Abortion bans raise fears within the GOP over backlash in 2024

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – As a new election season begins, the Republican Party is struggling to steer abortion policy.

Allies of leading presidential candidates concede that their hardline anti-abortion policies may be popular with conservatives who decide the primary, but they could end up alienating the broader group of voters they need to win the presidency.

The conflict is spreading across America this week, but nowhere more so than in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis late Thursday signed into law one of the toughest abortion bans in the nation. If the courts eventually allow the new measure to go into effect, it will soon be illegal for women in Florida to have an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, which most are about to conceive.

Even before he signed the law, the DeSantis team was keen to highlight his willingness to fight for and enact aggressive abortion restrictions. The Florida governor’s position stands in sharp contrast to some Republican White House hopefuls — most notably former President Donald Trump — who downplayed their support for anti-abortion policies out of fear they could definitively target women or other swing voters in 2024 bump your head general election.

“Unlike Trump, Gov. DeSantis does not shy away from defending the lives of innocent unborn babies,” said Erin Perrine, a spokeswoman for DeSantis’ Super PAC, when asked about Florida’s six-week ban.

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DeSantis’ recent political victory in the nation’s third most populous state provides a new window on the Republican Party’s ongoing policy challenges regarding the explosive social issue. In the past few days alone, Republican leaders in Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington have struggled to answer nagging questions about their opposition to the controversial medical procedure, while GOP-controlled state lawmakers rush to enact a wave of new abortion restrictions.

The latest election results suggest voters are not happy.

Republicans have suffered painful losses in recent weeks and months in Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada and even deep red Kansas in elections at least partially focused on abortion. Last week in Wisconsin, an 11-point anti-abortion candidate for the state Supreme Court was beaten by President Joe Biden by less than 1 point.

“Any talk about banning abortion or limiting it statewide is an electoral disaster for Republicans,” said New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a self-described “pro-choice” Republican who has also signed legislation that bans abortions in the state after 24 weeks.

“The Republican Party is unable to resolve this issue in a way that doesn’t scare the mortals of the average voter, the independent voter, the younger generation of voters,” Sununu continued. “These guys keep pushing themselves to an ultra-right base that really doesn’t define most of the Republican Party.”

Privately, at least, strategists involved in Republican presidential campaigns concede that the GOP is on the wrong side of the current debate. Though popular with Republican primary voters, public polls consistently show that the broader group of voters who vote in general elections believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

There are no easy answers as leading Republicans like DeSantis and even Trump, who is responsible for overthrowing Roe v. Wade, who appointed the Supreme Court Justice in charge last June, are subject to enormous political pressure from left and right.

Anti-abortion activists have been particularly vocal in warning Republican presidential candidates that the party’s grassroots will not tolerate weakness on abortion, since GOP leaders have vowed for decades to ban abortion rights if given the chance .

Earlier this week, Kristan Hawkins, the president of the anti-abortion group Students for Life of America, was unwilling to call DeSantis a leader in the abortion campaign.

“This is his opportunity to show leadership on this issue. That’s what’s exciting about this moment,” Hawkins said of DeSantis’ six-week suspension. “He did a lot but we really needed to see action at the legislative level. I think this ‘heartbeat law’ fully cements his pro-life street beliefs.”

Katie Daniel of anti-abortion advocate Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America described Florida’s new law as “a huge step forward.” her ultimate support for a national abortion ban.

“The abortion issue is not going away,” Daniel said. “It’s not about saying you’ve passed the law, check the box, you’re done.”

This pressure ensures the issue remains the focus of the 2024 campaign as Republican presidential hopefuls spread across America to woo primary voters. At the same time, an escalating court battle over access to an FDA-approved abortion pill is forcing GOP leaders to answer more questions.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, a long-time vocal anti-abortionist, condemned the abortion pill in an interview with Newsmax this week and vowed to “stand up for the right to life.”

“We will continue to stand up for the interests of women, both born and unborn, and to oppose the abortion pill,” Pence said.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley told voters in Iowa this week that abortion is “a personal matter” that should be left to states, though she left open the possibility of a federal ban without going into specifics.

And in New Hampshire, just a day after the President set up a commission of inquiry, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott declared his support for a federal law that would ban abortions nationwide after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

“We should definitely always advocate for a culture that preserves, values ​​and respects life,” Scott told reporters. “How do we do that? I don’t think the 20-week limit is a question at all for me.”

He repeatedly tried to steer the conversation to the Democrats’ “radical position” on the issue because they generally oppose any abortion restrictions.

Sununu, the governor of New Hampshire, said he counts Scott among his friends but was surprised that he would speak openly about his support for a federal abortion ban in New Hampshire, a state long known for supporting abortion rights .

“New Hampshire, of all places, is not the place to be talking about a federal abortion ban,” Sununu said in an interview. “He’s a good candidate and is doing a great job in the Senate. But do you know your audience here, man.”

Republican officials in Washington are also still looking for answers.

Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel declined to comment on the article. Her team pointed to a 7-month-old memo from her office that suggested Republicans should highlight Democratic officials’ opposition to abortion restrictions of any kind, which the memo called an “extreme stance.”

However, following the GOP’s medium-term disappointment last fall, Republicans are increasingly concerned that such a message isn’t enough to weaken the Democrats’ advantage — especially as Republicans in key states continue to enact tough abortion restrictions.

Republican strategist Alice Stewart said Republicans must find a way to focus on the failures of the Biden administration, the economy, crime and education in the 2024 campaign.

“Abortion is a challenge for Republicans. There’s no denying that,” said Stewart, who initially hailed the Supreme Court’s Roe reversal. “It has become politically problematic.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson tried to dodge questions about his support for aggressive abortion restrictions during a campaign in Iowa this week. Before he left office earlier this year, he signed legislation banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy; The law made an exception for the life of the mother, but not for rape or incest.

Hutchinson said voters are more concerned about national defense, curbing domestic federal spending and accelerating US energy production than they are about abortion.

“I don’t see this as a problem that will hurt us in the long run,” Hutchinson said, referring to strict abortion bans. He paused to say whether he would sign off on a six or 15-week federal ban should it come to his desk as president. “I’ve always signed pro-life bills that have come my way, but of course I’d want to look at the bill.”

And even in DeSantis’ Florida, there are signs that the ambitious Republican governor is approaching the issue with some caution.

Almost exactly a year ago, a smiling DeSantis signed a new 15-week abortion ban during a noisy public ceremony flanked by Republican lawmakers and dozens of cheering supporters in the audience.

This week he privately signed the 6-week ban. His office issued a press release just before midnight to acknowledge the achievement.

And he completely ignored the landmark performance on Friday when he delivered a speech at the religiously conservative Liberty University. He did the same Friday night in New Hampshire when he portrayed himself and Florida as leaders on a number of “important issues” facing the nation, but made no mention of abortion or the law he signed into law the night before.

Florida GOP chairman Christian Ziegler dismissed any political concerns by pointing to DeSantis’ overwhelming re-election last fall.

“I think it’s very difficult for anyone to say that the governor who is carrying out a conservative agenda is going to hurt them,” Ziegler said.

AP writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa and Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire contributed.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed.

Brian Ashcraft

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