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After Abortion Losses, Pro-Life Groups Fear GOP Retreat
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After Abortion Losses, Pro-Life Groups Fear GOP Retreat

Plus: The Biden campaign begins targeting Trump by name.

Happy Monday! Andrew’s catching the bus to New Hampshire today—podcast recommendations are welcome.

Up to Speed

  • Tim Scott is dropping out of the presidential race. The South Carolina senator acknowledged on Fox News Sunday evening that he has failed to catch on with Republican voters, telling an apparently shocked host Trey Gowdy that “I don’t think they’re saying ‘no,’ but I do think they’re saying ‘not now.’” Scott added that he does not plan to make an endorsement in the primary, where former President Donald Trump enjoys an overwhelming lead. He becomes the second major candidate to drop out, following former Vice President Mike Pence, who left the race last month.  
  • The news comes as some surprise—Scott’s war chest was not yet empty, although he’d been rapidly spending it down. But the writing had been on the wall for some time: Scott had failed to break out of the low single digits in polling, had been outshone on the debate stage and in surveys by fellow South Carolinian Nikki Haley, and was not guaranteed to qualify for the fourth GOP debate next month in Alabama. His Senate Republican coworkers, initially very optimistic about his candidacy, had in recent weeks struck a more mournful tone that he wasn’t breaking out. And his recent hard pivot to Iowa was widely seen as a desperate move: “It’s last gasp, Hail Mary territory and that’s the obvious message it sends,” veteran Iowa GOP strategist David Kochel told The Dispatch last week.
  • With government funding set to run out Friday night, House Speaker Mike Johnson is facing the same basic arithmetic problem that cost then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy his job just weeks ago: He needs the House to pass a short-term spending bill to avoid an economically and politically costly shutdown, but he’ll likely need to rely on at least some Democratic votes to do it. As an olive branch to the hard-right faction that likes short-term continuing resolutions least, Johnson has organized his proposal around a “laddered” mechanism backed by the House Freedom Caucus. Instead of funding the whole government at current levels for another short period of time, the laddered CR would break funding into two tranches, with one expiring January 19 and the other expiring February 2. 
  • Nikki Haley is planning a $10 million ad buy in Iowa and New Hampshire as she moves to establish herself as the consensus alternative to former President Donald Trump in the race for the Republican nomination, the Associated Press reported Monday. The television blitz is set to begin the first week of December. Haley, a former South Carolina governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, must get past Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis if she is going to have a clear shot at Trump, the overwhelming frontrunner. Meanwhile, the super PAC supporting DeSantis, Never Back Down, has canceled advertising originally scheduled for November, shifting that television buy to January. The first nominating contest, the Iowa caucuses, is set for January 15.
  • Chris Christie traveled to Israel over the weekend. The former New Jersey governor toured sites that were the subject of the Hamas terrorists’ October 7 attack that targeted Israelis for torture, murder, and kidnapping, and which left more than 1,400 dead. Christie is the first Republican presidential contender to travel to Israel since the war began last month.
  • Rep. Abigail Spanberger is running for Virginia governor in 2025 and will retire from the House next year, she announced Monday. The Democrat was first elected to Congress in 2018 when she flipped a Republican-leaning district anchored in suburban Richmond. Spanberger, a former CIA clandestine agent, was a driving force behind House Democrats’ 2019 decision to impeach then-President Donald Trump after it was discovered he threatened to withhold military aid from Ukraine unless Kyiv provided him dirt on future President Joe Biden.

Pro-Lifers Fear GOP Turn to Center on Abortion

Former President Donald Trump at the Susan B. Anthony 11th Annual Campaign for Life Gala at the National Building Museum on May 22, 2018, in Washington. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump at the Susan B. Anthony 11th Annual Campaign for Life Gala at the National Building Museum on May 22, 2018, in Washington. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

When the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision ended nationwide legal abortion in June of 2022, pro-life groups prepared to go on the political attack. “An entirely new pro-life movement begins today,” SBA Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser exulted in a statement. “We are ready to go on offense in every single one of these legislative bodies, in each statehouse and the White House.”

But in the wake of another round of devastating electoral losses for pro-lifers last week, Dannenfelser was more subdued: “The disappointing results in Ohio and Virginia are a reminder that human rights battles are not won overnight. Throughout history, great injustices have taken time and persistence to rectify.”

Last year, Democrats across the nation clung to the issue of abortion like an electoral life raft, preserving their Senate majority and minimizing their losses in the House. Meanwhile, Kentucky, Montana, and Kansas all failed to pass ballot measures that would have resulted in tighter abortion restrictions in their states. And last week, Ohio overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment legalizing abortion in the state, Kentucky’s Democratic governor won reelection on the strength of an abortion-access message, and Virginia Republicans fell short of recapturing the state legislature in an election where abortion was a flashpoint.

