More than a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Republican candidates remain split over how to move forward on abortion, a political liability Democrats are eager to exploit regardless of who becomes the Republican nominee.
The GOP divide was laid bare on the debate stage this week, as candidates backed a 15-week abortion ban, deferred to the states or tried to split the difference. President Joe Biden’s campaign responded immediately in a new digital ad, painting the field’s top contenders as extreme on the issue – and signaling what the Democratic campaign is likely to focus on in the coming year.
When it comes to the future of abortion access, Republican candidates are facing pressure on all sides.
GOP-led state legislatures have passed a wave of complete or near-total abortion bans that go beyond what most Americans support. Voters have supported abortion rights ballot initiatives and candidates in several key elections over the last year. And anti-abortion and evangelical groups are demanding presidential candidates go on the offensive and get as specific as possible.
“The debate reflected the many different views among Republicans regarding abortion policy: not only what the policy ought to be, but what level of government ought to be making the decisions,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “There’s no real consensus at this point.”
Biden’s reelection campaign has also homed in on remarks GOP candidates made on abortion during the debate. In talking points sent out to surrogates Wednesday night, the campaign claimed Republicans “spent two hours shouting over each other on … who has the best plan to ban abortion nationwide,” CNN reported Thursday.
Biden’s team followed up Friday morning with a digital ad, “These Guys,” highlighting comments former President Donald Trump, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have made on abortion, including a clip of DeSantis on the debate stage. The ad, aimed at women in seven battleground states, is part of a $25 million ad campaign CNN first reported earlier this week.
The ad also reaffirms Biden’s stance on abortion: that the U.S. should maintain the standard set in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which allowed for abortion up until fetal viability, generally viewed as around 24 weeks.
“This ad is the first of many that will hold all MAGA Republicans accountable for their extreme, losing positions throughout the cycle, while also highlighting the President’s support for women and their fundamental freedoms,” Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said in a statement.
Polling suggests that Americans support some legal abortion, but with limits. Seventy-three percent of respondents to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released last month said abortion should be allowed during the first six weeks of pregnancy, including 88% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans surveyed. Asked if states should allow abortion at 15 weeks, 51% of those surveyed said yes, including 75% of Democrats and 29% of Republicans.
Only 27% of those surveyed supported allowing abortion until 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Democrats are hoping that abortion access will continue to be an issue that helps them with voters heading into 2024. Since last year’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision overturned Roe and left abortion access up to individual states, Democrats and abortion rights activists have racked up a number of wins in special elections and ballot initiatives, and the party overperformed in the 2022 midterm elections.
Trump – whose handpicked nominees lost key Senate races in Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia – went on to write a January social media post blaming the party’s midterm losses on “the ‘abortion issue,’ poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that insisted on No Exceptions.”
Tom Bonier, chief executive of TargetSmart, a Democratic political targeting firm, said he expects abortion will be an even stronger issue for his party heading into the 2024 election.
“The evidence that we’re seeing at this point is that abortion rights as a political issue is having an even greater impact than it did last year, which is saying a lot because it had a huge impact on elections in 2022,” he said.
Bonier cited two causes for abortion’s growing influence. Voters, he said, no longer have to imagine what life would look like after Roe. They’re experiencing it firsthand. At the same time, Republicans have not adopted their message to address the political climate, he said. That dynamic was on display in the ad released by the Biden campaign Friday.
“It literally speaks for itself as an issue at this point, that Republicans have not moderated, that in some ways they’ve actually got further to the right,” he said.
Nearly two dozen states have moved to ban or restrict abortion in the wake of Dobbs. Some of the bans have been blocked in court, including the six-week limit DeSantis signed in April. Abortion is currently legal in Florida until 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Republicans have begun to coalesce around the idea of a federal abortion ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, an anti-abortion group, has called on candidates to support the 15-week limit at minimum, with room for states to pass more restrictive measures.
“A number of GOP officeholders and even presidential aspirants use ‘states’ rights’ as an excuse to tape their mouths shut on abortion,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, wrote in a Thursday Washington Post op-ed with former Trump White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway. “This should not, and will not, stand.”
Former UN Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and DeSantis all declined to commit to signing a 15-week ban, while former Vice President Mike Pence and Scott did. The latter two criticized their opponents in post-debate interviews. Scott said in a Thursday Fox News interview that it is “a problem for our nation” that some candidates said they would not commit to a 15-week ban, while Pence also took a jab at Trump.
“Whether it be with Gov. Desantis or Nikki Haley or others onstage, frankly most of the candidates running, including the one that did not show up tonight, are all trying to relegate the question of abortion as a states-only issue,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash on Wednesday.
Trump has not said whether he would back a 15-week ban and has suggested he would leave it with the states. In May, he criticized the six-week ban DeSantis signed as “too harsh” for the anti-abortion movement but declined to say whether he supported it personally. A month later he told the audience at a Faith and Freedom Coalition conference that while there “remains a vital role for the federal government” to play in abortion policy, people want it to be a state-level issue.
“I believe the greatest progress for pro-life is now being made in the states, where everyone wanted to be,” Trump said. Pence used his remarks at the same conference to call on every GOP candidate to back a 15-week ban as a national standard.
If a consensus is reached it will likely be whatever the eventual Republican nominee backs, though Ayres would advise candidates to leave the issue to the states — if that’s what they personally believe, he said.
“Ultimately, a candidate has to look into his or her heart and soul to find a position they’re comfortable with, otherwise, they’ll never be able to articulate it effectively,” he said.