After a deflating 2022 midterm election, the surest path to lose the White House would come from Republicans refusing to speak on the issue of abortion, the party’s chair told aspiring candidates.
“We’ve seen what happens when we let Democrats define who we are and what we stand for,” said Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel during a speech Thursday at the Reagan Library. In 2022, “a lot of Republican candidates took their D.C. consultants’ bad advice to ignore the subject. Then what happened? Democrats spent $360 million running ads filled with lies about abortion, and most Republicans had no response.”
“Let’s talk about abortion, which has become a huge issue coming after the Dobbs decision,” McDaniel exhorted GOP candidates. “When you don’t respond, the lies become the truth.”
The discussion should include a national minimum standard of protections for the unborn, which most voters favor — especially contrasted with the Democratic Party platform, she said. “Polling shows that when the choice is between a Democrat who wants zero abortion restrictions and a Republican who supports protecting life, at 15 weeks, we win by 22 points,” McDaniel noted. A 15-week national pro-life standard wins over “72% of voters, including 60% of Democrats [who] support protecting unborn children.”
“We are the pro-life, pro-woman, pro-family party, and we can win on abortion. But that means putting Democrats on the defense and forcing them to own their own extreme positions,” she concluded.
Her comments came during a moment of uneasiness within GOP ranks, as aspirants and advocates contemplate the best strategy to advance the pro-life cause in a post-Dobbs environment. A statement from former President Donald Trump roiled the movement, as some interpreted it to advocate inaction at the federal level. “President Donald J. Trump believes that the Supreme Court, led by the three Justices which he supported, got it right when they ruled this is an issue that should be decided at the State level,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung told The Washington Post late last week. The Post last week also reported on tales from unnamed sources that Trump personally believes abortion should be a matter of “states rights” and advocated not discussing the issue — comments that drew instantaneous backlash.
“Life is a matter of human rights, not states’ rights,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the SBA Pro-life America, adding that a states-only position would result in “abortion up until the moment of birth” in states such as California, New York, and Oregon. “We will oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard to stop painful late-term abortions while allowing states to enact further protections,” she added. Other pro-life leaders amplified her position. “If you don’t understand killing children is a federal issue, you shouldn’t be running for federal office,” said Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life of America. “Imagine supporting a candidate who said that slavery was a ‘states rights’ issue,” tweeted Lila Rose of Live Action.
Trump did not address the criticism directly — but he appeared to take McDaniel’s words to heart, bashing Democratic extremism on abortion “As the most pro-life president in American history, I will continue to stand strong against the extreme late-term abortionists in the Democrat Party, who believe in abortion-on-demand in the ninth month of pregnancy, and even executing babies after birth,” said the 45th president in pre-recorded comments to the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition on Saturday. “They actually talk, beyond birth — after birth — executing the baby.”
He likely had in mind comments from then-Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D), who said in 2019 in the event of a live birth during a botched abortion, the abortionist would hold “a discussion” about whether the newborn would receive lifesaving care. In January, the House of Representatives passed the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act to establish national standards of care — with the support of only one Democrat.
“This is where we’ve come, and it’s so sad to see,” said Trump. “I will stand proudly and defend innocent life, just as I did for four, very powerful, strong years. Because every child, born and unborn, is a sacred gift from God.”
Mary Szoch, director of the Center for Human Dignity at Family Research Council, said the former president provided a strong foundation during his four years in office. “President Trump gave us the justices who gave us Dobbs. He was the first presidential candidate to actually describe what an abortion is — a child being ripped out of her mother’s womb even just before birth — and he was the first president to attend the March for Life,” Szoch told The Washington Stand. “His administration did more for the unborn than any other.”
That sets a high bar for any Republican, including himself. “In a second term, he — or anyone else who calls himself a Republican — must be held accountable to do the same, which means committing to signing any democratically passed pro-life legislation and committing to upholding and reinstating federal protections for the unborn,” Szoch told TWS. “The pro-life movement must continue to work until nobody has the power to take away the fundamental right to life with a vote, scalpel, or pill.”
Trump’s proposals for future pro-life accomplishments seemed less precise. He promised to “again [appoint] rock-solid constitutional conservatives to be federal bench judges and justices, in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke at the Iowa event in person and plans to decide whether to mount a presidential campaign “well before late June,” endorsed national pro-life protections after the first trimester over the weekend. “I think the American people would welcome a minimum national standard in Washington, D.C. — 15 weeks,” he told CBS “Face the Nation” Sunday. Another likely presidential contender, Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.), has vowed, “If I were president of the United States, I would literally sign the most conservative pro-life legislation that they can get through Congress.”
His colleague, senior South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham (R), believes his legislation, the Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act, deserves top consideration. “America does not need, and the unborn cannot afford, to have two major parties who support no restrictions on abortion up to the moment of birth. The unborn need a voice in Washington,” Graham said. “It is up to us to provide it.”
Beltway pundits and consultants widely blamed the lack of the 2022 “red wave” on Graham’s bill, which Democrats portrayed as a “national abortion ban.” Yet Republican Governors Greg Abbott of Texas, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Mike DeWine of Ohio, and Kim Reynolds of Iowa all signed heartbeat bills protecting children from abortion beginning at six weeks after fertilization before winning lopsided victories in 2022. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also signed a heartbeat bill after his 20-point reelection.
Being willing to have accurate, disciplined, unapologetic messaging and refusing to run from discussions about abortion will prove indispensable to retaking the White House and U.S. Senate in 2024, McDaniel said.
“Just as Reagan was the great communicator, we have to be great communicators. Republican candidates right now are trying to do that. They are out there working hard to get the nomination of our party. And in four short months, the RNC will host its first primary debate in Milwaukee.”
The second debate would take place at the Reagan Library, she announced. Life, family, parental rights, and children’s safety will all likely be topics of debate.
“I firmly believe that our next president will be on that stage,” as long as he handles the abortion issue properly, predicted McDaniel.
Ben Johnson is senior reporter and editor at The Washington Stand.
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