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Will abortion politics swallow the Republican primary?

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs Florida’s 15-week abortion ban into law on April 13, 2022. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The governor of Florida typically isn’t shy about celebrating his culture-war victories. Last year, when Ron DeSantis signed his state’s new 15-week abortion ban into law, he did so before a crowd of admirers with reporters looking on.

On Thursday night, he signed a second bill that moves up the ban to six weeks, a point at which many women don’t yet know they’re pregnant. That’s a momentous victory for devout pro-lifers in what was a hotly contested swing state until recently, but there was no media this time to record the signing. This tweet, which went out after bedtime on the East Coast, appears to be the only photographic evidence.

On Friday morning, hours after signing the new ban, DeSantis spoke at Liberty University. Liberty is a Christian school, so the audience was sure to be enthusiastic about his latest legislative achievement. The person who introduced him mentioned it. The governor himself never did.

With age comes wisdom and with wisdom comes modesty. Perhaps, as he inches toward his 45th birthday, DeSantis is growing more demure about his public appearances.

Or perhaps he now finds himself in an impossible position politically and is doing what he can to manage it.

He had no choice but to support a six-week ban, as that’s the bare minimum of what pro-life activists now expect in states dominated by Republicans. Georgia and Ohio have six-week bans; other red states like Texas ban abortion almost entirely. The 15-week ban in Florida stuck out like a sore thumb in its relative leniency—and not just to abortion opponents. After most of the conservative South moved quickly to restrict the practice, women who live in the region turned to DeSantis’ state as the nearest available option to end their pregnancies. A recent study found Florida topping the list of those that saw more abortions performed in the six months after Roe v. Wade was overruled rather than fewer.

Letting your state become a abortion mill isn’t helpful for an aspiring Republican presidential nominee, so DeSantis did what he had to do to preserve his viability. He signed the new bill.

But there’s a reason he did it behind closed doors, with little fanfare. According to polling published in February by the Public Religion Research Institute, 63 percent of Americans oppose six-week bans, and a slight majority of 52 percent oppose 15-week ones. A more recent poll from Reuters/Ipsos asked people whether they agree or disagree with the statement, “I am less likely to vote for a politician who supports legislation limiting access to abortion.” By a 2-to-1 margin, more agreed than disagreed. Even Republicans were more likely to agree than disagree, 43-40. Go figure that the governor of Florida, running for president on alleged electability, would prefer to call as little public attention as possible to his latest triumph.

How the party’s candidates plan to successfully navigate abortion politics, first in a primary and then in a general election, I can’t fathom.

“The gap between what GOP base voters demand and what swing voters will tolerate grows wider every day,” Sarah Longwell observed recently. The wrinkle in the case of abortion is that it’s not clear what most GOP base voters want.

There is no “GOP base” anymore on this subject, any more than there’s a “GOP base” with respect to the Ukraine war. On both issues there are multiple sizable passionate right-wing constituencies in direct conflict, as one might expect of a party that’s held together anymore by nothing grander than shared contempt for the left.

On Ukraine, an unruly populist coalition of isolationists, America-First-ers, and anti-anti-Putinists believes we should cut aid to Zelensky’s forces. Traditional conservative hawks, of which there are still many, want to keep the aid flowing or even to increase it. The party’s eventual nominee will try to appease both factions, but there’s no way to do so elegantly. He’ll end up taking sides. The side he doesn’t take won’t react well.

There are at least three right-wing constituencies on abortion, I think. First are the maximalists, who believe Republicans should use their power to the hilt to prohibit the practice in any jurisdiction where they have the numbers to do so. Most maximalists are ardently pro-life for moral reasons and some for less exalted lib-owning ones, because they want to inculcate an general ethic of maximalism among Republican politicians. If you have power and you’re not using it to pass laws that offend Democrats in the most visceral way, why exactly are you in public service? A six-week ban is the least this group will accept.

Second are the minimalists, many of whom got swept into the GOP as part of the Trump revolution. If you’re unchurched and working class and had little patience for the pro-big-business, entitlement-slashing, Bible-thumping party of the pre-Trump era, seeing a louche libertine become the party’s nominee in 2016 must have been revelatory. At last there was a Republican who shared your contempt for progressive pieties, your support for the social safety net, and your indifference to right-wing bugaboos about sex. Some of these voters are pro-choice for philosophical reasons, others are “Barstool conservatives” who don’t want the status quo of the sexual revolution messed with by conservative social engineering. They were happy with the pre-Dobbs regime.

