When picking a presidential nominee for 2024, Republican voter Shawn Walsh’s main concern is “electability.” Which means, he adds, that one of his main concerns is also abortion.
“Abortion to me is technically not a huge issue, but I know it’s a huge issue come voting,” says Mr. Walsh, a gunsmith and Army veteran from Claremont, New Hampshire, ahead of a campaign event for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at a local senior center. “If the midterms weren’t an eye-opener for the Republicans, I don’t know what is because we should have won that, hands down. That should have been a landslide across the country.”
Last fall, in the first congressional elections after the Supreme Court overturned a nationwide right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson, Republicans fell far short of their anticipated “red wave,” winning only a slim majority in the U.S. House and failing to retake the Senate. Abortion was a leading issue for voters, according to various exit polls. Mr. Walsh says he watched the impact in his state firsthand: Friends and family who had always voted Republican voted against state candidates with hard-line anti-abortion stances.
Now, almost a year out from the presidential election, many Republicans are beginning to worry about a 2022 repeat in 2024, as abortion rights seem likely to again be a central concern for voters.
Polls show a close race between President Joe Biden and top Republican presidential candidates, with independent voters – and suburban women – likely to play a crucial role. Large majorities of both of these groups say they are less likely to back an anti-abortion candidate, according to a July Reuters poll.
Most GOP primary voters, however, remain strongly opposed to abortion – a reality that has some 2024 presidential candidates gingerly trying to thread the needle on one of the nation’s most divisive issues.
Ms. Haley in particular has been nudging her party to take a more moderate stance – or at least, a softer tone. On campaign stops across early-voting states, she asks voters to give abortion “the respect it deserves” and look for policies where both sides can agree. And while her messaging has been criticized by some as vague, it also seems to be working: Ms. Haley has seen a mini-surge in support since the first GOP primary debate in late August, where candidates spent more time talking about abortion than about any other issue.
On Sunday, former President Donald Trump, the dominant front-runner in the primary race, raised eyebrows when he also struck a more moderate note on abortion. In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he claimed credit for the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, but also called the six-week ban signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “a terrible thing, a terrible mistake.”
“I think the Republicans speak very inarticulately about this subject,” he continued. “Other than certain parts of the country, you can’t – you’re not going to win on this issue.” Mr. Trump said he would be “a mediator” between both sides to determine at what point and under what circumstances abortion should be illegal, insisting without elaborating that he could find a policy that is “good for everybody.”
This conciliatory tone and emphasis on consensus coming from both Mr. Trump and Ms. Haley reflect just how far the conversation has shifted over the past year and a half – including within the Republican Party. As the GOP has increasingly moved from offense to defense on the issue, some Republican voters say it’s an approach the party as a whole needs to heed.
“If we as a party don’t deal with abortion, we’re going to lose,” says Mr. Walsh, who thinks Ms. Haley’s abortion stance could appeal broadly to enough of the electorate to get her to the White House. “Republicans need to wake up.”
Evolving pressures – and campaign positions
At a closed-door conference meeting in the Capitol earlier this month, a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gave Senate Republicans a briefing that seemed intended to serve as a wake-up call. The Dobbs decision has “recharged the abortion debate and shifted more people (including some Republicans) into the anti-Dobbs ‘pro-choice’ camp,” the political action committee’s report stated. Some senators reportedly left the meeting brainstorming potential new labels, such as “pro-baby,” that could replace the increasingly fraught “pro-life.”
Unlike in the past, when conservative candidates could simply identify themselves as “pro-life” without having to be specific, they are now being peppered with questions about real policy choices: Should abortion be banned at the state or federal level? After how many weeks? With or without exceptions? What about abortion pill restrictions?
At one end of the 2024 spectrum are Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who have strongly leaned into an anti-abortion message. Both candidates have endorsed a national 15-week abortion ban.
By contrast, Mr. Trump, in his “Meet the Press” interview, declined to explicitly endorse a 15-week ban, drawing a rare rebuke this week from Senator Scott. Ms. Haley has outright dismissed a national 15-week ban as unrealistic – one of the “hard truths” that she has been delivering to voters across New Hampshire and Iowa. She says the Supreme Court was “right” to send abortion back to the states.
“Republicans are kind of all over the place – either they don’t want to talk about abortion or they’re super restrictive,” says GOP strategist Maura Gillespie.
