Abortion roiled the midterms. Now it will define the presidential race.

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décembre 20, 2022

Donald Trump delivered the Supreme Court majority that voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, signed a laundry list of executive actions that chipped away at abortion access and openly embraced the anti-abortion movement, becoming the first sitting president to appear in person at the annual March for Life in 2020.

Yet the response from anti-abortion groups when he announced his 2024 presidential campaign was, in more careful and polite terms: Take a number.

“We look forward to President Trump and all presidential contenders outlining their pro-life vision and policy platform in the new Dobbs era as the primary election unfolds,” said Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser — one of several abortion opponents with muted responses to Trump’s announcement.

The same groups that helped put Trump in office in 2016 are now keeping him at arm’s length, illustrating how the Supreme Court’s June ruling erasing federal abortion rights has created a new litmus test in Republican presidential politics. No longer is it sufficient for a candidate to identify as “pro-life,” promise to defund Planned Parenthood or even to provide — as Trump did — a list of potential Supreme Court nominees who would vote to curtail abortion rights.

Anti-abortion advocates are insisting on more in a post-Roe era — namely, a hard commitment to back a federal abortion ban — and they’re holding out until they get it.

That means potential Republican presidential hopefuls — such as Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose state’s 15-week abortion ban would have been at the leading edge of the anti-abortion movement a year ago — enter the 2024 cycle under pressure to go farther. There’s already a range of policy positions across the potential GOP field, from former Vice President Mike Pence’s support for a national abortion ban to former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s recent remarks that abortion should remain a state issue, and most have not yet detailed the exact anti-abortion policies they would push if elected.

But the mounting pressure on the issue puts prospective candidates in a bind between what GOP primary voters will demand and what general election voters will accept.

Conservative advocates chalk up the party’s midterm performance to candidates who tried to duck the issue of abortion. Yet voter outrage over the loss of abortion rights also played a big role in Republicans losses in 2022, when independents swung against the party despite concern about the economy under President Joe Biden. And while the tension between catering to the base in a primary and the need to cultivate mass appeal for a general election is a staple of politics, the difference now is that elected officials can actually make good on once-toothless pledges to outlaw abortion.

“We’re living in a different world now,” said Matt Wolking, a Republican strategist who has worked for the campaigns of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and President Donald Trump. “It’s no longer a hypothetical.”

Even within the anti-abortion movement, early fissures are emerging. Some groups are demanding 2024 contenders push for nothing less than a complete ban on abortion starting at conception, while others urge a less hardline stance, saying they’re open to 15-week bans or other incremental steps they see as more politically realistic.

“We know there has to be a coming together on these issues in the states, and there will have to be at the federal level as well,” said Marilyn Musgrave, a former GOP congresswoman and the vice president of government affairs for SBA. “We do not apologize for saving as many lives as we can on the way to ending abortion.”

Conservative groups that spent tens of millions boosting abortion opponents in the midterms are now planning to dole out even more on the fight for the presidency. They are creating candidate questionnaires, scheduling straw polls among their devotees, and sending out invitations for GOP aspirants to pitch themselves to the anti-abortion movement at their galas, conferences and marches early next year.

SBA has also thrown its muscle behind a national 15-week abortion ban authored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Many Republican lawmakers have been leery of backing the bill, saying they prefer the debate to play out at the state level. Graham confirmed he plans to reintroduce the bill in 2023, further squeezing GOP lawmakers with an interest in running for president.

“Each person running for the White House will have to come up with an answer to the question, post-Dobbs: ‘Should we consider this a states rights issue or a human rights issue?’” Graham said in an interview. “The pro-life community is still a strong component of the Republican Party and if you’re running for president, I think in certain states, like South Carolina, the position that the unborn have no voice in our nation’s capital will be a tough sell for the pro-life community.”

But there is also strong sentiment in the anti-abortion movement that the Graham bill doesn’t go nearly far enough, given that more than 90 percent of abortions in the U.S. are performed before 15 weeks of pregnancy.

“If you’re not addressing the kind of abortion that is most common, you’re not really addressing abortion at all,” said Students for Life chief policy strategist Kristi Hamrick.

Now, the 2024 presidential primary is kicking off amid that tension.

Where the contenders stand

Many conservatives are worried that, despite his policy record, Trump would be a toxic force for the anti-abortion cause going forward. That’s especially true after so many of the candidates he endorsed in the 2022 midterms lost races Republicans had been counting on to win back the Senate.

“Look, I’m appreciative of everything he put in place,” Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, told POLITICO. “Evangelical voters and conservative voters have great admiration and appreciation for him, but they still want a vision cast for the future and they don’t want to go through four years of relitigating 2020.”

Trump didn’t once mention abortion or the fall of Roe in his grievance-laden speech announcing his 2024 campaign, sparking conservative concerns that he won’t prioritize the issue in a third White House bid.

“He might not always be as vocal as we want him to be,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent Christian conservative activist in Iowa and the president of The Family Leader. “He was silent for a while after the overturn of Roe v. Wade — but his actions were good on this issue.”