Last are the accommodationists, “soft” pro-lifers who were glad to see Roe v. Wade overruled but are reluctant for prudential or strategic reasons to push maximalist restrictions on abortion in the aftermath. Some believe first-trimester abortions are morally acceptable and that compromise in a 50/50 country is inevitable. Others look at the polling and worry that the maximalist approach will backfire on Republicans, sweeping Democrats to victory in swing states and ushering in far more permissive abortion laws. Accommodationists tend to prefer a federalist approach in which every state gets to decide for itself but might settle for something like a 15-week national ban.

It’s hard to tell from polling how large each constituency is relative to the others but a new survey from Pew Research suggests the non-maximalist factions are bigger than you might think. When Pew asked Republicans whether medication abortion should be legal in their state, the party split almost evenly between yes and no, 35-36. Self-described conservative Republicans said it should be illegal at a 47-24 clip; self-described moderate and liberal Republicans went the other way, 20-50.

If you’re a Republican candidate for president, how do you square that circle and appeal to more than one of these constituencies? If you conclude that you can’t and must throw in entirely with one of them, how do you avoid alienating a meaningful number of voters in the other two?

Compounding the problem is that no one wants to offend the maximalists even though their position is the one furthest removed from most Americans. Ardent pro-lifers are, after all, the foot soldiers of the conservative movement. Since the Reagan era they’ve been an indispensable part of winning Republican coalitions. To alienate them by telling them that the end of Roe amounts to a “mission accomplished” moment despite the fact that abortions have declined by only 6 percent since Dobbs would risk electoral catastrophe.

To grasp how challenging the politics of abortion have become for right-wing candidates, watch normally straight-shooting Tim Scott struggle to answer a question about it in New Hampshire.

Every Republican in the 2024 field will be asked which federal abortion restrictions they’re willing to sign into law as president. If they say “none, it’s a state issue,” they’ve kissed off the maximalists. If they say “six-week ban,” the minimalists and possibly the accommodationists—as well as swing voters in November—are gone. If they say “15-week ban,” they’re too soft for the maximalists and too hardcore for any voter who doesn’t want the federal government riding herd on how their state handles abortion.

And that’s an easy topic, relatively speaking. Wait until they’re asked whether they’d support killing the filibuster to pass abortion bans if the GOP ends up with total control of government in 2025.

Abortion as an issue has become so confounding for the party that last week brought us the spectacle of Republican Rep/ Nancy Mace agreeing with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that the FDA should simply ignore a federal judge’s ruling suspending approval of the abortion drug mifepristone. Mace is reliably conservative on most issues; if even she’s willing to join AOC in tearing down the rule of law to keep medication abortion legal, there may be no way for the GOP’s eventual nominee to find a position that’s acceptable to most Republicans.

Conventional wisdom has it that DeSantis is the candidate who’s in the greatest political peril from abortion. He just signed a six-week ban, six-week bans are unpopular, ergo his vaunted electability is now in question.

There’s something to that, but again, he had no choice. He had to sacrifice some of his electability by signing the bill in order to shore up his populist credibility before Trump’s attacks destroy what’s left of it.

I don’t know if he’s the Republican who’s most at risk from abortion politics, in any case. What about Trump?

We tend to think of Trump as the pope of the church of the right, a man who can make his positions part of the catechism of grassroots Republicans simply by speaking ex cathedra about them. Conservatives broadly supported free trade—until Trump embraced tariffs. Conservatives broadly supported NATO and other anti-Russian initiatives—until Trump decided that Putin was good.

His ability to redefine right-wing orthodoxy for his cult followers is so impressive that one is tempted to believe he could steer the GOP toward a minimalist position on abortion simply by endorsing it. But one should resist that temptation. According to Rolling Stone, Trump has been lobbying leaders of the religious right lately to go slow on the issue, recognizing its potential to wreck Republicans at the ballot box. It’s not going great.

Trump has for several weeks vented to confidants that the GOP is “getting killed on abortion” or on “the abortion issue,” according to three people who’ve heard him use this phrasing on different occasions.

During his meetings, when pressed on what specifically he’d support in a second term, Trump has instead focused on his record as the “most pro-life” president in U.S. history. Among the anti-abortion leaders, religious conservatives, and politically active pastors gathered, Trump’s retroactive focus has left some unsatisfied, including anti-abortion advocates who previously endorsed him. Indeed, during one of these conference calls held around early March, one of the participants gently told Trump that his 2024 policy commitments were vague, requesting clarity and specifics. Trump responded by boasting about his past accomplishments, according to two of the sources.

One recent participant wondered to Rolling Stone: Is Trump “going to try to make us swallow getting next to nothing in return for our support?”

Allegedly he’s been encouraging social conservative leaders to shift the emphasis in their rhetoric from banning abortion altogether to allowing exceptions for rape, incest, and life-threatening health complications for the mother. But that misunderstands maximalists, who view abortion as the killing of innocents. They want to discourage the practice as thoroughly as possible, not tout minor loopholes that might permit it in certain circumstances.

