Will abortion bans be the wedge issue of the 2024 Republican primary?
It’s certainly starting to look that way. After a debate-stage call from several candidates for national restrictions, the widely-recognised frontrunner for the nomination, Donald Trump, offered his take on the issue and offered a bold promise.
“I think they’re all going to like me,” he told NBC’s Kristin Welker, speaking of both sides of the abortion debate. “I think both sides are going to like me.”
It’s a promise that seems impossible just by definition, but one that hinted at Mr Trump’s actual lane in the primary: A moderate on the issue of abortion bans, or at least a moderate by GOP standards. The former president in the same interview trashed Florida’s six-week abortion ban — signed into law by his primary rival, Ron DeSantis — as a mistake. He also seemed to reject the idea of signing any abortion ban into federal law, at least without coming to consensus with the pro-abortion left.
It was a surprisingly centrist-leaning comment from the ex-president, and one that put him in line with fellow primary contender Nikki Haley and further away from his own former running mate, Mike Pence.
He also went further, describing the issue as one that affected the Republican Party’s ability to be viable in national elections and purple constituencies.
“Other than certain parts of the country, you can’t — you’re not going to win on this issue. But you will win on this issue when you come up with the right number of weeks,” Mr Trump said.
The position earned him a light repudiation from anti-abortion groups on the right, as well as perhaps the first barbed attack from Mr DeSantis, who up until now has shied away from criticising the frontrunner.
“I don’t know how you can even make the claim that you’re pro-life if you’re criticising states for enacting protections for babies that have heartbeats,” he told an Iowa radio station. “I think all pro-lifers should know that he’s preparing to sell you out.”
Mr Trump, the Florida governor added to ABC News, is "a different candidate today than he was" in 2016.
The rebukes didn’t end there. Every abortion hardliner candidate in the race, and many of their surrogates, took the opportunity to gripe about Mr Trump’s willingness to seek national consensus on an issue that is widely credited with hamstringing the GOP’s bid for a Senate majority last year, and severely blunting the party’s momentum in House elections.
“President Trump said he would negotiate with the Democrats and walk back away from what I believe where we need to be, which is a 15-week limit on the federal level,” complained Sen Tim Scott at an Iowa town hall.
Kim Reynolds, the officially-neutral governor of Iowa widely seen as firmly in Ron DeSantis’s camp, also weighed in.
It’s never a “terrible thing” to protect innocent life. I’m proud of the fetal heartbeat bill the Iowa legislature passed and I signed in 2018 and again earlier this year.
— Kim Reynolds (@KimReynoldsIA) September 19, 2023
What’s clear is that Mr Trump’s foes want this issue to be a wedge with which they can peel away the former president’s supporters. Far less clear is whether that will actually work.
Activist groups involved on the conservative side of the abortion fight were willing to criticise Mr Trump’s position, though some avoided attacking him by name.
“We need a National Defender of Life who follows the consensus of Americans, not wastes time negotiating with the no-limits abortion Left which isn’t interested in compromise on this issue,” E.V. Osment with Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America told The Independent.
The Democratic Party positions with which Mr Trump had vowed to negotiation, Ms Osment claimed, were “vastly out of step with the American people.”
Another organisation, Students for Life, called the ex-president’s words “tremendously discouraging” for the anti-abortion movement in an open letter to the ex-president.
“Abortion is the human rights issue of our day,” Kristi Hamrick, the group’s media and policy specialist, told The Independent. “Clearly the Democratic Party will make abortion a front and center issue in the campaign, and unless they want to look weak or unprepared, Republicans will need to be ready to respond.”
The polling on the issue of abortion is complicated. A majority of Americans supported the status quo under Roe v Wade, which made it illegal for states to set restrictions that banned abortions before the pregnancy was viable. At the same time, however, polling shows that a majority of Americans do not support the concept of abortion without any restrictions; many support banning the practice, with exceptions, later into the pregnancy.
Polls do show that the extremes on both sides have a ways to go before they are even close to winning over a majority of the population. The right has faced intense blowback in blue and purple districts for proposed and actual abortion bans in deep-red states, some which do not provide exceptions for rape, incest, or in the case of the pregnancy endangering the mother’s life.
Restrictions on abortion access remain widely popular with the GOP primary electorate, however, and as a result the issue may emerge as the first topic on which Mr Trump’s rivals can stake out a clear position to his right.