GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Four Republicans seeking congressional seats from North Carolina say nothing about abortion on their campaign websites even though some have been staunchly anti-abortion in the past – and as abortion has become a pivotal national issue.

6th District GOP nominee Chris Castelli

And at least one of them, Christian Castelli, a political newcomer challenging Democratic incumbent Kathy Manning in the 6th District, has changed his page since he was nominated during a crowded primary in May and no longer includes a pro-life position.

Tyler Lee in the 12th District and Pat Harrigan in the 14th, both new candidates in districts though to lean strongly Democratic, don’t list right-to-life or anti-abortion positions on their issues pages either. And neither does Rep. Dan Bishop (R-Charlotte), an incumbent who has moved to the very GOP-safe 8th District that includes Davidson and Montgomery counties from the Piedmont Triad.

Castelli, a retired Army officer and business owner who lives in Southern Pines, is a political newcomer who took 36.2% of the vote in the GOP’s 7-person primary, beating former candidate and longtime political soldier Lee Haywood by 1,049 votes. Haywood didn’t challenge the count.

Castelli’s website for that race professed strong and consistently GOP-focused positions on several key issues, but since May 17, his website migrated from castelliforcongress2022.com to www.castellifornc.com and dropped the words that showed he clearly was invested in fighting against abortion.

“As a devout Christian, I will protect the unborn from conception to birth,” his issues page said before the primary. “I believe life begins at conception and we must do everything in our power to protect the defenseless at every stage of life. I will fight to stop tax dollars from being used to fund Planned Parenthood and abortion. Taxpayer dollars should never be used to fund immoral practices.”

Tina Forsberg, a Guilford County GOP operative appointed in July as Castelli’s campaign manager, acknowledged that a lot has changed with the campaign, including the website, and that Castelli is focused on the economy, education, public safety, illegal immigration and personal liberty.

“The Castelli Campaign has always focused on rebuilding the energy-independent economy that the Democrats destroyed, opening the doors of opportunity for low-income families through a great education, and improving public safety by standing with the law and law enforcement,” she told WGHP.

“Following the primary, SCOTUS issued a landmark decision returning the issue of abortion to the voters in the states. As the father of a daughter with special needs and as a combat veteran Green Beret, Christian is a principled defender of innocent life, and that will not change.

“The real question is this: Why are Kathy Manning and the Democrats trying to distract voters from her record? Because she votes with Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden 100% of the time and is responsible for the record inflation and high gas prices hitting North Carolina families.”

In response to a query from WGHP, Monica Robinson, the Sunbelt press secretary for the national Democratic Party, said that “Christian Castelli is trying to hide his agenda to ban abortion from North Carolinians because he knows his extreme positions will doom him in November. Unfortunately for him, the internet never forgets.”

Abortion as issue

Since the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v. Wade and its constitutional endorsement of a woman’s right to choose, the issue has become a fulcrum for November’s midterm elections. That position was fueled dramatically last week when voters in Kanas overwhelmingly rejected the removal of right-to-choice from the state’s constitution. It also was a focus at the CPAC in Dallas this past weekend.

Democrats are pushing for a national law to codify a woman’s right to choose, but, barring that step or a national law banning abortion, the Supreme Court’s decision returned to states the right to establish laws about abortion. The justices triggered automatic laws in 13 states to ban abortions immediately, with various levels of restriction.

North Carolina is one of 29 states in which abortions remain legal – albeit with a court fight ongoing about the limits in the law’s newest version – and five states have pending or likely removal of rights. Abortion has been banned almost entirely in the other 17 states and four where it is like to be banned soon including Indiana, which last week passed such a law. But polls consistently have shown Americans prefer some access to abortion, and that has appeared to have heightened since the court’s ruling. Before then North Carolinians also wanted to maintain abortion options.

