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Home » Divisions Over Abortion Roil 2024 Gop Presidential Field

Divisions Over Abortion Roil 2024 Gop Presidential Field

by Travis Fox
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Former president Donal Trump went off his teleprompter last month in a ballroom full of evangelical activists, warning in stark terms that abortion could be a Republican loser in next year’s elections.

“Politicians, they just don’t know how to talk about this issue,” Trump said at the Pray, Vote, Stand Summit. “If they don’t talk about it, speak about it correctly, they are not going to win.”

The crowd fell silent, after standing and applauding a moment earlier. On the same stage earlier in the day, the conference organizers had insisted that politicians publicly embrace a federal minimum law prohibiting abortion after 15 weeks of gestation. But as Trump spoke about abortion, he said the Supreme Court had “moved the issue back to the states which all legal scholars wanted.”

Such confusion has been roiling Republicans in public and private in recent months, as the party scrambles to unify on an issue that became a major obstacle for GOP candidates in last year’s midterm elections. Democrats spent massively on abortion ads 2022 contest, aiming to capitalize on a nine percentage point increase in the share of Americans who think abortion should “generally be legal” since the Supreme Court’s decision last year overturning the constitutional right to the procedure.

The party’s presidential candidates remain divided over whether to support a specific federal limit on abortion, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis surprising everyone at the second GOP presidential debate by breaking with Trump and endorsing a national 15-week ban. Antiabortion leaders are split on whether to make the federal law a prerequisite for support. And campaign strategists are scrambling to come up with a coherent platform behind the scenes.

The turmoil comes as Democrats prepare another massive assault in paid advertising on the issue, with polls showing that Democrats have a substantial advantage on the issue. Republicans worry that any move they make in the next few months could fuel the inevitable onslaught of Democratic claims that Republicans want to ban the procedure because they are on the record supporting limits after a certain number of weeks.

“I am confident we will arrive at a place that is principled, philosophically consistent and politically pragmatic,” said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. “But it is going to be a highly organic conversation, and it won’t always be pretty.”

One Nation, an arm of the GOP Senate campaign machine helmed by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has been circulating a polling memo that argues that Republicans can’t just call themselves “pro-life” anymore or say the Supreme Court pushed the issue to the states, because of public opinion shifts since last year. The memo also points out that any candidate who does not support exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother will be vulnerable.

“[A] very detailed description of what you are for and against is needed in today’s environment,” the memo reads. “Clear messaging that emphasizes guardrails on abortion with guaranteed exceptions is a winning position not only with conservatives but also with Independent men and women.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has also been briefing candidates on how to handle the coming danger, explicitly urging them to embrace the three exceptions and fight Democratic claims that they want to ban abortion even if they support popular limits on the procedure later in pregnancy, according to a person familiar with the advice, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak about internal guidance.

“The NRSC is encouraging Republicans to clearly state their opposition to a national abortion ban and to state their support for reasonable limits on late term abortions when babies can feel pain with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother,” reads a statement offered by the person.

Several failed Republican candidates for Senate last year — including Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker and Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon — were attacked by Democrats for opposing exceptions in the 2022 elections.

The same playbook appears to be playing out now in the Kentucky governor’s race this year, where Gov. Andy Beshear (D) has been running an ad against his Republican opponent Daniel Cameron with a childhood rape survivor who calls Cameron’s abortion position “unthinkable.” Cameron has supported a state law that bans abortion without exceptions, but he has also said he would sign legislation adding exceptions if they came to his desk.

Trump has become the most vocal proponent of insisting that politicians in his party embrace the exceptions, repeatedly lecturing his supporters and activists that they should consider setting aside their personal convictions and be pragmatic for a greater cause, a tactical decision that all Republican nominees for the presidency have embraced since the 1970s.

“I will say politically, it’s a very tough decision for some people, but very, very hard on elections, very, very hard,” Trump told the crowd last month at the Pray, Vote, Stand Summit in Washington. “We had midterms and this was an issue.”