These losses have left groups like SBA Pro-Life America in a precarious place. They insist that Republicans can’t run from the issue of abortion—that Democrats will continue to hammer it no matter what. What’s needed, they argue, is a tactical repositioning: a national GOP embrace of the relatively moderated position of supporting a 15-week abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life or physical health of the mother.

“You have to gain consensus among the American people for an issue like this. And you can only move as far as consensus will allow you to go,” SBA Pro-Life America chief political strategist Frank Cannon tells The Dispatch.

Much of the institutional GOP is lining up behind this argument. “We also have to define ourselves before the Democrats define us,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday. “This is my number one message: If you’re digging yourself out of a hole, you’re going to lose. But if you go on TV and you say to the American people … “In a time of consensus, can’t we agree on reasonable limitations at 15 weeks when a baby feels pain?”

And NBC News reported last week that the National Republican Senatorial Committee is encouraging its candidates to “clearly state their opposition to a national abortion ban and their support for reasonable limits on late-term abortions.”

But that strategy has weaknesses in two different directions. First, there’s the simple fact that pro-life legislatures in red states are going to go on passing and defending far more restrictive laws than a supposed “consensus” 15-week restriction. It’s unclear how successful Republicans will be at redefining what the median voter sees as “the Republican abortion position” when any embrace of a 15-week bill contains an implicit since that’s the best we can get for now.

“States are gonna be as ambitious as they can be in pro-life states. There is no way to stop that,” Cannon says. “There’s not like a central authority that says, okay, we’re going to stop allowing Oklahoma to pass a complete abortion ban. There’s no leverage to do that. And so you have to operate within the reality.”

And on the strategic side, plenty of Republicans still think it’s a mistake to spend much time talking about federal abortion policy at all. “I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last year.

Similar sentiments can be read in the tea leaves of Republican presidential positioning. The race’s preeminent cheerleaders for a national 15-week ban, Tim Scott and Mike Pence, have been the first two to flame out of the race. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has continued to sail upwards in the polls despite refusing to commit to any specific abortion ban. And Nikki Haley has won plaudits for her own more centrist-minded take: She has waved off discussion of particular restriction thresholds, saying only she would support “anything that can pass,” while hammering the need to find “national consensus” on the issue.

“As much as I’m pro-life, I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life,” Haley said at last week’s debate.

That kind of talk goes over particularly well with more secular Republicans and Republican-leaning independents—of the sort you find plenty of in, say, New Hampshire.

For pro-life groups, that turn bodes far less well—and activists worry that if they can’t stem the electoral losses, more and more of the party is likely to start making a similar move.

“The danger,” Cannon says, “is that the Republican Party is fast becoming operationally pro-choice.” 

Biden Campaign Zeroes in on Trump After Troubling Polls

President Joe Biden doesn’t have an official Republican opponent yet. But in the last few weeks, he’s had a particular one in mind. 

Since Sunday, November 5, President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign has put out a baker’s dozen worth of press releases with “Donald Trump” in the subject line. Compare that to the preceding five weeks, during which Team Biden hit our inbox with just six Trump-themed messaging emails. What happened eight days ago to sharpen the 46th president’s focus on his predecessor and most likely Republican opponent in the general election? You might call it polling armageddon. 

On that day, multiple credible surveys were unveiled that showed Trump shellacking Biden in a hypothetical rematch, nationally and battleground states key to winning the Electoral College. More followed later in the week, even as Democrats delivered strong performances in last Tuesday’s off-year elections that suggests the environment might not be as bad for Biden, and his party, as the poll numbers suggest.

“We are confident the American people will send President Biden and Vice President Harris back to the White House to keep working for them,” Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said in a statement, after Democrats held serve in critical contests across the country. Rodriguez’s declaration of confidence may yet prove justified. But the president’s intensified pursuit of Trump appears a recognition of two developments. 

The first is that Trump appears headed to victory in the GOP primary, even as a handful of prominent Republicans wage spirited campaigns against him and insist the nomination remains within reach. The second is that voters have grown weary of Biden, and are willing to give Trump another chance to lead, despite everything: his attempt to overturn the 2020 election; fomenting the ransacking of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021; and being the subject of multiple criminal indictments, some of which could land him in jail if convicted.

The attack lines run a gamut of topics, and they not only inject arguments into the electorate’s bloodstream but also help the president’s team test which messages are most effective as they sharpen their strategy going into the likely rematch. Here are five, just to give you an idea:

  • Donald Trump Failed Latino Families
  • Biden-Harris 2024 Ad Slams Donald Trump for Lying to Autoworkers
  • Biden for President 2024 on Donald Trump and Republicans’ Calls to Cut Social Security and Medicare
  • Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban is Racist and Un-American
  • Biden-Harris National Advisory Board Members Blast Trump Plans to Weaponize DOJ and U.S. Military

Notable and Quotable 

“Everybody likes him. But we’re in a honeymoon period. All honeymoons end.”

—GOP Florida Rep. Carlos Gimenez to The Dispatch on Speaker Mike Johnson’s ability to unify the Republican House, November 2, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.