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With Abortion Comments, Trump Hands DeSantis Iowa Opportunity
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With Abortion Comments, Trump Hands DeSantis Iowa Opportunity

Plus: A pro-choice gala spotlights Kamala Harris on Tuesday.

Pro-life demonstrators listen to former President Donald Trump as he speaks at the 47th annual "March for Life" in Washington, DC, in January 2020. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Happy Wednesday! We hope you approach your day with the same open-minded spirit shown by New Hampshire state Rep. Juliet Harvey-Bolia, who’s been in the news this week after she appeared on separate presidential endorsement lists for both Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. No mix-up there, Harvey-Bolia told NBC News: “DeSantis has a lot of promise for the future, and Trump is great now.”

Up to Speed

  • John Durham, the special counsel appointed by the Trump administration in late 2020 to investigate the origins of the FBI’s probe into alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, released his investigation’s final report Monday. The report said that federal investigators had “failed to uphold their mission of strict fidelity to the law” when they launched that investigation, and that a “lack of analytical rigor, apparent confirmation bias, and an over-willingness to rely on individuals connected to political opponents” had led investigators to “act without appropriate objectivity or restraint in pursuing allegations of collusion or conspiracy between a U.S. political campaign and a foreign power.”
  • Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron won the state’s Republican gubernatorial primary on Tuesday and will face Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in November. The state attorney general, who is black, held off several candidates—including former ambassador Kelly Craft, who was backed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and GOP presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy.
  • A Democrat was elected mayor of Jacksonville, Florida, on Tuesday, flipping control of what is currently the largest U.S. city run by a Republican. Former broadcaster Donna Deegan defeated Daniel Davis, head of the city Chamber of Commerce, 52 percent to 48 percent.
  • A veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will not prevent North Carolina’s new 12-week ban on most abortions from becoming state law after Republican supermajorities in the state legislature overruled the veto Tuesday. 
  • Democratic lawmakers in the House began official proceedings Tuesday to try to expel Rep. George Santos, the Republican and serial fabricator who has been charged with a raft of financial crimes. Rather than hold an immediate floor vote on the expulsion, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is expected to refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee.

Trump, DeSantis Lean Into Abortion Contrast

Last month, we filled you in on the sharp disagreements about abortion policy that are currently preoccupying the Republican Party at the highest levels. Now these disagreements are becoming a flashpoint among the party’s top presidential contenders, with implications for the Iowa caucuses and beyond.

On Monday, former President Donald Trump took a shot at Florida’s new six-week abortion ban, which was recently signed into law in Florida last month by Ron DeSantis. “If you look at what DeSantis did, a lot of people don’t even know if he knew what he was doing,” Trump told the Messenger. “But he signed six weeks, and many people within the pro-life movement feel that that was too harsh.”

DeSantis punched back at a Tuesday news conference, pointing out that Trump, a Florida resident, had declined to say whether he would have signed the same bill. “Protecting an unborn child when there’s a detectable heartbeat is something that almost 99 percent of pro-lifers support,” he said.

Trump, who in 2016 famously declined to answer whether any women he was involved with had ever had abortions, nevertheless went on to ally himself closely with the pro-life movement before and during his first term in office—most significantly by nominating three Supreme Court justices who swung the court’s ideological balance, leading last year to the end of Roe v. Wade. He called himself “the most pro-life president in history,” and movement groups were disinclined to say otherwise.

But in the wake of last year’s midterms, where Democrats overperformed expectations largely on the strength of their abortion-access message, Trump has made clear that he is skeptical of those pro-life groups’ ongoing policy aims at both the state and federal level. This has led to new frictions: After a Trump campaign statement last month suggested that post-Dobbs abortion policy should be litigated by the individual states, Marjorie Dannenfelser—president of the prominent anti-abortion group SBA Pro-Life America—savaged the statement as “a morally indefensible position for a self-proclaimed pro-life presidential candidate to hold.”

Asked about Trump’s comments this week, Dannenfelser did not criticize them directly, but did reiterate her organization’s support for Florida’s new law, which she called “an enormous victory in the battle for human rights.”

“Tens of thousands of precious boys and girls will live and have the opportunity to pursue their dreams, bless the lives of others and enhance Florida’s communities,” Dannenfelser said in a statement to The Dispatch. “Florida will no longer account for 10 percent of abortions in the nation or be known as an abortion destination.”

With his monster lead in primary polls, Trump may feel he has the luxury of pitching his policy message directly to a possible general-election rematch against President Joe Biden. But that strategy could prove dangerous if it leads to a significant rupture with the pro-life contingent of the GOP base—and nowhere is that truer than in Iowa, the site of next year’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses and home to an influential social-conservative voting bloc.

One important Iowan to watch is Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, the state’s most influential social-conservative group. Vander Plaats has not been shy about his dissatisfaction with Trump’s recent rhetoric surrounding abortion. “Being that vague and not knowing where he stands on that issue—that will be very costly for him,” Vander Plaats told The Dispatch last week. “That’s on top of throwing the pro-life community under the bus after the 2022 midterms, saying it was their fault we didn’t experience a red tsunami.”

