“Are pro-lifers going to allow themselves to be a cheap date?” said Patrick Brown, a fellow with the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Life and Family Initiative. “Are they going to sit back and take it when candidates are denigrating the cause they dedicated their life to?”
Trump’s attempt to have it both ways on the fraught issue — calling himself “the most pro-life president ever” and taking credit for the fall of Roe v. Wade while also shunning the priorities of the anti-abortion groups that helped elect him in 2016 — has exposed those groups’ struggle for relevance in a lopsided primary and highlighted ongoing divisions inside the movement.
Some groups say they will give the frontrunner more time to clarify his position and expect he will eventually support a national abortion ban. Other groups, anxious about Trump watering down his abortion stance, are mulling various tactics, including making a primary endorsement, protesting outside his upcoming events, and redirecting their campaign budget to down ballot races.
“He won’t feel pressure until it’s applied, and we’re willing to apply it,” said Kristi Hamrick, the chief policy strategist with Students for Life of America. “You cannot ignore the human rights issue of our time and still get our vote.”
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America confirmed to POLITICO that it is moving ahead with plans to spend more than the $78 million it shelled out on the 2022 election cycle to turn out anti-abortion rights voters in 2024. But a leader within the organization acknowledged the posture of the GOP’s runaway contender makes their work harder.
“Looking at a general, he’s going to need all Republicans to come home if he’s going to beat Joe Biden,” Billy Valentine, SBA’s vice president of political affairs, said. “He’s going to need the base in order to win ultimately, and he’s going to need a clear position. In the absence of a clear position, the Democrats are going to define him.”
Other GOP presidential candidates have aligned themselves with SBA’s call for a federal ban, but the organization is boxed in by Trump’s dominant lead and is unlikely to endorse, several of its leaders told POLITICO.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said he and other anti-abortion leaders have privately spoken with Trump and his campaign and are confident that he will eventually champion their calls for state and national bans.
Yet Trump handily won the Family Research Council’s straw poll on Saturday even after he painted the issue as an electoral loser and rejected the group’s call for federal abortion limits during a Friday speech to the group’s annual conference in Washington D.C.
“Politically, it’s very tough,” he told the audience. “We had midterms, and this was an issue.”
His opponents for the GOP nomination, seeing an opening to pry away conservative voters, moved quickly to draw a contrast.
“I don’t know how you can even make the claim that you’re somehow pro-life if you’re criticizing states for enacting pro-life protections for babies that have heartbeats,” Trump campaign rival Ron DeSantis told a radio host in the early voting state of Iowa on Monday. “It’s a window into how he’s changing as he’s running this campaign, and I think he’s changing in a way that is not consistent with the values of the people in Iowa.”
“I think all pro-lifers should know that he’s preparing to sell you out,” DeSantis, the governor of Florida, added.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and former Vice President Mike Pence also rushed to attack Trump for refusing to back a 15-week national ban, with Pence accusing him of “trying to marginalize the cause of life” after his own speech to the Family Research Council.
In response to criticisms from DeSantis and others, Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung touted Trump’s record on abortion.
“Nominating pro-life federal judges and Supreme Court justices that overturned Roe v. Wade, which others have tried for over 50 years, ending taxpayer funded abortions, [reinstating] the Mexico City Policy that protects the life of the unborn abroad, and many other actions that championed the life of the unborn,” Cheung said.
Several conservative movement leaders told POLITICO that while Trump remains popular, his post-White House words have forced them to question how much of an ally he would be if elected and how they can pull him back in their direction.
“Trump’s base is pretty solid, but this is one thing that can really shake his base — unless it’s a pure cult of personality and not one of principle,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council and author of “Legacy of Life: Honoring 50 of the greatest pro-life leaders of the last 50 years.”
“It’s going to be a real test for pro-lifers that support him,” added Stemberger, who likes DeSantis but wants him to commit to signing a federal anti-abortion law. “It’s just stunning to me that he’s ignoring the primary issue of social conservatives and Christians.”
Many conservatives also took issue with Trump’s insistence in a Sunday interview on Meet the Press that he would be able to negotiate a “deal” on abortion with Democrats and settle the issue once and for all.
One anti-abortion group, the Human Coalition, blasted him for seeking “compromises on the amount of mass death we find legally acceptable,” while Terry Schilling, the president of the American Principles Project, poured cold water on the idea even as he praised Trump’s anti-abortion record.
“Democrats are never going to let voters forget that he overturned Roe,” he said. “He can’t pretend he’s going to come out with a plan they’re going to like. They don’t like him and never will.”
Schilling added that many anti-abortion rights leaders are hesitant to speak up about these concerns — well aware that Trump has “most likely secured the nomination” with or without their support.
“I have friends in the movement who are keeping their powder dry because they don’t want to ruin their ability to influence him,” he said. “When you attack someone unfairly, it just burns bridges.”
Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America, also sees Trump’s pledge to negotiate a compromise as unrealistic, at best, but acknowledges it’s likely to appeal to a significant number of voters.
“I can see why, for people who aren’t involved in the pro-life movement, that sounds like a really good thing,” she said. “They’re thinking, ‘Thank God. He’s going to take away this issue that divides us. I hate the fact that when I turn on my TV, they’re saying the word abortion. I just don’t want to talk about this anymore.’ But he just can’t do it, because there are lives at stake.”
Some Democrats and abortion rights activists are also worried Trump’s calls for compromise and moderation could win people over. They scrambled over the past week to remind voters of Trump’s staunch anti-abortion rights record during his first term.
NARAL, which this week changed its name to Reproductive Freedom For All, called Trump a “skilled bluffer” and said his tack to the center reveals an awareness that support for abortion rights has climbed since Roe fell and the issue has the power to decide elections.
“It’s clear Republicans are reading the same polls we are and know it’s a toxic issue for them,” said Ryan Stitzlein, the group’s vice president of political and government relations. “The fact they haven’t landed on a unified strategy shows they don’t know how to handle this. So you have candidates scrubbing their websites or refusing to talk about it, and you have people like Trump trying to portray themselves as a moderate.”
Unsure how to bring Trump back into their fold, anti-abortion rights advocates warn that while this tack to the center might win over some voters, it will lose him the support of the ones he needs most.
“Pro-lifers are not going to vote for Joe Biden, but we need to give them a reason to vote at all,” Perkins said. “Donald Trump has a lot of capital with conservatives, but we saw in the last election how narrow it can be. Every vote counts.”