WASHINGTON (AP) — Top Republican presidential candidates called Friday for imposing federal limits on abortion, declaring at a gathering of some of their party’s most influential evangelical Christian leaders that the year-old Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade didn’t go far enough.
Hundreds of attendees of the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s annual conference believe abortion policy can continue to be a strength for Republicans, even as Democrats insist the issue will buoy them in 2024.
“The battle for life is far from over. We’ve not come to the end of our cause,” former Vice President Mike Pence said. “We’ve simply come to the end of the beginning.”
Former President Donald Trump, whose three Supreme Court nominees allowed for the reversal of nationwide abortion rights, will give the keynote address Saturday night, the one-year anniversary of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision.
Many other Trump rivals, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, were speaking Friday.
“Thank God almighty for the Dobbs decision.” – South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.
Not far from the conference site, President Joe Biden was rallying with abortion rights activists, underscoring how important the issue is for both sides.
Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, said the conference’s dates were negotiated years ago, so the fact that it spans the Dobbs anniversary, which comes Saturday, is a “serendipitous coincidence.”
“But we’re certainly going to do everything that we can, as an organization and as a pro-life and pro-family movement, to give our candidates a little bit of a testosterone booster shot and explain to them that they should not be on the defensive,” Reed said in an interview before the conference began. “Those who are afraid of it need to, candidly, grow a backbone.”
Democrats counter that fighting to preserve abortion rights can energize their base, attract moderates alienated by GOP hardliners and help the party hold the Senate, flip the House and reelect Biden. Despite unfavorable historical precedent, Democrats managed a stronger-than-expected showing during last year’s midterm elections and continue to point to abortion as a key reason why.
Even Trump has suggested that strict abortion restrictions were a weakness for Republicans. He posted on his social media site in January that the party’s underwhelming midterm performance “wasn’t my fault” and blamed “‘the ‘abortion issue,’ poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother.”
Reed nonetheless drew cheers from Friday’s crowd of around 500 when he opened the gathering by saying that “after 50 years of prayer and fasting and knocking on doors and electing candidates and registering voters and changing the culture of our country, Roe v Wade has been overturned.”
Sensitive to charges that evangelicals have been too quick to embrace Trump, despite the former president’s colorful pre-politics lifestyle and trio of marriages, Reed added, “They accuse us of being a part of a cult of personality of the former president of the United States.”
“We’re part of a cult of only one personality. There is only one person that we worship. And that is the person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” he said.
Pence also alluded to his former boss — and other 2024 contenders — when he argued that some speakers at the conference believe in the Dobbs ruling, which returned the issue of abortion to the states, or believe that some state regulations are too harsh.
“We must not rest and we must not relent until we restore the sanctity of life to the center of American law in every state in this country,” Pence said. “Every Republican candidate for president should support a ban on abortion before 15 weeks as a minimum nationwide standard.”
That was consistent with the criticism of the Democratic National Committee, which announced this week a six-figure ad campaign trumpeting GOP support for a nationwide ban — a position it argues is too extreme for most voters.
Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, head of the Democrats’ Senate campaign arm, said top Republican presidential candidates will back a nationwide ban to win support in their GOP primaries, then shift to a more moderate position for the general election.
“They will try to juice up their base with the issue and then pretend that that’s not their position,” Peters said. “They’re not going to get away with that.”
Among the GOP candidates, Pence has actually said previously that he’d back banning abortion nationally after just six weeks of pregnancy, a timeline that falls before many women know they are pregnant. His declaration Friday that a ban at 15 weeks should be the “minimum nationwide standard” is an example of GOP leaders’ potential struggle to stake out a position that can satisfy the party’s most conservative base while not repelling moderate voters who dislike the severe restrictions or near-outright bans adopted in many states.
DeSantis has signed a six-week state ban in Florida. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has also praised South Carolina’s six-week state ban and backs a 15-week federal prohibition. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley supports a federal ban but hasn’t said at what point in pregnancy she would seek to ban abortions.
Trump has avoided specifying what national limits, if any, he would support on abortion.
One major anti-abortion group, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, has said it would not support any White House candidate who did not, at a minimum, support passing a nationwide ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
But Reed said in the interview that Republican presidential candidates should “shift the focus and shift the language” around abortion so as to “frame the narrative, not around stages of gestation — whether weeks or months or trimesters, which I think is falling into the trap of the left — but talking about the unborn child.”
Pence, an evangelical Christian, was greeted far more warmly this time than during the last time he addressed a Faith & Freedom Coalition in 2021. Then, he was booed by some and faced shouts of “traitor.” That event, held in Florida, came months after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, when Pence defied Trump’s unprecedented demands to overturn Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.
The more tame reception didn’t happen by accident. Reed warned Friday’s audience about booing or verbally expressing any disagreement with any presidential candidates: “If they’re not where they need to be, then let’s just love them and pray them right where they need to go.”
The former vice president has made abortion a centerpiece of his campaign and was set to speak Saturday at the National Celebrate Life Rally at the Lincoln Memorial. He is also doing a weekend tele-town hall in Iowa that will focus on abortion.
On Friday, though, he wasn’t alone in making abortion a key theme for a crowd ready to cheer it. Another presidential hopeful, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez even implored the crowd to keep the high court and its efforts to limit abortion in their prayers.
“Let’s also pray for our Supreme Court justices as they weather the storm of criticism,” Suarez said.