The Biden campaign, for its part, is determined to prevent any effort by Trump to tack to the center on the issue, given Trump’s decisive role in appointing the Supreme Court majority that overturned the constitutional right to the procedure. One Biden campaign television spot that is already running quotes Trump in 2016 as saying women who have abortions must face “some form of punishment,” without also pointing out that Trump withdrew that comment within hours of making it and does not support punishing abortion patients.

Democrats have said they are planning similarly aggressive tactics in next year’s Senate contests.

On the record and on video, Republican Senate candidates have already staked out dangerous positions that would make abortion illegal and rip away women’s right to make our own health care decisions,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Nora Keefe said in a statement. “We’ll make sure voters see and hear what Republicans have said in their own words.”

At the same time, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a major antiabortion group directly involved in elections, has said it will oppose any candidate that does not embrace “at a minimum a 15-week national standard to stop painful later term abortions.” Trump, who has received conflicting advice on the issue from antiabortion activists, has so far refused to make that commitment, along with marquee senate candidates like David McCormick, who only recently started emphasizing his support for exceptions after downplaying the position in his 2022 race.

DeSantis, who signed a six-week law in Florida, surprised viewers at the second primary debate when he joined former vice president Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott in supporting the 15-week federal law.

Kellyanne Conway, a 2016 campaign manager for Trump who still advises Republicans on abortion messaging, said the party should embrace the federal 15-week “minimum standard.” She called the position both compassionate, because of the disputed claim that fetuses can feel pain at that point, and a concession by the antiabortion community, since polling shows Americans are more supportive of abortion access earlier in a pregnancy. She has repeatedly warned Republican candidates to stake out clear positions on abortion to avoid Republican attacks.

“Republicans who think they can ignore this may risk their political careers,” she said. “Nine months later, it will be a bigger issue for them.”

Others in the antiabortion community have joined with some Republican campaign strategists to argue that laying down a marker at any number of weeks for a federal bill will only play to the advantage of Democrats.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) is widely expected to reintroduce a bill banning abortion with some exceptions after 15 weeks in the coming weeks, a move that proved controversial in 2022 because it allowed Democrats to claim that the elections could determine whether abortion is available in Democratic states, with lots of swing districts, where there are currently few restrictions on the procedure. A separate battle has been playing out in the Republican-controlled House, where a recent agriculture appropriations bill failed to pass because it included language that would have restricted the distribution of drugs that can induce abortion through the mail. Moderate Republicans in states like New York rebelled.

In the presidential race, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has taken the lead in arguing that Republicans should focus federal efforts not on a certain number of weeks but on what can actually pass in Washington.

“How many weeks are you for? How many exceptions are you for? And so on. But these questions miss the point if the goal is saving as many lives as possible,” she said in an April 25 speech.

Trump endorsed federal legislation that would have outlawed abortion at 20 weeks in his past campaigns for president. But more recently, he infuriated many antiabortion activists when he attacked DeSantis for signing a ban on abortion, with exceptions, after six weeks of gestation, a point in time when many are not yet aware of their pregnancy.

“I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” Trump said on Meet The Press on Sept. 17, prompting calls from many evangelical leaders for him to rescind the statement. Never Back Down, a group supporting the DeSantis presidential campaign, has released several videos on social media that replaying that quote in an effort to suggest to voters that Trump has betrayed the antiabortion cause.

A person familiar with the discussions over Trump’s statement said the mistake was failing to make clear that he was making a political point, not a moral or policy one. “Had he tied that to the political reality of election it might not be as big a deal as it’s turned out to be,” said the person, who requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

Such clarification has not stopped the calls for him to publicly clarify his statement.

“It’s not acceptable,” said Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who introduced Trump at the Pray, Vote, Stand event.

Perkins said the conflicts over the party’s position on abortion are not new. The latest round, he added, is a remnant of the sudden victory last year after decades of fighting for the Supreme Court to overturn its 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to the procedure.

“We had this book we had been using for decades. There is no next chapter written. No one knew what to do. There was panic,” he said.

But the step next forward should follow past successes, with incremental victories on both the state and federal levels, including urging all candidates to embrace a national 15-week law with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

“We just need to go back to what we have been doing,” he said.

Source: The Washington Post

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