As a Wisconsin State Assembly member years ago, Republican Scott Walker pushed two key measures to limit abortions. Neither was successful.
But as governor Friday, Mr. 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 nation, 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 measures were also fueled by outrage over the conduct of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia late-term abortion doctor 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.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., widely seen as a presidential contender, is weighing whether to play a leading role by sponsoring a Senate bill to ban abortions 20 weeks after fertilization. Mr. Rubio is attempting to shore up support among conservatives who opposed his role in crafting a Senate immigration bill.
North Carolina's 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 that 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 this 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, a Catholic Association senior policy adviser. "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, letting them portray Republicans as more focused on extreme social issues than bolstering the economy. Many abortion measures also face court challenges that could delay implementation for months or years.
New York Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview that his panel was already targeting 16 House Republicans who voted in June for the 20-week abortion ban written by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., or voted in favor of defunding Planned Parenthood in the previous Congress. "Republicans have shown they can't help themselves from pursuing an ideological agenda, and they are further alienating independent and moderate voters," he said.
Republican officials say they do not expect abortion to become a decisive factor in upcoming races. They said GOP candidates will focus instead on economic issues and controversy surrounding President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.
Abortion is already a major campaign issue in some contests, including the Virginia governor's race between GOP Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II and Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman. But Cuccinelli campaign strategist Chris LaCivita said much of the focus is driven by one side, which has attacked the attorney general for his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest and his push to impose new requirements on abortion clinics.
"Ken Cuccinelli's position on life is well known," Mr. LaCivita said. "But the only people trying to make it a central issue are Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats."
But some Republicans say they are concerned that GOP lawmakers keep mishandling the issue by clumsy statements that alienate women. During committee consideration of the House abortion bill last month, Mr. Franks touched off a firestorm by saying, "The incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low."
The following week, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, argued that sonograms suggest a young fetus can experience sexual pleasure. "If they're a male baby, they may have a hand between their legs," he said. "If they feel pleasure, why can't they feel pain?"
Under the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, abortions can be performed until the point when an individual doctor determines a fetus' viability, which is generally defined as up to 24 weeks of gestation. After that point, the government can bar the procedure if it provides safeguards for the mother's health and well-being.
A Gallup poll in December 2012 found that while 61 percent of respondents favored keeping first-trimester abortions legal, 64 percent thought second-trimester abortions should be illegal, and 80 percent backed banning third-trimester abortions.
The pace of state abortion restrictions in recent years has accelerated, with more than 170 enacted since 2011, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, whose group plans to spend $1.5 million helping Mr. Cuccinelli, said Republicans can win at the ballot box if they "bring the public to a point of consensus" around issues such as a 20-week ban and tougher operating standards for clinics.
Democrats are doing their best to put all anti-abortion Republicans in the same camp as Todd Akin, whose Senate candidacy for a seat in Missouri collapsed last year after he suggested that women don't get pregnant in instances of "legitimate rape."