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GOP pivots on abortion stance as 2024 nears

With a streak of ballot-box wins for reproductive rights groups, GOP candidates are warier of calling for a national ban on abortion

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Grappone Conference Center on Jan. 19 in Concord, N.H.
Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Grappone Conference Center on Jan. 19 in Concord, N.H. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Republican political groups and anti-abortion advocates are no longer focusing on federal abortion bans on the campaign trail, and leading GOP candidates are hedging on the issue as voters increasingly shy away from strict abortion laws.

At the outset of the 2024 presidential campaign cycle, anti-abortion groups asked GOP candidates to coalesce around a 15-week, national abortion ban. Now, with the GOP primaries for the White House in full swing, it’s clear those efforts have fallen short, as the remaining Republicans realize a national ban could hurt the party in down-ballot races.

By contrast, Democrats have unified to make it their prime 2024 messaging issue. More than a year and a half after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, multiple polls show the majority of Americans support abortion access through at least the first trimester of pregnancy.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who supported a national 15-week ban, dropped out of the presidential race Sunday. And the two remaining GOP contenders for the White House, Donald Trump and Nikki Haley, have hesitated to endorse a national abortion ban as they try to walk the line between appealing to conservative evangelicals and winning over more moderate Republicans or independent voters. Both are previous keynote speakers at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s annual gala.

Trump has flip-flopped on the issue of a national abortion ban, though he often calls himself “the most pro-life president in history” and claims credit for the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. 

Speaking last year at the Faith and Freedom Coalition summit, he said there “remains a vital role for the federal government in protecting unborn life.” The campaign also ran a paid Meta ad campaign in October 2023. 

But he also during the same time period told “Meet the Press” that he didn’t “frankly care” if abortion was left to the states in lieu of a federal ban.

“Everybody, including the great legal scholars, love the idea of Roe v. Wade terminated so it can be brought back to the states,” Trump said.

Trump has also said exceptions to bans are important for winning elections.

“We’re living in a time when there has to be a little bit of a concession one way or the other,” Trump said earlier this month during a Fox News town hall in Iowa.

“You have to win elections,” he added. “Otherwise, you’re going to be back where you were, and you can’t let that ever happen again. You’ve got to win elections.” 

Haley wants to leave the issue to the states and has largely dodged specifics on abortion bans. She describes herself as “100 percent pro-life” and signed a 20-week abortion ban while she was governor of South Carolina. 

But she said federal abortion legislation is “not realistic” because of the Senate filibuster but she would sign it if she were president.

“I’m unapologetically pro-life, but I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice,” she said Sunday on “Face the Nation.” “No Republican president can ban abortions, any more than a Democrat president can ban any state law.”

Some experts say such rhetoric is not surprising.

Narrow differences

Because policy differences between Republican candidates are so narrow when it comes to abortion, it’s difficult to talk about on the campaign trail. Policy minutiae don’t exactly get voters fired up, noted Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Republican political consultant and president of Eagle Consulting Group

“It’s really a settled issue in the Republican primary these days, so it’s not as much of a defining issue when you are trying to differentiate yourself from other candidates,” Nicholas said.

But Democratic strategists say otherwise. Abortion has been a galvanizing issue for the left ever since the Supreme Court overturned Roe.

Pia Carusone, a Democratic campaign strategist with SKDK, said Republicans are claiming a strategy change rather than admitting their voters are no longer enthused about abortion.

Also, she argued, the more the GOP talks about abortion the more they energize left-leaning voters.

“They would have been smart to continue quietly scheming … because the public scheming is really backfiring for them,” she said.

Changing messaging

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s June 2022 Dobbs decision, anti-abortion groups saw their moment to message on a federal 15-week abortion ban.

But it quickly became evident that not all lawmakers were eager to bring the bill to the floor and that Republican voters were not necessarily united on the thorny topic.

By contrast, candidates running on abortion rights did well in the 2022 midterms. Voters also have rejected stricter state abortion bans, with voters in three states rejecting further restrictions and voters in four states codifying reproductive rights since the Dobbs decision.

Now candidates are trying to walk a more careful line, and Republicans are either shying away from discussions of abortion or only talking about it to paint Democrats as “abortion extremists.”

The day before the New Hampshire primary, Trump stood in front of his supporters for more than two hours, talking about everything from mental health to the border. But one word never left his lips: abortion. 

Nicholas said this election is unique given the weaknesses in the presumptive presidential nominees of each party.

“A lot of the old paradigms go by the wayside because people are more concerned about some issues that the candidates can’t necessarily do anything about,” he said.

The modern Republican Party is still very split on federal restrictions to time limits, exceptions and enforcement, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio recently noted.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever have a unified message on abortion. What I think we should be unified in is to unapologetically ultimately say abortion is not a good thing,” he said on a podcast in January.

On Tuesday, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel accused President Joe Biden of supporting “abortion on demand up until birth.”

Painting the Democrats as extremists is part of the GOP’s abortion policy playbook going forward, multiple strategists said. 

As Republican anti-abortion operatives plan for the future, they’re looking to move the federal abortion policy debate to areas with broad consensus, said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. The conservative group is shifting its focus to preventing taxpayer dollars from going to abortion or abortion-related travel.

Roger Severino, a former Trump Health and Human Services official and current fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said as the GOP gets closer to the election, candidates need to focus on what they can accomplish under the current Senate makeup. He said a “key focus of the life movement now is redoubling our efforts so that it is about helping the mothers and the children.” 

Perkins said he isn’t worried about Trump’s reluctance to talk about abortion policy specifics, saying Trump’s most important job right now is not to let Democrats define the abortion debate like they did in the midterms. 

By making their anti-abortion message appeal to a broad base, the GOP hopes to build on the ground they won with the Dobbs decision.

“No one wants to go backwards,” Ford O’Connell, a former Trump surrogate, said. “Republicans need to win if they want to stay in the White House.”

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