What will it take to win endorsements from the country’s biggest anti-abortion groups in 2024? Backing federal legislation on the issue, no matter how much Republicans complain that the approach hurt them in the midterms.
“They’ve got to make it clear that it’s not just strictly for the states to decide on this,” Marilyn Musgrave, Vice President of Government Affairs at the Susan B. Anthony List, told Semafor. “We need leadership right now clearly stating there’s a federal role, or a national minimum standard.”
The View From the Activists
Many Republicans berated anti-abortion activists for endorsing a 15-week national ban that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. floated ahead of the midterms, and felt vindicated when the party badly underperformed in the election while pro-abortion groups won ballot measures in deep red states. This month, Donald Trump added to the pile on, blaming the poor showing on anti-abortion hardliners.
Now activists say they’re sick and tired of being singled out for the results, and they want candidates in 2024 to know it.
“Blaming pro life voters — some of the most dedicated voters and most passionate advocates — is completely unfair,” Lila Rose, a prominent anti-abortion activist, told Semafor. “It's ridiculous, quite frankly, and it just shows we need new leadership in the party.”
Anti-abortion leaders feel they’re already compromising by backing a national ban that’s far less stringent than restrictions that have been enacted at the state level, including by Republican governors like Greg Abbott, Mike DeWine, and Brian Kemp who comfortably won re-election in 2022.
They’ve also held their tongue on state-level bills that included — as Trump has demanded — exceptions for rape, incest, and the life or safety of a mother.
Musgrave told Semafor that while she “would like to see all abortion ended,” the group considers themselves “political realists.”
Brian Burch, the president of CatholicVote.org, told Semafor that while anti-abortion groups currently disagree over what kind of a federal law to back, Republican candidates “must be firmly pro-life.”
“The baseline is that a presidential candidate who hopes to win pro-life voters has to be able to commit to some federal effort, or federal commitment, to continuing to advance a culture of life,” Burch said. “This is the thing that everyone's going to try to pin groups like us down on, and I'm not willing to say there's a single piece of legislation that will qualify or disqualify somebody.”
To improve their performance in 2024, groups are urging candidates to go on offense and refocus the political debate on Democrats’ support for the right to relatively unusual late-term abortions, where polls show voters are more conflicted.
It’s not a new strategy, though groups argue there should be more resources and voices behind it this time. But Democrats also believe the proposed national ban, which polling indicates is less popular, is critical to keeping the debate in favorable territory for them.
“Debating weeks is not where we want to be,” pollster Celinda Lake told the New York Times. “People are terrible at math and terrible at biology.”
What is clear is that abortion is already shaping up as a critical dividing point between Republican candidates. When Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America issued a sharp retort to Trump’s abortion comments earlier this month, former Vice President Mike Pence praised their statement, indirectly knocking his former boss. Many activists are also eager to see where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who signed a 15-week ban, but has yet to outline his next steps — ends up on the issue.
National Review published a scathing statement last week from a spokesman for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another potential 2024 contender, accusing DeSantis of “hiding behind a 15-week ban” in Florida.
“Does he believe that 14-week-old babies don’t have a right to live?” the spokesman wrote.
Room for Disagreement
Longtime social conservative leader Ralph Reed told Semafor’s David Weigel that Trump had a point when he complained anti-abortion politicians did not provide the GOP with consistent backup after Dobbs.
“What really hurt us was that when it happened, there was no strategy as to what we were going to do, on the state level or the federal level, and no messaging strategy,” Reed said. “There's going to be a fair amount of Sturm und Drang on the abortion issue, because we're still kind of finding our way in a post-Roe environment.”
The View From Poland
The strict ban on abortion in Poland has created its own backlash, according to the polling firm IPSOS. Support for abortion up to 12 weeks had 53% support at the time of the February 2019 ban, and now stands at 70%.