Even more surprising is that he keeps digging despite already being in a hole with this group. Last month Tim Alberta alleged at The Atlantic that “Donald Trump Is on the Wrong Side of the Religious Right,” a claim that sounds comical given how slavishly evangelicals have rallied to him since 2015. But Alberta has receipts: Various pro-lifers told him how offended they were by this Trump post on New Year’s Day.

“A lot of people were very put off by those comments,” Scott Walker said to Alberta. “It made people wonder if in some way he’d gone back to some of the sentiments he had long before becoming a Republican candidate.” In interviews with two dozen evangelical leaders, Alberta couldn’t find one who’d commit to supporting Trump in the coming primary. Another pro-life leader, Lila Rose of Live Action, called Trump’s post blaming abortion opponents for the GOP’s midterm disappointment “quite frankly disgusting” and identified him as the biggest drag on the party in an interview with Rolling Stone.

I suspect Trump thought appointing the three justices who made the majority in overturning Roe would and should earn him the undying gratitude of pro-life voters, with no further action on his part necessary to lock them down. “Publicly and privately, he spoke of abortion like an item struck from his to-do list, believing the issue was effectively resolved by the Supreme Court’s ruling,” Alberta confirms. To maximalists, though, abortion is the furthest thing from “resolved.” Clearing away the constitutional barrier on regulating the practice was the first step. Now comes the hard work of regulating it into oblivion.

Trump doesn’t want to do that, knowing how unpopular it is.

He has another problem. His critiques of DeSantis make clear that he really, really wants to attack his rival from the center in the primary. Have you perchance seen the new “pudding fingers” ad?

For all of his faults, Trump recognized in 2016 that the Republican base is indifferent at best and hostile at worst to conservative orthodoxy on entitlement reform and foreign intervention. Sensibly, he’s tried to portray DeSantis as an avatar of that orthodoxy, a pretend populist who’ll take the GOP right back to the pre-Trump status quo if he becomes the nominee.

I bet he’s quietly itching to fold abortion into that argument too. Florida’s new six-week ban is the sort of draconian restriction that a man like Trump, who barely speaks conservatism as a second language, should instinctively want to leverage against DeSantis. He’s seen the polling; he’s tired of hearing about how “electable” his rival is; he should want to press the case to Republican primary voters that DeSantis went too far and that the party should moderate on the issue before it gets wiped out. If nothing else, it would position him as more of a centrist on the issue ahead of the general election, making it harder for Democrats to attack him effectively on abortion in November.

But how could he run to the left of DeSantis on abortion in a primary? Florida’s new six-week ban contains the very exceptions Trump keeps harping on. If he thinks the bill is draconian he’ll have to make the case that six-week bans are unacceptable per se, which would damage his reputation as the ultimate “fighter.” It would risk a jailbreak among evangelical voters, who’ll have no shortage of alternatives in the primary field to choose from. Mike Pence in particular will be pushing an uncompromising anti-abortion line, one destined to look more attractive to maximalists the more moderate Trump sounds. And DeSantis, as the target of a centrist abortion attack from Trump, could end up looking better to the GOP’s pro-life majority than he did before.

Either Trump sticks with a more or less draconian position on regulating abortion, however reluctantly, or he’s likely to shed evangelical votes before this is over.

I suspect he imagined himself starting the general election as somewhat acceptable to both sides on abortion, a hero to ardent pro-lifers by dint of his singular achievement in ending Roe and an attractive figure to swing voters by dint of his reluctance to legislate aggressively on the subject. Instead he seems likely to end up in no-man’s land, a villain to swing voters after Democrats spend zillions of dollars on ads reminding them that Trump-appointed justices ended the right to choose and a villain to maximalists for getting cold feet once the time came to own the libs with a national abortion ban. The closest thing he might have to allies on the issue are accommodationists, and they’re weak allies since many are traditional conservatives who dislike Trump for reasons unrelated to abortion.

Worse still, the politics of abortion are likely to get harder for Republicans before 2024, not easier. The legal and legislative battles over abortifacients will get hotter; red states may try to impose travel bans on pregnant women to prevent them from seeking abortions elsewhere; horror stories about women needing medical care who couldn’t find it locally will emerge sporadically. It’s comforting to think of the governors who won comfortably last fall after imposing six-week abortion bans, but all were incumbents who faced a fraction of the financial firepower on this issue that Democrats will bring to bear in the next presidential election. And all were reelected after a ban had already passed, not with a prospective ban as a live issue in their own races, as will be the case in the next presidential election.

No one’s getting out of this primary without alienating voters on abortion whom they’ll badly need to show up for them in November 2024. And, especially with Trump as nominee, this party can’t afford to alienate any more voters.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.