Vander Plaats opposed Trump during the 2016 campaign but now thanks him for his work advancing the anti-abortion cause. Still, he has been outspoken against Trump running again in 2024.

Additionally, in recent interviews with conservative outlets, Trump has said he favors exceptions for “rape, incest and protecting the life of the mother,” a position at odds with some anti-abortion leaders who view rape and incest exceptions as punishing a child for the sins of a parent.

In addition, a policy blueprint released in December by dozens of senior Trump administration alumni does not call for national limits on abortion, instead arguing the Dobbs ruling “pushed the issue of abortion rightfully back to the states.”

“President Trump achieved generational change by appointing Supreme Court justices and federal judges who have protected the life of the most vulnerable,” Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung wrote in a statement. “There has been no president in history who has been a bigger champion on this issue. His sterling record of achievement speaks for itself.”

Across the spectrum of 2024 hopefuls, all of the main contenders say they identify as « pro-life. » But among that short list of Republican stars there remain distinctions — some of them deal breakers for advocacy groups. For example, Pence, a favorite in the movement, would support a national abortion ban. But Trump has not gone further than welcoming the Dobbs decision as an opportunity for states to decide, and he has not endorsed the Graham bill or another federal ban thus far.

Like Trump, many conservatives have argued for decades that state and local governments should set abortion policy — and criticized Roe for blocking them. But SBA’s Dannenfelser called this “an unacceptable position for any 2024 GOP presidential contender to hold” and a “death sentence to unborn babies in blue states.”

Pence has repeatedly touted and taken credit for the anti-abortion policies of the Trump administration, openly courting the support of anti-abortion groups as he considers a 2024 run.

In recent interviews, Pence has said he would support Graham’s 15-week nationwide abortion ban if he were still in Congress, and he has teamed up with Dannensfelser to call for advancing anti-abortion measures nationwide.

Since leaving the White House, he has raised money for crisis pregnancy centers, appeared at anti-abortion events and is also expected to appear again at the March for Life in January — which will mark what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe. An aide said he’s planning to provide refreshments to marchers along the route at the office of his nonprofit, Advancing American Freedom.

“There are some in our party who might not want to talk about the issue, but he thinks we should take our case to the people and explain why we champion life,” Marc Short, an adviser to Pence, told POLITICO.

Yet Pence, who lags behind Trump and DeSantis in early polling, also has some baggage on the issue. Ironically, a near-total abortion ban signed by his successor as Indiana governor was just blocked in court for violating the religious freedom law Pence signed in 2015. Jewish residents of the state argued successfully that the abortion restrictions violate their religious liberty, as Judaism allows, and in some circumstances requires, the right to terminate a pregnancy.

The new vanguard

With Pence on a book tour and Trump struggling to get his campaign off the ground, conservative groups are also turning their eyes toward current GOP governors who have signaled interest in a White House bid. Movement leaders argue these officials will have an advantage because they can spend the next couple years showing — not just telling — voters what they believe when it comes to abortion.

“I think you’re going to see more and more governors who have established a track record who will be the favorites of pro-life voters,” Perkins said. “Republicans have talked about being for life … Now it’s no longer words, people are going to be looking for actions.”

Several anti-abortion movement leaders called DeSantis a strong contender — but warned he faces unique risks should he decide to run for president.

In April, DeSantis signed a state law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest. At the time, he and his allies offered conflicting messages about the new law, casting it both as a “reasonable” and “moderate” compromise and just the first step toward a more complete ban on the procedure. The restrictions went into effect in July, days after the Dobbs ruling.

Now, with a green light from the Supreme Court to ban abortion entirely, pressure is mounting on DeSantis to do more.

“Fifteen weeks was a great step in the right direction, but that was in a pre-Dobbs environment,” said Andrew Shirvell, who leads the lobby and advocacy group Florida Voice for the Unborn. “This is now the time to put up or shut up. Nothing less than the total abolition of abortion will be acceptable.”

Some governors convened special legislative sessions after the Supreme Court’s June ruling to pass additional abortion restrictions. DeSantis did not. At a press conference in mid-December, the governor declined to answer a question about whether he would back a six-week abortion ban, saying only that he’s ready to sign “great life legislation.”

Shirvell, whose group plans to push for tighter restrictions on abortion in Florida’s upcoming legislative session, predicted that DeSantis will suffer in a future White House bid if he fails to push a stricter ban into law.

“His opponents, whoever they may be, will pummel him on this issue,” he said. “If he doesn’t get this done, he’s toast.”

Other anti-abortion advocates and GOP insiders disagreed, arguing that DeSantis has staked out a “consensus” position on abortion that will serve him well going forward — and noting that the Mississippi law that ultimately toppled Roe v. Wade was, itself, a 15-week ban.

“Our ultimate objective is to protect every unborn child in the womb but that won’t be achievable in any way,” said Ralph Reed, the leader of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. “So you pass the most strongly pro-life legislation you can and you do the same thing we did with Dobbs, which is you eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

Another GOP governor activists are watching as a potential 2024 candidate, Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin, is in a similar position.