After Trump’s “too harsh” comments, Vander Plaats was even more direct: “No, Mr. former President, many in the #ProLife community do not believe saving babies is too harsh,” he tweeted. “The #IowaCaucus door just flung wide open.”

The dustup comes just as DeSantis has begun to dive into retail politicking in Iowa, as David Drucker details in a piece on the site today: The governor spent last weekend flipping burgers at a fundraising event and glad-handing at restaurants as he tries to cut into Trump’s polling lead in the state.

‘I do worry that she’d be a drag on the ticket’

Vice President Kamala Harris commanded the attention of Washington’s Democratic elites Tuesday night, headlining a pro-abortion rights gala honoring former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and offering a stark reminder to her party that, for better or for worse, the vice president will be a crucial part of Biden’s 2024 reelection effort.

“For two years President Joe Biden and I have fought to uphold and protect the fundamental freedoms of the American people, and now we need to finish the job,” Harris said to a crowd of roughly a thousand people at the 2023 We Are EMILY gala in support of EMILY’s List, an advocacy group that helps elect pro-choice Democratic women to office. 

“For two years we have stood together with all of you in defense of freedom and democracy, in defense of civil rights, for human rights, for women’s rights, and I do believe when you know what you stand for, you know what to fight for,” Harris added.

Harris’ remarks come at a critical point in the White House’s reelection effort, with voters’ concerns about Biden’s age dominating headlines. If he wins reelection, Biden, now 80, would be 86 at the end of a second term. 

Democrats are acutely aware of the fact that Biden’s age intensifies the electoral spotlight on Harris. As David and Audrey reported earlier this month, one party operative who served as a senior official in President Barack Obama’s administration said some fear that Biden could experience a health episode on the campaign trail that would require him to be replaced on the ticket.

“If you vote for Joe Biden you really are counting on a President Harris, because the idea that he would make it until 86 years old is not something that I think is likely,” Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley said last month.

Biden himself made a brief appearance on stage Tuesday to honor Pelosi and thank “my buddy Kamala” for her leadership—a moment somewhat undercut when he mispronounced Harris’ first name, eliciting nervous laughter from the crowd.

Harris also indulged in a bit of the word salad that has become her trademark: “EMILY’s List, I do believe it is critical that we also take a step back to clearly see the moment we are in, see this moment in the context of the history we have lived, and see it in the context of the future we must shape,” she told the crowd.

Democrats are sensitive to any criticism of Harris, the first black person, the first Asian-American, and the first woman to serve as vice president. Speaking privately with the reporters, even some elected Democrats who admit Harris could hurt Biden’s reelection chances tend to put the blame on racism, sexism, harsh media scrutiny, or even the president for failing to promote her as a crucial part of the 2024 ticket. 

“I don’t think she’s gotten as good a deal in the vice presidency as Biden himself got with Obama, where he was really featured by the president,” one battleground-district House Democrat told The Dispatch last month. 

“She’s done some good things. I think she’s very, very capable and smart,” this Democrat added, before conceding that voters might see things differently: “I do worry that she’d be a drag on the ticket.”

But you’ll be hard-pressed to find Democrats airing those criticisms of Harris publicly, as EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler’s closing remarks Tuesday evening made clear: “She is the manifestation of the mission of EMILY’s List, and we must have her back.”

Eyes on the Trail

  • Is Huizenga really considering a run for Senate? GOP Rep. Bill Huizenga of Michigan said he’s “hoping to have a decision probably this quarter” about whether he will run for retiring Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s seat this cycle. “I just had a conversation with a couple of folks again who are encouraging me,” Huizenga said in a brief interview in the U.S. Capitol Tuesday afternoon, though he added that it’s a “tough environment in Michigan”—a state that voted for Trump in 2016 but Biden in 2020 and that hasn’t elected a Republican Senator since the ‘90s. Now a year and a half out from Election Day, Rep. Elissa Slotkin has all but cleared the Democratic primary field, though the GOP primary race remains wide open.
  • Pence allies launch super PAC: In case you missed it, Mike Warren has a great first look on former Vice President Mike Pence’s new allied super PAC, Committed to America, that will support the soon-to-be-presidential candidate “through both a messaging campaign and what its organizers claim will be a robust ground game in early primary states.” As super PAC co-chair Scott Reed put it: “This campaign is going to reintroduce Mike Pence to the country as his own man, not as vice president, but as a true economic, social, and national security conservative—a Reagan conservative.”
  • The flag is up: The Republican Governors Association is touting Daniel Cameron’s win in Tuesday’s GOP gubernatorial primary in Kentucky. In a memo first shared with The Dispatch, the RGA called Cameron a “proven leader” and expressed confidence he would oust Gov. Andy Beshear, the incumbent Democrat. The memo also signaled the issues the RGA views as key to this off-year campaign: Cameron’s opposition to teaching critical race theory in public schools; his opposition to allowing transgender girls to compete in girls sports; his opposition to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies; and his work to address the opioid crisis, among others. Cameron, the consensus candidate, was endorsed by both former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Notable and Quotable

“No, I haven’t been gone. … I haven’t been gone, I’ve been working. … No, I’ve been here. I’ve been voting.”

—Retiring Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein answering questions from reporters in the U.S. Capitol about her roughly three-month absence from Washington over a bout with shingles, Tuesday, May 16

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.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.