s focused on “non-base demographics” and is “perfectly positioned in the upcoming midterm elections … to move these groups towards conservative policies, and as a corollary, conservative candidates.”
The group is registered as a 501(c)4 charitable organization, a designation that allows it to engage in political campaign activity so long as that activity isn’t its primary purpose. In exchange, it is exempt from disclosing its donors and paying federal income taxes.
Among the groups that have reported funding Independent Women’s Voice or its sister 501(c)3 organization, Independent Women’s Forum, are the Charles Koch Foundation; top conservative donor-advised funds, including DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund; and several groups, such as the Judicial Crisis Network, that are associated with Leonard Leo, the former longtime head of the Federalist Society who advised former president Donald Trump on judicial nominations and oversees a vast network of conservative advocacy organizations.
The “WINNING STRATEGY” memo states that Independent Women’s Voice is uniquely positioned to address Dobbs “precisely because we don’t take a position on abortion — we just simply point out the facts.”
According to the memo, the court’s decision “has little impact on changing the status quo.”
More than a dozen states have banned or mostly banned the procedure since the decision. Changes continue to ripple. Just last month, the Republican-dominated legislature in West Virginia approved a near-total abortion ban.
Higgins, in her statement, acknowledged, “Obviously, Dobbs changed abortion law, but not nearly as dramatically and drastically as some of the hype encourages women to believe.” She said her group’s aim was countering a “toxic deluge of misinformation.”
At the center of the group’s work is the ad featuring the young woman and her grandmother, called “It’s Not 1973 Anymore,” a reference to the year the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade found a constitutional right to abortion.
The ad started running last week and, in two days, drew as many as 70,000 views by women in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania, according to the Facebook ad archive, suggesting the project pitched to donors last month is in an early stage of execution. Higgins said Independent Women’s Voice would be delivering additional messaging via digital platforms as well as streaming TV services and text message.
The Facebook ad appears aimed at the “25 to 30 percent of Republican-leaning women who support exceptions, who maybe even support abortion rights in the first trimester, and who in any other year would vote Republican because of inflation, gas prices and crime,” said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster at Bellwether Research and Consulting, which had no role in making the ad.
“The polling is showing that in some places, these women have reservations about voting for a Republican whose position is absolutely no exceptions for abortion,” Matthews said. “The ad is trying to give those women permission to vote based on other issues, to not prioritize the abortion issue.”
“In that sense, it’s probably a smart ad,” she said.
Independent Women’s Voice says it is especially focused on convincing two critical voting blocs — “Hispanics and independent women” — not to be persuaded by the abortion issue. It touts its ability, through “custom modeling,” to home in on a “new universe of civically engaged people who are weak conservative to weak liberal on the ideological spectrum” and serve these people messaging about transgender issues and “cancel culture” — issues that the group says push people toward a “conservative agenda.”
Higgins also chairs the group’s sister 501(c)3 nonprofit, the Independent Women’s Forum, which was founded by a conservative activist following the feminist outcry against the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1992.
“We were concerned that those who would speak for American women were neither telling the truth about Clarence Thomas nor making sense with respect to issues of crucial importance to American women,” the activist, Rosalie Silberman, said in 1998.
That instinct — that messaging from left-leaning women’s groups may not resonate with many women — animates the nonprofit’s “WINNING STRATEGY” memo and the broader fall proposal for donors. “We will educate pro-women, independent constituents in seven to nine key states using issues that for these audiences are top tier but largely ignored by other issue organizations,” the proposal states.
A slide deck labeled a “Strategy Summary For Winning in 2022” identifies a handful of “Angel of Death Proposals” that the group claims harm women. These include paid leave and child care, benefits that enjoy broad public approval, according to surveys.
When it comes to the abortion issue, too, polling suggests that Independent Women’s Voice may face an uphill battle. A recent Post-ABC News poll found that 64 percent of voters disapproved of the Supreme Court’s move to strike down Roe v. Wade. The percentage of newly registered voters who were women climbed in several key states following the Dobbs decision, data show.
But some polling also shows the issue may be receding in the minds of voters, providing an opening for messaging about the salience of other topics. A Gallup poll in September found that 6 percent of Americans rated abortion or the judicial system as the most important problem in the country, down from 10 percent in August and 14 percent in July.
Caroline Kitchener contributed to this report.