HE is, say his feminist critics, “cartoonishly misogynistic”. And they have a point. Matt Gaetz – the Trumpist congressman who looks like a child’s action figure left too close to a fire – has turned his women-baiting in to a campaign shtick.

Late last month, speaking to an audience of rightist youth, he let rip at pro-choice protestors, suggesting they were too ugly to have to worry about having abortions.

Women who go on what he called “pro-murder rallies” were “disgusting”, the Florida Republican declared. And then he added: “Nobody wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb.”

Mr Gaetz – under federal investigation, as it happens, over an alleged relationship with a 17-year-old girl – has form for jaw-droppingly bad patter on big “culture war” issues.

His latest remarks – predictably – appalled liberal Democrats. But they also worried mainstream conservative Republicans. A lot.

Why? Because they now fear some of the hardline rhetoric on abortion in their ranks could cost them previously predicted gains in this year’s crucial mid-term elections.

America’s conservatives have got themselves in a right mess on abortion. For years, decades, they used the topic to wind up their base. Successive presidents, including Mr Gaetz’s hero Donald Trump, stocked the nation’s Supreme Court with reactionary justices.

The result, back in June, was that these judges overturned Roe v Wade, the landmark 1970s ruling that guaranteed women access to safe and legal terminations wherever they lived in the US.

Pro-lifers rejoiced. Pro-choicers were distraught: unless a federal law were passed, it would now be up to states to rule on reproductive rights.

But overturning Roe v Wade brings an electoral problem for the right. Sure, there are a lot of Americans, especially of faith, who have sincere views on when life begins and what this should mean for abortions. But there are far, far more people who disagree. And they have votes too.

Take those in usually conservative Kansas, which firmly backed Trump in 2020. Electors there were earlier this month asked in a referendum if they wished to remove the right to abortion from their state’s constitution. They rejected this by three-to-two on a big turnout.

Republicans, to me, look like barking dogs who caught the bus they were chasing. Now they are just mutts sitting gormlessly on public transit.

What do I mean? Well, at the risk of sounding cynical, I think campaigning to ban abortion can make political sense. Lots of Republicans, it has to be said, have been elected on the back of a minority who want to protect foetuses. But actually achieving this aim is bad politics. Because then you have to live with the cruel reality of women and girls either forced to have babies against their will – or to make difficult or dangerous arrangements. And it turns out – unsurprisingly – that most Americans find this horrifying.

The politics of abortion reminds me of Brexit. Campaigning to leave the EU was a great way to mobilise the anti-immigration right and provided a constant diet of high-cal but low-nutrition tabloid fare, like those stupid stories about straight bananas.

Actually leaving the EU, however, is a political headache. Because the damage it causes, like those truck queues at Dover, is hard to hide.

Republicans after the Roe v Wade overturning could have dialled back, talked, say, of why they thought abortion was a matter for states. Instead, some, such as Mr Gaetz, hyped up their language, trying to get those dogs on the bus to bark.

“I feel we’re on this sort of see-saw where one party sort of gets the upper hand on social-cultural issues, then they overplay that hand,” Christine Matthews, moderate conservative strategist told The Washington Post at the end of last month. “Republicans have taken things too far.”

Some pro-lifers agree. Republican Representative Nancy Mace, from South Carolina, this week said voters expected exceptions on an abortion ban, for example for women who have been raped or whose lives are in danger. “There has to be a place for the centre on this very emotional issue,” she said.

There is a lot at stake here.

America, remember, in November goes to the polls to re-elect the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate. Republicans had high hopes of taking control of both, hog-tying the presidency of Joe Biden. There are also key battles for control of some states, including big swing ones like Pennsylvania. The right might still do well. There are plenty of Americans worried about the cost of living who might lash out at incumbent Democrats.

But abortion is now an issue that has the political left on fire. Mr Biden, almost as soon as the Supreme Court flipped, made it clear what he would be campaigning on. “This fall, Roe is on the ballot,” he said.

This, bear in mind, is a president with his back to the wall. The 79-year-old is sitting on approval ratings that make his vulgarian and serially dishonest predecessor look good.

Some Democratic funders are so cynical they have been throwing money at the primary campaigns of hardline conservatives they think will be easier to beat in general elections. That sounds reckless to me: progressives paying for populism.

So how is all this playing out in the polls? Well, it was always tight. National surveys had the Dems just behind before the Supreme Court judgment. Now they are edging ahead.

Is it fair to speculate that some smarter Republicans wanted the issue of abortion more than a victory on abortion? Maybe. But now the party is left with a calamity, not a cause. And the result, like Mr Gaetz’s rhetoric, could be ugly for them.