As a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly years ago, Republican Scott Walker pushed two key measures to limit abortions. Neither was successful.
But as governor on Friday, Walker signed legislation requiring that women get an ultrasound before having an abortion and mandating that doctors who perform the procedure have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Opponents say the bill would force at least two clinics in Wisconsin to close.
The measures are part of a wave of abortion limits passed this year by conservative lawmakers and governors, who have approved more than 40 restrictions in statehouses around the country, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the issue.
The push has been aided by the expanded control of state governments by Republicans, who now hold a majority of governerships and legislatures and who enjoy veto-proof majorities in twice as many states as Democrats. Some of the measures were also fueled by outrage over the conduct of providers such as Philadelphia late-term abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, who was convicted of murder charges this spring.
By mobilizing partisans on both sides, the abortion issue is poised to figure more prominently in the 2014 and 2016 elections than most strategists would have expected six months ago.
In North Carolina, the state Senate adopted a sweeping bill Wednesday that includes a ban on sex-selective abortions and on abortion coverage in insurance offered in the state's health exchange. It also requires abortion clinics be held to the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers and have a transfer agreement with a local hospital.
In Texas, the legislature convened a second special session last week to take up a bill similar to North Carolina's after Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis blocked the first attempt with a filibuster in late June.
"It's not as if there's some central mastermind strategy that's organizing action on the state level," said Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser at the Catholic Association. "It really is a response of the people and the growing pro-life sentiment in the country."
But abortion rights activists and their Democratic allies say the push will work to their political advantage in upcoming congressional and gubernatorial races, allowing them to portray Republicans as more focused on extreme social issues than on bolstering the economy. Many of the abortion measures also face court challenges that could delay implementation for months or years.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Israel of New York said in an interview that the DCCC was already targeting 16 House Republicans who had voted in June for the 20-week abortion ban written by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., or in favor of defunding Planned Parenthood in the last Congress.
"Republicans have shown they can't help themselves from pursuing an ideological agenda, and they are further alienating independent and moderate voters," Israel said. "They are pulling themselves down on this issue."
GOP officials say they do not expect abortion to become a decisive factor in forthcoming races. Republican candidates will focus instead on economic issues and on controversy surrounding President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, they said.
"Like most campaigns, the issues that are discussed most are the issues that voters deal with on a day-to-day basis," said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "At the current moment, that seems to be jobs, the economy" and health care.