With the “super restrictive” stance seeming like a potential liability in a general election, she adds, a better way to address the issue would be to focus on broader solutions, as Ms. Haley does when she talks about child care, adoption, and access to contraception.
“Nikki Haley is leading the charge on how best to have this conversation,” says Ms. Gillespie. “She’s the only female on that stage, and she’s looking at it from all angles.”
Many GOP women lawmakers have been emphasizing access to contraception in counterbalance to their anti-abortion positions. Over the summer, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, along with eight other Republican women, many representing competitive districts, introduced the Orally Taken Contraception Act of 2023 to improve the accessibility of over-the-counter contraceptives.
In April, South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace, who calls herself pro-life, urged the Food and Drug Administration to ignore a federal judge’s ruling that threatened the use of a pill used commonly for abortions. In an interview with ABC News, she warned that Republicans would “lose huge” if they continue to pursue strict abortion bans with no exceptions, rather than “commonsense positions.”
“I don’t think you can run, especially now, and not have to answer the question about abortion, because it’s actively in play,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for Women in American Politics. This is particularly the case for female candidates, she adds: “The public sort of turns to the woman on the stage first in a conversation around abortion.”
Ms. Haley, like most of her competitors in the 2024 presidential primary, has a history of supporting anti-abortion efforts. As governor of South Carolina in 2016, Ms. Haley signed a 20-week abortion ban, joining the 12 other states with bans at the time. She has reiterated on the campaign trail and the debate stage that she is still “unapologetically pro-life,” but says she favors policies “where we can find consensus” such as banning abortions later in pregnancy, which a June poll found that about two-thirds of Americans support.
Mark Tepper, a tech salesperson from Nashua, was so impressed with Ms. Haley’s debate performance last month that he was inspired to come see her at a veterans’ post in Merrimack, New Hampshire. An independent who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Mr. Trump in 2020, Mr. Tepper says he’s now leaning toward Ms. Haley.
“Nikki, with her position on abortion and some of the more thorny issues, she’s threading the needle correctly to win a general election,” says Mr. Tepper. “She just has to figure out how to get that hardcore 30% of the Republican Party to realize that Donald Trump doesn’t have a prayer [of being reelected].”
“I don’t like wishy-washy”
Yet for many of those “hardcore” Republican voters, ending access to abortion remains a top policy priority – one that has only recently gone from a distant dream to a present reality. To win the GOP nomination, a candidate still has to win over voters like Suzanne W. from Fremont, New Hampshire, who came to hear Mr. Pence speak at a senior center in Raymond.
Suzanne, who declined to give her last name, voted for Mr. Trump in the previous two elections and “liked him a lot,” though she wishes he was “more upstanding in terms of morality.”
She describes Mr. Pence as not only a “moral and kind person,” but also one of the strongest anti-abortion candidates she’s seen in her lifetime – which is why she calls him her “No. 1” choice. Following Mr. Pence’s stump speech, during which he says “I’m pro-life and I don’t apologize for it,” Suzanne tears up while thanking him for being the first vice president to speak at the March for Life rally in Washington.
“I’m very pro-life, so I could never vote for a Democrat,” she says afterward. But she also wouldn’t vote for Ms. Haley if she were the Republican nominee next November. “I don’t like wishy-washy. Either you’re for abortion or you aren’t.”
Indeed, despite Ms. Haley and Mr. Trump vowing to find consensus, there is a real – and growing – gap between Republican and Democratic voters on the issue. According to Gallup polling, 60% of Democrats today say abortion should be legal under any circumstances, a 10-point increase over the past two years. Among Republicans, only 8% say the same, a decrease from 15% in 2021. An August poll found that almost 60% of likely Republican caucusgoers in Iowa – which holds the first GOP nominating contest – support their state’s law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
At the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s fall banquet last weekend, abortion was a much-discussed topic. Candidates such as Mr. Pence and Mr. DeSantis praised abortion bans. Mr. Scott said he would redesign the tax code to provide benefits once a woman gets pregnant. Ms. Haley reiterated that she would try to “bring people together” by encouraging adoption and allowing doctors who object to abortion to abstain from providing them.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson took issue with Mr. Trump’s comments on “Meet the Press” that he would find a way for both sides to “like me” on the abortion issue.
“Both sides aren’t going to like you,” said Mr. Hutchinson. “This is going to be a fight for life, and we’ve been doing that for 40 years. You take a stand. You state your position.”
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