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Women voters were also key to President Obama's victory. Unlike many other elections, this one highlighted the political divide over abortion, so much so that the Democratic Party even campaigned on a pro-choice stance in Virginia, once a traditionally conservative state. Conservative groups say they've learned a lesson: They're vowing to change the Republican Party and continue their fight to restrict abortion. NPR's Kathy Lohr has that story.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Public outcry over Republican Todd Akin's comments on "legitimate rape" ultimately gave Democrat Claire McCaskill a U.S. Senate victory in Missouri. Akin refused to withdraw from the race.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REPRESENTATIVE TODD AKIN: Well, things don't always turn out the way you think they're going to.

LOHR: On Election Night, Akin was confrontational.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

AKIN: You know, Washington doesn't need more money. It needs more courage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Amen!

(APPLAUSE)

LOHR: In Indiana, Republican Richard Mourdock also lost his Senate seat, at least in part due to his comments that if a pregnancy results from a rape, that's, quote, "something God intended." These comments pushed the abortion issue to the forefront. They also united and motivated abortion rights activists.

CECILE RICHARDS: These are issues that are deeply important to women.

LOHR: Cecile Richards is president of the Planned Parenthood Federation. She says an 18-point gender gap among women voting for the president helped defeat Mitt Romney and what she calls the GOP attack on women's rights.

RICHARDS: They're not just social issues, as Mitt Romney tried to say - access to affordable health care, access to family planning. These are issues that are economic issues for women and their families.

LOHR: But the day after the election, many conservatives were pondering their losses. They say it's not their anti-abortion principles that took a hit, but the party's failure to run a truly conservative candidate. In a news conference Wednesday, chair of ConservativeHQ.com, Richard Viguerie, said Republicans don't win unless they nationalize elections around conservative values.

RICHARD VIGUERIE: Conservatives are saying never again are we going to nominate a big government, establishment Republican for president.

LOHR: Alongside Viguerie was Marjorie Dannenfelser, head of the Susan B. Anthony List, a political action committee that backs candidates opposed to abortion.

MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: Obama had launched a war over abortion and on the life issue. Therefore, he got to completely define what that issue was. And what is it? Rape.

LOHR: Dannenfelser said the Republicans left votes on the table because they failed to really take on the abortion issue and explain their position. She calls the result a kind of New Year's Day for the movement.

DANNENFELSER: If you truly believe if you are living in a great human civil rights movement, you don't give up. That is why we grow as a movement. And so this is the beginning of a new cycle.

LOHR: Other groups that oppose abortion say they'll continue to take their fight to the states, for example, working on a bill to allow states to opt out of paying for abortions under the federal health care law. They're also pushing for more restrictions on abortion and on the clinics where they're performed. Donna Crane with NARAL Pro-Choice America says she's not surprised.

DONNA CRANE: We take very seriously their threat that they're going to redouble their efforts at the state level. And I think that is a foolish course of action in light of the really clear message they got from Americans on Tuesday night.

LOHR: But anti-abortion groups say that's not the message they got. They say the abortion issue is far from settled, that Romney never reached their core supporters. Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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