The nominees’ positions

Like Castelli’s original words, Republican candidates almost uniformly have maintained their position that abortions should be illegal, many of them without caveats for circumstances such as rape or incest. Two other new candidates in districts that would appear to favor Democrats – the 2nd and 4th – are women who post firm views on their campaign sites

Christine Villaverde, who is challenging incumbent Democrat Deborah Ross of Raleigh in the 2nd District, points out that she is the mother of three. “I know all children are a gift from God and I will fight against any effort to expand taxpayer funding for abortion,” she says in part.

Courtney Geels

Courtney Geels, the Republican facing Democrat Valerie Foushee for the 4th District seat (which includes Alamance County) now held by a retiring David Price (D-Durham), is a nurse by trade. “Killing of unborn beings in the womb must be stopped,” she says in part.

Three other new Republican candidates in North Carolina, have elaborate presentations about pro-life positions:

  • Sandy Smith, the GOP nominee in the 1st District, another more competitive district that G.K. Butterfield (D-Wilson) has served for decades, has abortion as the No. 1 item on her issues page. “I believe life begins at conception,” she says.
  • State Sen. Chuck Edwards, who overtook incumbent Madison Cawthorn (R-Hendersonville) to be the nominee in the 11th District, says, “Life begins at conception.”
  • 13th District nominee Bo Hines, who has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, says he will “always defend the pro-life movement.”
U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop

Given that those candidates still voice opposition to abortion on their websites makes the absence of stated positions all the more odd on GOP candidates’ websites.

Consider the absence of abortion among Bishop’s issues. He is one of the more outspoken and firmly conservative representatives of North Carolina. His representatives say it’s about timing.

“Rep. Bishop is pro-life, has always been pro-life and has a 100% pro-life voting record according to National Right to Life website,” James Hampson, his spokesperson, told WGHP.

“The page was made in 2020 to reflect the issues voters were asking Congressman Bishop about the most,” Ray Martin, an adviser to the campaign, told WGHP. “It will be updated soon, but suffice it to say, nobody wonders where the Congressman stands, and his record and public statements speak for themselves.”

Another staunch conservative is Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-Denver), the incumbent in the 10th District who until January will represent several counties in the Triad, is on the House GOP leadership ladder, but he barely mentions a pro-life position on his website, referring to himself as a “staunch defender of the unborn.”

It’s unclear whether Lee, who is taking on veteran incumbent Rep. Alma Adams (D-Charlotte) in the 12th District, or Harrigan, who is facing state Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Charlotte) in the new but likely blue 14th, had a position during their primary campaigns. Their campaigns did not respond to queries.

And it’s also unknown whether the North Carolina GOP had a voice in any conversations about issues. WGHP reached out to spokesperson Jeff Moore but received no immediate response.

Forsberg, the campaign manager for Castelli, had said that issues are up to the candidates.

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx
U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson

The other incumbents

As Bishop’s staffers indicate, Republican incumbents in North Carolina typically stake their positions about abortion firmly, and all of them represent districts they are expected to win easily.

Sitting 13th District Rep. Ted Budd (R-Davie), the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate, says on his site that he “believes every life is precious and every person is made in God’s image. Science tells us that each of us is unique from conception, and we all have an unalienable constitutional right to life and protection under the law.”

Some Dems dilute the issue, too

To be fair, not every Democratic candidate has on his or her website a specific statement about abortion rights, either. Some candidates are new to elections and others have served in the General Assembly.

For instance, Scott Huffman, a newcomer candidate facing Bishop in the 8th District, mentions “access to birth control” and taxes on feminine products under the heading of “Equality,” but he doesn’t address abortion or reproductive rights.

Neither does Ben Clark, the state representative challenging Hudson in the 9th District. His mention of women’s rights focuses on the workplace.

Manning, on her website, discusses her positions under the heading of women and families. She discusses how she supports an effort to “codify abortion rights.” Her votes in the House have supported that uniformly.

Foushee, the newly nominated Democrat in the 4th District, focuses her issues page on her record in the North Carolina General Assembly that hints at national issues, but she includes the “right to obtain an abortion” under the first heading, “Civil Rights.”

