Jun 27, 2023 - Health

"It's gotten much more complicated": GOP's post-Roe abortion catch-22

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Former President Trump and other Republican presidential hopefuls are skirting questions about what abortion policies they'd support if elected, in a sign of ambivalence over a topic that's perennially fired up the conservative base.

Driving the news: Trump over the weekend said that the federal government had a "vital role" in opposing abortion, but wouldn't elaborate on what federal restrictions he'd support — a guarded stance for someone who's accustomed to defining the terms of intra-party debates.

  • Though he called himself the "most pro-life president ever" during an evangelical gathering marking the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision, the GOP frontrunner has changed his abortion stance multiple times.
  • He's previously suggested that Republican support for strict abortion restrictions led to GOP midterm losses last year.

Why it matters: The overturning of Roe v. Wade took away the card most GOP candidates could play to express their anti-abortion views.

  • While many in the party now say the issue should be left to the states, some anti-abortion groups are pressing candidates to at a minimum, back a national 15-week ban. Former Vice President Mike Pence has challenged the rest of the field to do so.
  • "When Roe was in place, it provided this backstop that allowed Republicans to speak as aggressively as they wanted to about abortion," said Joshua Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Denver. "They could basically court those voters but know that there was no real risk of backlash."

The big picture: Now, the presidential hopefuls have to find a message that works with primary voters without alienating independents and swing voters, whom polls show generally support abortion rights.

  • A recent Marist poll found that while most Americans back continued access to the procedure, nearly two in three back some restrictions, typically around the first three months of a pregnancy.
  • Just 9% said abortion should be banned under any circumstance.

What this means: Trump isn't the only one who has been waffling over abortion.

  • Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) skirted questions during an Axios News Shapers event about whether he would support a six-week abortion ban, but reiterated his support for a 15-week ban.
  • Nikki Haley said during a CBS News interview that it is "not realistic" for candidates to pledge a federal abortion ban, arguing that it is unlikely that Congress will pass such a law.
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a six-week state ban that Trump suggested went too far. DeSantis told the evangelical gathering on Friday: "It was the right thing to do ... Don't let anyone tell you it wasn't."

Meanwhile, Democrats are leaning into abortion rights messaging, motivated by significant gains in the midterms and strong turnout in special elections in swing states like Wisconsin.

What we're hearing: "It's gotten much more complicated and much more personal and real," said Brendan Buck, a long-time aide to former House Speaker Paul Ryan.

  • "The last election was surprising to a lot of people in the way that [abortion] really became a lightning rod and had such a significant impact on the outcome of the election. I don't know that the party has really figured out what to do about that."
  • GOP candidates are "probably hoping that they can avoid the issue to a certain degree, but I imagine we're going to learn once again, this is not going away and that, once again, this is a liability politically," Buck added.

State of play: Prominent anti-abortion groups say Republican candidates shouldn't shy away and blame the disappointing results on an unwillingness to engage.

What they're saying: Presidential candidates "have to have a position on [abortion] and the position has to be clear," said former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway during a press briefing, adding that candidates should support at minimum a 15-week ban.

  • Conway — who is working with SBA to train GOP candidates on how to talk about abortion — criticized Haley's position that Congress does not have the votes to pass federal restrictions: "If a president didn't try to help the country in some way or keep a promise because the excuse is we don't have 'the votes,' then nothing would ever get done in Washington."

Yes, but: There is no clear consensus even among these organizations on what positions the presidential hopefuls should stake out.

  • SBA will only support presidential candidates who advocate for at least a 15-week abortion federal ban, per a statement from its vice president of communications, Emily Osment.
  • Students for Life of America, which is planning for the first time to endorse a GOP candidate during the primary, says that candidates must back at minimum a federal six-week ban, the group's president, Kristan Hawkins, told Axios.
  • The National Right to Life Committee, the oldest anti-abortion organization in the U.S., says the lack of enough votes in Congress to pass a nationwide abortion ban makes it "not effective" to focus on ban limits, according to Carol Tobias, the organization's president.
    • Instead, Tobias said, candidates should address what the executive branch can do "working through the Health Department and the Food and Drug Administration," alluding to the different post-Roe measures that the Biden administration adopted in an effort to maintain abortion access.

Flashback: There have always been differences within the anti-abortion movement over how far to take restrictions, Wilson told Axios.

  • Trump successfully appointing a strong conservative majority on the Supreme Court "and the realization of the possibility of overturning Roe just caused, essentially, chaos within the anti abortion ranks," Wilson added, bringing those divisions into the forefront.
  • Republicans now have to consider how to fuel that base without triggering backlash among the broader electorate.

The intrigue: The Republican National Committee said in a memo last year that candidates should focus on painting Democrats as extremists who support abortion "at any time for any reason." However, under the current post-Roe landscape, this strategy might not be very effective.

  • But in a landscape with weakened protections for abortion rights, it's harder for Republicans on the national stage to say that they aren't on the extreme end of the spectrum when at least 12 GOP-led states have near-total bans and several anti-abortion groups are in court seeking to enforce restrictions, said Mary Ziegler, a professor of law the University of California, Davis.
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