DES MOINES, Iowa – Donald Trump is dominating the early stages of the Republican presidential primary even as he's refused to endorse a federal ban on abortion, allowing some top rivals to get to the right of him on an issue that animates many conservative activists.
Aiming to return to the White House, the former president often notes how his presidency advanced the cause of abortion opponents. He appointed three conservative Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade, abolishing the federally guaranteed right to the procedure and fulfilling the decades-long aspirations of anti-abortion activists.
But Trump has so far declined to go along with some of his rivals, most notably his onetime vice president, Mike Pence, who is pushing for national bans that would take effect relatively early into a pregnancy. He's warned Republicans against locking themselves into positions that are unpopular with a majority of the public and has argued that the Supreme Court's decision gives abortion opponents the right to “negotiate” restrictions where they live rather than rely on federal curbs.
That tension underscores the new reality the GOP finds itself in more than a year into the post-Roe era. While top Republicans were long able to simply declare themselves opposed to abortion, they must now contend with more complicated questions — including when access should be banned and whether uniform standards might apply across the U.S., even in states where support for abortion rights runs deep.
“There’s a wide variety of opinion. Should there be a national ban? At how many weeks? Should it be entirely left to the states?” said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and a Republican National Committee member. “Some people get it wrong when they think this constituency is in lockstep.”
The dynamic will be on fresh display in the coming days, at events dominated by social conservatives. Trump joined a crowded slate of candidates speaking Friday in Washington at an event for the Family Research Council and headlined the Concerned Women for America's Leadership Summit dinner. But he’s skipping Scheffler's Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition banquet on Saturday in Des Moines, where Pence will be among the candidates who will address evangelical Christians, long an influential bloc in the first-in-the-nation caucus.
Polling suggests about two-thirds of Americans believe abortion should generally be legal, and Trump has said in recent years that he supports exceptions to abortion bans when a pregnancy was caused by rape or incest or threatens the life of the mother.
But Trump, who said again Friday that the Supreme Court ruling “moves the issue back to the states ... where it should be," has repeatedly criticized fellow Republicans for the way they talk about the issue. He argues it could benefit the party politically if candidates learn to speak about it differently by highlighting Democratic positions that are out of the political mainstream.
“To be honest, Republicans don’t know how to discuss the subject,” he said at the Concerned Women for America event. “We do have to hold on to office, we do have to win. And we can win elections on this issue, but it’s very delicate and explaining it properly is an extremely important thing.”
Speaking later Friday at the Family Research Council event, Trump blamed the issue for the GOP’s lackluster performance in the 2022 midterm elections. “I will say politically, it’s a very tough, it’s a very tough decision for some people, but very, very hard on elections. Very, very hard,” he said. “This was, we had midterms and this was an issue, you know.”
Indeed, in the aftermath of the high court's abortion decision, Democrats mounted a strong performance in last year's midterms, limiting their House losses and maintaining the Senate majority. Voters in Republican-leaning states from Kansas to Ohio have also rejected GOP-backed efforts to curb abortion.
Once a self-described “very pro-choice” New York businessman, Trump had to do more than most major GOP candidates to win over initially skeptical evangelical Christians during his 2016 presidential run. A political committee supporting one of his rivals ran an ad with footage from a 1999 interview in which he declared, “I am pro-choice in every respect.”
Attempting to bolster his anti-abortion credentials, Trump released a list of potential nominees to the Supreme Court who could be counted on to overturn Roe v. Wade long before actually winning the White House.
Trump now calls himself the “most pro-life president” in U.S. history, pointing to his Supreme Court picks and other actions long sought by the anti-abortion movement.
Ironically, Democrats are promoting the same branding. President Joe Biden is making abortion rights central to his reelection campaign and attacks on the former president’s “Make America Great Again” movement.
“Led by Donald Trump, who’s done more to pave the way for abortion bans than anyone in history, MAGA Republicans are poised to again be rejected by the American people who want women to have the freedom to make their own health care decisions,” said Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for Biden’s reelection campaign, in a statement.
Ahead of last year’s midterm election, meanwhile, Trump warned candidates, including his endorsed choice for Michigan governor, Tudor Dixon, to “talk differently about abortion.” He urged Dixon to explicitly allow for exceptions in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk, but she nonetheless lost handily to Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Mike DeMastus is an evangelical Christian in Des Moines who was part of a private meeting this summer between Trump and a group of pastors and asked Trump about abortion.
“His response to me was, ‘I’ve given you leverage now to make a better deal,’” recalled DeMastus, who supports some form of a federal ban but isn't ruling out backing Trump even if he doesn't.
Many in the Republican primary field have taken a harder line.
Pence, whom Trump picked as his No. 2 in part because of his credibility with social conservatives, has declared that every Republican running for president should endorse, at a minimum, a federal abortion ban 15 weeks into pregnancy.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, also making a push to appeal to Iowa evangelical voters, concurs with Pence. He recently criticized fellow South Carolinian Nikki Haley, who says Republicans should look for bipartisan consensus on abortion since stricter federal bans won't clear Congress.
But entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy opposes national bans in favor of state restrictions, and other major candidates have been noncommittal. That includes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who often answers questions about a federal ban by saying his state recently passed a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.
Trump maintains that even some anti-abortion activists believe the six-week ban — before many women even know they’re pregnant — is too harsh.
The country’s leading anti-abortion group, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, wants GOP presidential candidates to advocate for a 15-week federal ban. Its president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, said anything less is “unacceptable to the pro-life movement.”
Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung noted that Dannenfelser's group has praised Trump's presidency as ”the most consequential in American history for the pro-life cause." Other activists aren't as firm, however.
Kim Lehman, the former president of Iowa Right to Life and also an RNC member, says the issue should be left to the states.
“We need someone who is going to stand up for life and not just be a mouthpiece,” said Lehman, who has not endorsed a GOP primary candidate. “But I believe our people are best served when this decision is made from the ground up.”
Democrats have unified around calls to protect abortion rights, seeing it as an issue of strength in 2024. Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Republicans are trying to seem softer on abortion in an attempt to head off more losses.
“They know that, if they’re clear about their motivations and their positions, they’ll lose. And so they’re trying to confuse the public,” Timmaraju said. “The challenge is, they’ve run for so long as a party embedded and intertwined with the radical, extremist anti-abortion movement that it’s almost impossible to disentangle themselves now.”
Marlys Popma, a longtime GOP strategist for statewide and presidential candidates in Iowa, is among those suggesting her party embrace nuance. She described herself as “an incrementalist" but acknowledged, “Certain people in the movement don’t like incrementalism” and think "we have to have it all."
“And if you want anything different than that,” she added, "then you are wrong and a bad pro-lifer.”
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York and Sara Burnett in Chicago contributed to this report.