Republicans split over post-Roe abortion laws

Top Republicans are increasingly split over where to draw the line in restricting access to abortions in the wake of last year’s landmark US Supreme Court decision.

The divisions come as the party’s White House hopefuls look to carve out their own positions with an eye to the 2024 presidential contest.

Several would-be candidates, including Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s former vice-president, and South Dakota governor Kristi Noem are courting support from party donors and grassroots voters by pushing for strict bans.

They are differentiating themselves from former president Trump, who despite appointing the three conservative Supreme Court judges who brought about the overturning of Roe vs Wade, has since suggested that he believes outright bans are unpalatable to voters.

“They are all going to try a different route,” said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “[Trump] is bound to have three, four or five opponents, I’d say that is the minimum. So here we go again.”

The schism has emerged after the Supreme Court’s decision to scrap Americans’ constitutional right to an abortion, which effectively handed responsibility for regulating the procedure to states rather than the federal government.

More than a dozen states have since passed outright bans, while others have brought in restrictions. Groups such as Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America have called for other states to do the same, and pushed for Congress to go a step further with a federal ban. Several thousand supporters gathered in Washington on Friday for the annual March for Life to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Roe decision on Sunday.

The issue has emerged as an early litmus test for establishing conservative bona fides, as Republicans jostle for position in a field still dominated by Trump, who is the only Republican who has declared that he will seek the nomination.

The former president, who has described himself as the “most pro-life president ever”, attracted the ire of staunch anti-abortion activists this month when he blamed the “abortion issue” for Republicans’ disappointing performance in midterm elections in November last year.

Exit polls suggested that abortion rights were a galvanising issue for Democratic voters and independents who rejected candidates who had called for strict bans without exception.

“It wasn’t my fault that the Republicans didn’t live up to expectations in the midterms,” Trump said in a post on his Truth Social platform.

“It was the ‘abortion issue’, poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on no exceptions, even in the case of rape, incest, or life of the mother, that lost large numbers of voters,” he added.

But Trump’s comments were swiftly rejected by anti-abortion lobby groups, including SBA, which responded: “The approach to winning on abortion in federal races, proven for a decade is this: state clearly the ambitious consensus pro-life position and contrast that with the extreme view of Democrat opponents.”

Pence has sought to align himself with such groups, reposting via Twitter SBA’s response to Trump, with the comment: “Well said!” He told The Daily Signal, a conservative website, this week that he “strongly” disagreed with Trump, adding that Republican candidates who articulated a “clear, unambiguous commitment to life” did well in the midterms, compared to those who “shied away from the issue or who allowed Democrats to define their position”.

In an interview with CBS News this week, Noem, the South Dakota governor who signed an abortion ban in her state and has widely been seen as a potential running mate or challenger to Trump, said she would “nudge” other Republican governors, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis, to take a similarly hardline position.

Noem’s comments came after her spokesperson tore into DeSantis, accusing him of “hiding” behind a law he signed in Florida last year, which bans abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy.

DeSantis, whose stock has risen among the Republican grassroots after winning re-election by nearly 20 points in the midterms, has largely avoided joining the debate, although he has faced calls from some social conservatives in Florida to champion a stricter abortion ban in the state’s upcoming legislative session.

“DeSantis has really held his fire on this issue,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. “He is smart to do so, to continue to see how this issue develops nationally.”

US vice-president Kamala Harris, a Democrat, visited Florida on Sunday and condemned the effects of the Supreme Court decision on Roe vs Wade.

“No one is immune from these impacts, even in states that protect reproductive rights,” Harris said in the state capital of Tallahassee. “Even then people live in fear of what might be next because Republicans in Congress are now calling for a nationwide abortion ban, some even from the moment of conception. The right of every woman in every state in this country to make decisions about her own body is on the line.” 

While some Republicans push for stricter laws, others caution that overreaching at the state level, or in a presidential primary, could backfire in national elections.

“The vast majority of Americans are not at either extreme. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe abortion should be allowed in some circumstances, but not others,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and strategist.

“There are some folks out there that are talking about total complete abortion bans with no exceptions whatsoever. And that is a position overwhelmingly opposed by the American people,” Ayres added. “Taking a position opposed by 90 per cent of Americans doesn’t strike me as a particularly wise move politically.”

Additional reporting by Stefania Palma in Washington

This post was originally published on Financial Times

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