Donald Trump Puts Pro-Lifers on the Back Foot

Supporters of Donald Trump rally outside the Wilshire Federal Building on June 2, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Happy Wednesday! A quick reminder that we’re holding a Dispatch meet-and-greet tomorrow night in Des Moines, Iowa. Come say hi to Steve, Declan, and Andrew if you’re in the area!

Up to Speed

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former member of the House Freedom Caucus, went after embattled House Speaker Kevin McCarthy Monday, pointing out on social media that McCarthy and Donald Trump had “worked together” to add $7 trillion to the national debt while in office together. “In Florida, we run budget surpluses,” DeSantis wrote. “We’ve paid down our debt. I’ve kept every one of my promises.” McCarthy had earned DeSantis’ ire by telling Fox News over the weekend that the governor was not at the “same level” as Trump.
  • Meanwhile, McCarthy was forced Tuesday to push back plans for a vote on his allies’ proposed short-term spending plan, acknowledging the reality that too many hardliners in the House Freedom Caucus still oppose it. Without a new spending package, which would also need to pass the Democratic Senate, the government will shut down at the end of the month.
  • Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, running for the Republican nomination for governor, has endorsed Donald Trump in his party’s 2024 presidential primary. “Donald Trump is the candidate capable of returning us to the America First policies that delivered unmatched prosperity and security for the American people,” Braun said in a statement. Braun’s decision is another example of the GOP’s ongoing consolidation behind Trump in the race for the White House.
  • Amid President Joe Biden’s late summer polling swoon, the Democratic Party on Tuesday won two crucial special elections for seats in the New Hampshire and Pennsylvania legislatures, respectively. In New Hampshire, the Democrats flipped a swingy, Republican-held district in the state House of Representatives anchored in Manchester, cutting the GOP majority in the chamber to just one seat. In Pennsylvania, the Democrats defended a blue, Pittsburgh-area seat, preserving their slim control of the state House of Representatives. The victories suggest Democrats are stronger, politically, than Biden’s vulnerability suggests. 
  • The Republican Jewish Coalition is hosting a cattle call next month in Las Vegas for GOP presidential contenders and other prominent party leaders. The October 27–29 conference will feature former President Donald Trump (in person, we’re told), plus: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and wealthy biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, among others. The annual RJC gathering is popular among Jewish Republican donors.

Trump Defends Himself on Life 

This weekend, Donald Trump drew criticism from pro-life organizations after he unexpectedly attacked Gov. Ron DeSantis for signing a ban on early abortions in Florida earlier this year. On Tuesday, Trump pushed back against that criticism by pointing to the scoreboard.

“I was able to do something nobody thought was possible, end Roe v. Wade,” Trump wrote on his social platform Truth Social. “Thanks to the three great Supreme Court justices I appointed, this issue has been returned to the States … Now the Pro Life Community has TREMENDOUS NEGOTIATING POWER.”

Trump went on to write that abortion politics had cost Republicans “unnecessarily, but dearly” in last year’s midterms, arguing that Republicans “must learn how to talk about” the issue better by embracing “the three exceptions for Rape, Incest, and the Life of the Mother.”

It’s unclear how this statement pertains to Trump’s comments that first kicked up the hubbub: Florida’s new heartbeat law, which the former president derided in a Meet the Press interview Sunday as “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” contains precisely these exceptions.

But the more interesting thing about Trump’s response is that he walked back nothing about his initial critique. That’s a shift from April, when Trump reversed course after his campaign prompted a pro-life furor with a statement asserting that abortion policy belonged at the state level.

What changed? The state of the primary. Trump was already the comfortable frontrunner—leading DeSantis by 25 or 30 points in most polls—at the time of his prior abortion-comments dustup. But with DeSantis continually hemorrhaging support since then and no other candidate emerging as a strong field-clearing challenger, Trump is moving on to pitching his messaging for the general election. On abortion—an issue where, as Trump rightly says, Republicans were washed last cycle—that apparently means telling pro-lifers to be grateful for what they’ve already got.

Some pro-life groups seem to see where the wind is blowing too. Observe the gyrations undertaken by THE prominent influence group SBA Pro-Life America, which spent most of Monday and Tuesday revising and enlarging its response to Trump’s broadside.

