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Apr 11, 2023, 5:57pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Republicans still have no idea what to do about abortion in 2024

MOISES AVILA/AFP via Getty Images
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The News

Donald Trump still hasn’t talked about it. Nikki Haley stumped in northwest Iowa, but never mentioned it. Vivek Ramaswamy recorded interview after interview, and it never came up.

Five days after U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ordered the FDA to withdraw its approval of mifepristone, a commonly-used abortion medication, just one potential GOP presidential nominee has said a word about it. “Life won again,” former Vice President Mike Pence said, thanking the judge for fixing “a 20-year wrong.”

Most other Republicans have been quiet. The anti-abortion movement noticed.

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“Everyone was at church on Friday night when the decision came out,” said Katie Daniel, the state policy director at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “That could be part of it.”

One week after Democrats flipped the Wisconsin supreme court with an abortion-focused campaign, and days before Kacsmaryk’s order goes into effect, most Republicans are reluctant to discuss the issue and the stakes. (The Biden administration is appealing the decision, and pill manufacturers are suing for a temporary stay.)

“You’d have never seen this two years ago, this total fear of the issue,” said Jon Schweppe, the policy director at the social conservative American Principles Project. “My worry, to be honest, is that this gets decided in the presidential primary in a way that hurts the pro-life movement.”

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David’s view

Republicans are trapped in a machine they switched on, but can’t switch off. Abortion remains a front-of-mind issue for voters, with no clarity on what the leading Republican candidates for presidents would do about it if elected.

The problem, for those candidates, is that the issue’s moving on three separate tracks. In federal courts, thanks to Trump-era appointments, conservatives have judges and majorities who’ll approve maximalist restrictions, like Kacsmaryk, with lifetime appointments and no voter accountability.

In states, every election can now determine what kinds of abortions are legal — as in Wisconsin, where Justice-elect Janet Protasiewicz said she’d overturn the state’s 1849 ban, and Republicans dithered over their response, never passing an updated law with exceptions after suggesting they could.

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In federal politics, that dithering has intensified. Republican presidential candidates are mostly avoiding the topic for now, but will face pressure to win over anti-abortion evangelical voters in Iowa and South Carolina with tougher stances and more specifics.

In Congress, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is urging the party to embrace a 15-week abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest, and the health and life of a mother in certain circumstances. A 15-week ban sometimes polls well — on paper, at least. But the Graham proposal, as he explained to activists at a conservative conference near Charleston last month, is a ceiling not a floor. It would further restrict abortion in blue states, but not prevent red states from going beyond the 15-week limit to restrict abortion even earlier in a pregnancy.

Top Republicans like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, known for his political antennae, have strongly distanced themselves from Graham’s legislation, hoping instead to insulate federal candidates from the Dobbs fallout by leaving decisions up to states.

Those states aren’t exactly making it an easy topic to avoid. Two of this year’s gubernatorial races, in Louisiana and Mississippi, are unfolding in places where abortion is effectively banned (in Louisiana’s case, with a rare anti-abortion Democrat’s signature, though Gov. John Bel Edwards has asked to add new exceptions this session).

In Louisiana, GOP gubernatorial front-runner Jeff Landry has feuded with the city of New Orleans for not enforcing the ban. And in Kentucky, the Trump-endorsed favorite for the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination is Attorney Gen. Daniel Cameron, who opposes exceptions to the state’s abortion ban, a contrast that Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has been happy to draw.

“There’s only one candidate that has gotten abortion facilities closed since last August,” Cameron said in a debate hosted by Spectrum News last month. “I understand the delicacy of this issue. But I want to make sure that I’m a governor that reflects the values of the men, women and children of our 120 counties, and firmly believe that we’ve got to look out for those that are most vulnerable in our population — those that are in the womb.”

Democrats don’t expect to win many elections in modern Kentucky. But a 2022 ballot measure to ban abortion in the state constitution was defeated by 4 points, the same day that Sen. Rand Paul won a landslide re-election victory. That campaign, and others like it, revealed how voters who otherwise support the GOP could balk on this issue.

“Abortion transcends politics,” said Rachel Sweet, the campaign manager for last year’s Protect Kentucky Access campaign. “You have GOP elected officials who are far more conservative than a lot of their own voters, whether it’s in Kentucky or Kansas or Michigan or anywhere else.”

Trump’s own silence on abortion makes social conservatives nervous. Schweppe noted that abortion was missing from the former president’s policy roll-out. Last month, pressed by reporters during a trip to Iowa, Trump non-answered that his campaign was “looking at a lot of different things.”

And as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis moved closer to signing a ban on abortion after six weeks that’s advancing through the state legislature, Schweppe wondered whether Trump would oppose it in favor of a more popular, looser limit. After the GOP’s disappointing 2022 result, Trump blamed “the ‘abortion issue,’ poorly handled by many Republicans,” who insisted on “no exceptions.”

Trump had an opening to clarify his views after Kacsmaryk ruling. He didn’t take it, and neither did most of his rivals. (Questions sent to the campaigns of Trump, Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson, and Vivek Ramaswamy, sent yesterday, did not elicit any answers.) But what would a new, pro-life Republican president do, when handed control of the federal government for the first time in the post-Roe era? It’s a legitimate question, and the movement will keep asking it.

“Candidates should be talking about whether the FDA did its due diligence, for several reasons,” said Daniel. “There’s been a loss of trust in our public health institutions, from an overall lack of transparency, to not sharing information about the approval of chemical abortion drugs.”

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Room for Disagreement

Not everyone agrees abortion is as central to recent Republican losses as Democrats hope and many in the GOP fear. National Review columnist Christian Schneider argued that the conservative loss in Wisconsin last week was down to defeated nominee Daniel Kelly, a “terrible candidate” who’d lost by nearly as much in his previous run for the court three years earlier. Others point to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s re-election victory, after signing a six-week ban, as evidence that the issue is not a loser for Republicans.

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Notable

  • While the default reaction from Republicans has been silence, one Republican in a suburban district took dramatic action to distance herself from the Kacsmaryk ruling. “I agree with ignoring it at this point,” South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace told CNN on Monday, seconding New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion that the FDA should refuse to enforce the judicial order. “This thing should just be thrown out, quite frankly.”
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