He has repeatedly pledged to sign a 15-week abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother should one ever make it to his desk. In December, he also proposed banning the state’s Medicaid program from covering abortion in cases of “incapacitating” fetal deformities.

Yet conservatives in the state are eager to go further. One bill Virginia lawmakers may debate in January would bar abortion from the moment of conception. But unlike DeSantis, Youngkin faces a divided legislature, and the Virginia state Senate’s Democratic majority is expected to be a firewall against the push for restrictions, easing some pressure on the governor.

Other Republican stars are also working to prove their anti-abortion bona fides as they weigh presidential runs, well aware that they have to navigate a more complex landscape post-Roe.

Haley has said she is “very pro-life,” and as governor of South Carolina in 2016, she signed into law a 20-week abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. But she has also said that abortion restrictions should be decided at the state level — a point of contention with some anti-abortion groups.

“I have never thought unelected justices should be deciding something this personal,” Haley said on WMUR in New Hampshire in September. “So I want to see as many states that are pro-life as possible.”

Referencing the first ballot referendum after Roe was overturned, in which Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have cleared the way for the legislature to pass a ban, Haley added: “As much as I would like Kansas to be pro-life, the people decided.”

Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state and Republican congressman who has signaled interest in a White House bid, is also courting the support of the anti-abortion movement.

Pompeo has touted his work in the Trump administration reimplementing and expanding the Mexico City Policy — a ban on U.S. foreign aid going to groups overseas that make referrals for abortions or give patients information about the procedure — and his advocacy for the failed constitutional amendment vote in his home state of Kansas. Previously, as a member of the House, he said he does not support abortion access for victims of rape or incest.

“Now, with Roe overturned, we will see which politicians supported the pro-life cause to win elections, and which actually believed it,” he tweeted this summer.

Most likely GOP candidates, however, have not outlined their positions on abortion with the level of detail activists are seeking — including when in pregnancy they believe access to the procedure should end and what kinds of exceptions they support.

“It’s wise for candidates to have more details rather than less, and we’re glad to help people develop those details should they need it,” Hamrick said, adding that candidates face a “different ballgame” now that Roe has been eliminated. “Politicians of all kinds were able to hide behind slogans for so many years. Not anymore. If you wish to engage politically at this time, you have to be prepared to speak to this.”

A delicate dance

All candidates running in 2024 will face heightened scrutiny of their records and platforms on abortion. But they will also have to calibrate how they talk about it in every interview, speech and piece of campaign literature.

“Message discipline will be very important,” Wolking cautioned. “This is a topic where it’s easy to make a misstep.”

Vander Plaats agreed, saying that while opposing abortion should be “an easy one” for Republican candidates coming through the early caucus state of Iowa, White House hopefuls will have to tread carefully.

“All the presidential candidates, they all will talk about how they value life, and champion the sanctity of human life,” he said. “I don’t think you should hide from it, but the question is, how do you message it, and if people sense a degree of compassion when you do message it.”

Several Republicans running in competitive races in 2022 learned the hard way that the wrong abortion message can help kill a campaign.

Pennsylvania Senate hopeful Mehmet Oz declared during a televised debate that abortion should be a decision between “women, doctors and local political leaders.” Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon said she didn’t support abortion exemptions for a 14-year-old rape survivor because having a baby can be “healing” in that circumstance. Other losing candidates, including Arizona Senate nominee Blake Masters, scrubbed anti-abortion rhetoric and rewrote the policy positions on their websites as they headed from primaries into general elections.

Democratic campaigns and progressive advocacy groups seized on these developments in the leadup to the midterms, cutting attack ads and massively outspending the GOP on messaging related to abortion.

They plan to keep up the pressure heading into 2024. NARAL, Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights advocacy groups say they’ll be expanding their permanent year-round presence in key swing states like Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada. They are also laying the groundwork for future state ballot referendum fights to add to the six they won in 2022.

“For organizing to be effective, you can’t just do it every two years,” NARAL President Mini Timmaraju told POLITICO. “Now is the opportunity for us to really flex our muscles.”

Many Republicans and conservative advocacy groups are also urging prospective candidates to go on the offensive. That means attacking Democrats for their opposition to abortion restrictions at any stage of pregnancy and their votes against the Hyde amendment, the longstanding ban on federal funding for abortion.

“I think you’ll see more efforts by Republicans, particularly in swing states, to label the position of the Democratic party as extremely extreme,” said Graham, one of several Republicans who argue this is an effective response to Democratic attacks on abortion that the party didn’t use enough this year.

But anti-abortion groups remain worried that GOP candidates — still reeling from the 2022 results — will shy away from the issue going forward. Now, they are trying to make the case that there’s a greater risk of depressing Republican turnout if they sidestep the issue.

“When you look at the three legs of the Republican base — economic conservatives, national defense conservatives and social conservatives — we’re the foot soldiers,” Hamrick said. “We’re the people who door knock, not the people who want a flat tax. We‘re the ground game.”

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