Rep. Deborah Ross (D-NC) speaks with (from left) Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) about their effort to pass legal protections for so-called Dreamers. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Jackson in the 14th District bases his position on his record in the General Assembly and says he will “continue to stand “against the politicization of women’s health and abortion access.”

Kyle Parrish in the 5th District doesn’t have an issues page and doesn’t mention abortion rights or reproductive rights in his personal introduction.

Ross, the incumbent in the 2nd District, has an extensive list of “priorities” that includes reproductive freedom and reproductive rights under its heading of Women & Families.

State Sen. Don Davis in the 1st District is among the most vocal under his “Women’s Rights and Health” header, endorsing the codification of abortion rights.

Alma Adams (Courtesy of US Congress)
Alma Adams (Courtesy of US Congress)

Barbara Gaskins in the 3rd District includes protecting a “woman’s right to choose,” and state Rep. Charles Graham in the 7th District straddles the issue a bit in a conservative district but says he supports “access to reproductive health.”

McHenry’s opponent, newcomer Pamela Genant, extensively supports a “guarantee for women’s health,” andJasmine Beach-Ferrara, running in the 11th District, has a headline for “Choice” that says an abortion ban violates constitutional rights.

Adams of the 12th District, a Greensboro native who is one of the more senior among the state’s delegation, is the most obvious. In her first words on her issues page, she says, “I will always fight for a woman’s right to choose and the right to privacy.”

Robinson, the DCCC spokesperson, said that “Republicans want to ban abortion, rip away women’s freedom, and are a danger to the health of North Carolinians. Democrats are champions of women’s rights and will fight to protect our reproductive health care. The choice could not be clearer.”

What does this mean?

Chris Cooper of Western Carolina

Almost all of the GOP candidates profess several shared values – guns immigration (maybe building the wall), election integrity, energy, violence, etc., in various orders – but the avoidance of abortion/pro-life by some raises questions about those candidates’ political strategies.

Chris Cooper, a government professor and elections expert from Western Carolina University, said the decision about such content “seems more individual. Collectively they seem to have made this decision. My guess is this is not a top-down strategy coming from the GOP.”

He also told WGHP that “politics is about what issues people focus on as much as its about convincing people to believe your issue. This says to me that these candidates would rather campaign on other issues.

Asher Hildebrand
of Duke

“This doesn’t mean they are pro-choice, but it does say they understand the political reality where the pro-choice position is the more popular one.”

Asher Hildebrand, a government professor at Duke, worked in Democratic congressional offices and on campaigns. He says “not to read too much into the omission” but don’t underestimate the significance of the issue.

“What they put on their campaign websites, the significance is pretty limited. I’m not sure every candidate – especially in not particularly competitive races – is making a decision about what should or should not go on there,” he said.

Hildebrand did reiterate, though, the increasing significance of the abortion issue and its power during the midterm elections. “If it was not clear before the Kansas vote on Tuesday, it’s certainly clear now,” he said.

The 6th District race

Completing her first term, Manning, a lawyer from  Greensboro elected in 2020, has been targeted as a potential flip by the Republican National Committee because her district was redrawn to include not just Guilford County and some of Winston-Salem but all of Rockingham County and nearly all of Caswell County, both far more Republican.

After winning the nomination, Castelli, in addition to changing his website and hiring Forsberg, opened an office in Greensboro. He has appeared at political events and is scheduled to address the Guilford County GOP at a luncheon next week.

In fundraising Manning reported $579,000 in new donations during the second quarter, based on the Federal Elections Commission reports through June 30. She has about $1.5 million cash on hand. Castelli added $200,600 after the primary and reported about $129,500 cash on hand.

And abortion and women’s rights clearly will be a defining issue in this district. Manning has positioned her campaign and her congressional record squarely behind supporting the right of a woman to choose about abortion. She also recently authored the legislation passed in the House to guarantee access to birth control.

“We will not play defense anymore,” she said when pitching her bill on the House floor, “This time we’re playing offense.”