As we noted Monday, the group at first opted to largely ignore Trump’s comments. “We’re at a moment where we need a human rights advocate, someone who is dedicated to saving the lives of children and serving mothers in need,” SBA president Marjorie Dannenfelser told Dispatch Politics in a statement. Later on Monday, Dannenfelser added several statements in praise of DeSantis’s heartbeat bill. Then, on Tuesday afternoon, she went a bit farther, saying that “Trump was wrong in attacking the heartbeat bill in FL” while essentially pleading for the candidates not to attack each other on the issue: “We urge Trump and DeSantis to focus on their concrete pro-life plan for the future and contrast that with Biden.”

SBA ultimately determined they couldn’t totally wave Trump’s comments off. “I think the [initial] statement doesn’t reflect the degree to which we are in sharp disagreement with Trump’s statement on those bills,” SBA’s chief political strategist Frank Cannon told The Dispatch Monday afternoon. “I think it’s completely strange that Trump would attack his own legacy in having appointed the justices who overturned Roe.”

Still, the whole song and dance looked a lot less like a powerful advocacy group flexing its muscle to get a candidate to toe the line and a lot more like the all-carrots, no-sticks approach most conservative groups took to trying to manage Trump’s ego while he was president.

“I think what they’re trying to do is have as much influence as possible,” one strategist in the pro-life movement tells Dispatch Politics. “Because, I mean, what’s the alternative? Like, the alternative is having no influence, being on the outs, and then the pro-life movement’s in a world of hurt.”

But there’s another wrinkle: Lost in the focus on Trump’s comments has been the fact that DeSantis too has suggested he thinks abortion is now best adjudicated at the state level. That’s the point of all that stuff from SBA about focusing on the future rather than the past: They’re glad to see state-level abortion restrictions, but they care much more about getting an eventual GOP nominee who will be willing to rally Republicans behind some sort of national legislative ban.

Would groups like SBA hit back harder against Trump if they were totally simpatico with the second-place contender? That’s impossible to say. But the situation highlights the strategic bind Republicans find themselves in when it comes to abortion messaging going into 2024. 

Everyone agrees the party was crushed on the issue in 2022, but no one can agree on why that was or how to fix it. Do national Republicans need to embrace a relatively late federal ban, as pro-life groups argue, to combat Democrats arguing that every Republican wants to ban the procedure from conception on? Do they need to champion strict bans at the state level but back off federally—the DeSantis position? Or do they need to press toward a negotiated compromise with abortion-access advocates to triage the damage at the ballot box, as Trump suggests? Nobody agrees, and 2024 just keeps getting closer.

Brother Against Brother in the House Freedom Caucus

The internecine fight within the House Freedom Caucus over how to approach funding the government has pitted two Florida conservatives against each other: Rep. Matt Gaetz, the leader of holdouts against any deal that can pass with a narrow GOP majority, and Rep. Byron Donalds, who helped broker such a deal with the more pragmatic Main Street Caucus.

“I’m a big fan of Byron Donalds. He’s my friend, and I think he’s terribly misguided,” Gaetz tells The Dispatch Tuesday morning following the Republican conference meeting in the Capitol.

When asked if Gaetz and his fellow holdouts were acting in good faith, Donalds says only, “We’ll see.”

But their internal, somewhat process-based fight in 2023 could presage a bigger political battle in a few years. Gaetz, NBC News reported earlier this week, is “widely expected” to run for governor of Florida in 2026, when the seat will be open. (Ron DeSantis, the current Republican governor, is term-limited.) And Donalds has hinted he might be interested in running for the top job in the Sunshine State as well.

Asked by The Dispatch if Gaetz had earned his support for governor, Donalds offers a terse “No.”

Gaetz, meanwhile, insists the only campaigns he’s focused on are his reelection to the House and the presidential race in 2024.

“I am not—I am not interested in any of that,” he says when asked by The Dispatch when he will announce his gubernatorial run. “Right now, my sole focus is on defeating the CR, and when it comes to politics, I have no goals beyond 2024. And I’ve made—I’m not going to talk about political races while in the Capitol.”

Notable and Quotable

“I mean, it’s a joke. It’s a joke. We have a crisis at our border. And these people want to vote against a measure that would actually do something to help secure our border and stop this massive influx. Shutting down the government is not an option. It doesn’t work. Those who do it lose.”

—Rep. Mike Lawler, Republican from New York, on the Freedom Caucus insurgency against the Republican government funding bill, September 19, 2023

Also Notable and Quotable

“It’s never a ‘terrible thing’ to protect innocent life. I’m proud of the fetal heartbeat bill the Iowa legislature passed and I signed in 2018 and again earlier this year.”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, September 19, 2023

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