TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — As a new election season begins, the Republican Party is struggling to navigate the politics of abortion.
Allies of the leading presidential candidates admit their hardline anti-abortion policies may be popular with conservative primary voters but could ultimately alienate the broader group of voters they need to win the presidency.
Conflict is playing out across the United States this week, but nowhere more so than in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law one of the country’s strictest abortion bans on Thursday night. If the courts finally allow the new measure to take effect, it will soon be illegal for Florida women to obtain an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, which is before most realize they are pregnant.
Even before he signed into law, the DeSantis team was eager to highlight his will to fight and enact aggressive abortion restrictions. The Florida governor’s position is in stark contrast, they say, with some Republican White House hopefuls, most notably former President Donald Trump, who downplay their support for anti-abortion policies for fear they will ultimately alienate women or others. undecided voters in the 2024 elections. general election.
“Unlike Trump, Governor DeSantis does not back down from defending the lives of innocent unborn babies,” Erin Perrine, a spokeswoman for DeSantis’ super PAC, said when asked about Florida’s six-week ban.
DeSantis’ latest political victory in the nation’s third-most populous state offers a new window into the GOP’s sustained political challenges on the explosive social issue. In the past few days alone, Republican leaders in Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington have struggled to answer lingering questions about their opposition to the controversial medical procedure as GOP-controlled state legislatures rush to enact a wave of new abortion restrictions. .
Recent election results suggest that voters are not happy.
Republicans have suffered painful losses in recent weeks and months in Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada and even Kansas in elections that centered, at least in part, on abortion. Last week in Wisconsin, an anti-abortion nominee for the state Supreme Court was defeated by 11 points to a state president Joe Biden won by less than 1 point.
“Any talk of banning or limiting abortion across the country is an election disaster for Republicans,” said New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a self-described “pro-choice” Republican who also signed a bill. law banning abortions in the state after April 24. weeks.
“The Republican Party has the inability to fix this problem in a way that doesn’t scare the average voter, the independent voter, the younger generation of voters,” Sununu continued. “These guys keep pushing themselves more and more into a far-right base that doesn’t really define most of the Republican Party.”
In private, at least, strategists involved in Republican presidential campaigns admit that the GOP is on the wrong side of the debate as it currently stands. While popular with Republican primary voters, public polls consistently show that the broader collection of general election deciders believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
There are no easy answers, as top Republicans like DeSantis and even Trump, who named the Supreme Court justices responsible for overturning Roe v. Wade last June, face tremendous political pressure from the left and the right.
Anti-abortion activists have been particularly vocal in warning Republican presidential candidates that the party’s base will not tolerate any weakness on abortion given that Republican leaders have promised for decades to ban abortion rights if given the chance. chance.
Before this week, Kristan Hawkins, president of the anti-abortion group Students for Life of America, was unwilling to describe DeSantis as a leader in the fight against abortion.
“This is your chance to show yourself as a leader on this issue. That’s what’s exciting about this moment,” Hawkins said of DeSantis’ six-week suspension. “He has done a lot, but we really needed to see action at the legislative level. I think this ‘heartbeat law’ completely cements his pro-life street cred.”
Katie Daniel, of the anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, described the new Florida law as “a huge step forward.” But she said it was just the beginning of what anti-abortion activists expect from the 2024 top candidates, including their eventual support for a national abortion ban.
“The abortion issue is not going to go away,” Daniel said. “This is not about saying you passed the law, check the box, that’s it.”
Such pressure ensures that the issue will remain central to the 2024 campaign as Republican presidential prospects begin to fan out across the United States to woo primary voters. At the same time, an escalating court battle over access to an FDA-approved abortion pill is forcing Republican leaders to answer more questions.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, long a vocal opponent of abortion, condemned the abortion pill during an interview this week with Newsmax while vowing to “defend the right to life.”
“We will continue to defend the interests of born and unborn women and reject the abortion pill,” Pence declared.
Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley told Iowa voters this week that abortion is “a personal issue” that should be left to the states, though she left open the possibility of a federal ban without elaborating.
And in New Hampshire, just a day after launching a presidential exploratory committee, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott voiced his support for a federal law that would ban abortions nationwide after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
“Certainly, we must always be on the side of a culture that preserves, appreciates and respects life,” Scott told reporters. “How do we do that? I certainly think the 20-week threshold is not a question on my mind at all.”
He repeatedly tried to refocus the conversation on the Democrats’ “radical position” on the issue because they generally oppose any restriction on abortion.
Sununu, the New Hampshire governor, said he counts Scott on as a friend but was surprised that he was outspoken about his support for a federal abortion ban in New Hampshire, a state long known for supporting abortion rights. .
“Of all the places to talk about a federal abortion ban, New Hampshire is not,” Sununu said in an interview. “He is a good candidate and he does a great job in the Senate. But he knows your audience here, man.”
Republican officials in Washington also continue to search for answers.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel declined to comment for this 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 described as “an extreme stance.”
However, after the GOP midterm disappointment last fall, Republicans are increasingly concerned that such messages will not be enough to help blunt the Democrats’ advantage, especially as Republicans in battleground states continue to enacting strict restrictions on abortion.
Republican strategist Alice Stewart said Republicans must find a way to keep the focus on the failures of the Biden administration, the economy, crime and education in the 2024 campaign.
“Abortion poses a challenge for Republicans. There’s no denying it,” said Stewart, who initially applauded Roe’s reversal from the Supreme Court. “Politically, it has become problematic.”
At a campaign in Iowa this week, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson tried to fend off questions about his support for aggressive abortion restrictions. Before leaving office at the beginning of the year, he enacted a law that prohibited abortion after six weeks of pregnancy; the law had an exception for the life of the mother, but not for rape or incest.
Hutchinson said voters are more concerned about national defense, reducing domestic federal spending and accelerating US energy production than abortion.
“I don’t see that as a problem that is going to hurt us in the long term,” Hutchinson said, referring to the strict bans on abortion. He stopped short of saying whether he would sign a six-week or 15-week federal ban if he came to his desk as president. “I have always signed pro-life bills that have come my way, but obviously I would like to see the bill.”
And even in DeSantis’ Florida, there are signs that the ambitious Republican governor is approaching the issue with a certain level of caution.
Almost exactly a year ago, a grinning DeSantis signed into law a new law banning abortion for 15 weeks during a rowdy public ceremony flanked by Republican lawmakers with dozens of supporters in the audience.
This week, he signed the 6-week ban law in private. His office issued a press release shortly before midnight to mark the achievement.
And he completely ignored the historic achievement on Friday when he delivered a speech before the religiously conservative Liberty University. He did the same thing Friday night in New Hampshire when he proclaimed himself and Florida the nation’s leaders on a series of “important issues,” but made no mention of abortion or the law he signed the night before. .
Christian Ziegler, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, dismissed any political concerns by pointing to DeSantis’ landslide re-election last fall.
“I think it’s very difficult for someone to say that the governor who is running 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.
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