The GOP’s internal war over how to message abortion policy is shifting

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Back in April, Nikki Haley delivered a speech at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s headquarters that left officials from the anti-abortion group disappointed and positioned her as an outlier in the field.

The former U.N. ambassador declined to commit to a federal 15-week limit on the procedure and spoke broadly about “sensitivity” and finding “national consensus.” Anti-abortion activists warned that her approach would alienate base voters.

On Wednesday, Haley delivered a similar line on abortion during the third GOP primary debate, declaring that she remains personally opposed but does not “judge anyone for being pro-choice.” This time around, she wasn’t being viewed as an anomaly among the candidates, but as the possible template for others in the party to follow.

“It feels like everyone’s kind of heading in the same direction, and it’s toward the position Nikki has articulated from the beginning,” said Republican strategist David Kochel, a longtime fixture of Iowa politics. Haley had “the answer that most Republicans should be learning how to articulate, because it makes so much sense … We need people in our coalition who have diverse opinions about abortion.”

The Republican Party is in the midst of a potentially seismic shift when it comes to how it talks about abortion. In the years before the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, few, if any, serious presidential aspirants were willing to risk being portrayed as anything less than 100 percent on board with the anti-abortion standards set by leaders of the cause.

But over the past year, as voters have consistently backed codifying abortion rights in their states — including in Ohio, the night before the debate — GOP candidates up and down the ballot have tried to moderate or muddy their message, even while continuing to back abortion restrictions.

The current runaway favorite for president, Donald Trump, has repeatedly warned that the Republican Party risks electoral calamity if it comes off as too doctrinaire. That Haley, the most ascendant of the also-rans, has staked out a softer approach, too, suggests there is currently little political downside in doing so.

The Haley campaign is feeling vindicated. Having endured criticism over her approach early in the race, aides feel she is “teaching the GOP how to talk about this,” as one campaign official put it. It does not go unnoticed that she is doing so as the only woman in the race.

“She is on a primary debate stage surrounded by men,” the campaign official, granted anonymity to speak freely, said. “The first debate, they were literally all wearing the same thing. Here she was, a voice of reason and clarity. I think it just struck people.”

Haley’s moderation, Democrats argue, is on rhetoric, not substance. As a governor and a state legislator, she supported anti-abortion laws and continues to pledge to sign the most restrictive one that would reach her desk. Top surrogates of the Biden campaign, which has made no secret of its plans to run on abortion, were quick to slam her debate response, attempting to frame her as an extremist, despite her hesitance to embrace a specific federal standard.

But as a matter of messaging, it is clear that the GOP primary field has moved in Haley and Trump’s direction. With former Vice President Mike Pence now out of the race, and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson no longer on the debate stage, there is little public embrace in the GOP primary of a national abortion law.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who signed a six-week abortion ban in his state and agreed to sign a 15-week national abortion restriction if president — didn’t mention that pledge during the third debate. Instead, he told a personal story about appointing a state Supreme Court justice whose mother had been counseled to abort her.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie maintained that the issue was one for states to decide for themselves. Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy declined during the debate to give a direct answer to the question of a 15-week ban — though he has repeatedly said it should be decided at the state level — instead calling for “sexual responsibility for men.”

The one exception was Sen. Tim Scott, who embraced a 15-week ban.

For leaders in the anti-abortion movement, it feels off — and a bit frustrating — that the loudest voices in the party have failed to adopt the proposed 15-week messaging. Having finally achieved their decadeslong goal of dismantling Roe, they believe Republicans need to not act defensive.

“I think clarity is a gift in politics, and the only one with any sense of clarity at all was Tim Scott,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, remarking on the most recent debate. “Voters in the Republican primaries deserve to hear not nuance, but they deserve to hear what the candidates would actually do. I don’t think the question could be asked in any simpler way than the moderators have asked.”

Dannenfelser said she has not spoken with Haley since her speech at their headquarters in April, or with Trump since she held a meeting with him later in the spring. But she is holding out hope that they have a change of heart on how they’re approaching abortion policy.

But a change of heart seems increasingly unlikely.

On Tuesday, voters passed an amendment enshrining abortion into the constitution in the red state of Ohio, in what was widely seen as a political bellwether for voters leading into 2024. And Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, having pushed a 15-week limit as a sensible middle ground, saw Democrats in his state retain the state Senate and win over the House.

Long before then, Trump had argued that the GOP needed to change how it tackled abortion. More recently, at back-to-back events in September for the conservative groups Concerned Women for America and Family Research Council, he said it was possible to win on abortion, but “it’s very delicate and explaining it properly is an extremely important thing.”

Trump — who touts nominating the conservative Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe but rarely offers specifics on his abortion position — has underscored the importance of exceptions in the case of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is endangered. And he has criticized six-week abortion bans as “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” He has instead offered to sit down with Democrats and Republicans to “negotiate something” on abortion.

Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, said she agreed with Trump’s premise that messaging around abortion needs to improve. But she said the solution was not to try and “dodge the issue and go soft on [it],” but more conviction and resources behind the anti-abortion cause.

“It’s not going to go away, and it’s going to be top of the Democrats agenda in 2024. So, Republicans need to learn their lessons, and they need to put their money where their mouth is,” Nance said. “When we’re getting outspent 9 to 1, what do they think was going to happen?”

Haley’s camp, for its part, sees no need to change course. After Wednesday’s debate, positive feedback, including for her abortion answer, came pouring in publicly and privately, a campaign official said. Haley raised more than $1 million in the 24 hours after the debate, setting a record day for the campaign’s small-dollar fundraising. A post-debate 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll declared her the clear winner of the night.

While the praise she is receiving for a less-defined abortion policy might frustrate some leaders of social conservative groups, others have been less insistent that the candidates follow a strict script.

Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said there should be a “highly organic process and an ongoing conversation” between the candidates, anti-abortion and other conservative groups, voters and party officials.

“They need to be both principled and pragmatic, where they are not retreating one inch on being pro-life and standing for the ultimate goal of every child being safe in its mothers womb,” Reed said. “But they have to be pragmatic about what’s achievable today on the state and federal level.”

“In the near term,” Reed said, “most of the progress will be in the states.”

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