Antiabortion activists gather at the Supreme Court last week. Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken

When Republican donors arrived at the Four Seasons in Nashville last weekend, they were handed a polling memo written by former Trump aide Kellyanne Conway with a startling statistic: Eighty percent of voters disagreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson last year overturning Roe v. Wade.

Among Republican strategists and candidates looking to the 2024 presidential primary, abortion has become the trickiest political issue and a divisive one internally for the party, according to GOP officials, campaign strategists, donors and others involved.

The ruling last summer encapsulated a 50-year push by Republicans to overturn Roe and was viewed initially by many Republican politicians and activists as a seismic policy and cultural win. Conservative lawyers cheered what they long viewed as a bad ruling in Roe, and Republican politicians issued hundreds of statements praising the court. But in the aftermath, it has become a political headache.

For example, Republican National Committee officials plan to argue that the issue was one of the biggest reasons the party did not perform as well as expected in the 2022 midterms, and some of the party’s leaders are meeting frequently about how to deal with the issue, according to people with knowledge of a post-mortem report the committee is preparing who like some others in this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe conversations on sensitive issues.

In recent weeks, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill behind closed doors that would ban abortions after six weeks, when many women don’t know they are pregnant. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has privately circulated polling to candidates that shows the American public broadly supports a 15-week ban – and has privately expressed concerns about a six-week ban.

Former president Donald Trump has barely spoken about the issue, telling advisers that he believes it is a difficult one for Republicans and not something he should focus his time on. His campaign did not directly answer whether Trump agreed with the six-week ban in Florida or what policies he would support nationally but instead said Trump believes the issue should be left up to individual states. “States’ rights,” Trump has said privately when advisers have floated the issue, adding his assessment that they should not talk about it.


“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 said in a statement. “Republicans have been trying to get this done for 50 years, but were unable to do so. President Trump, who is considered the most pro-life President in history, got it done. He will continue these policies when reelected to the White House. Like President Reagan before him, President Trump supports exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.”

Asked again directly whether Trump agreed or disagreed with the law DeSantis signed, the campaign did not respond.

In elections held since Roe was overturned, Americans have overwhelmingly voted to support abortion rights, including in Republican-led states like Kansas and Kentucky.

In the 2022 midterms – which by historical standards should have been a rout for the party out of power, the Republicans – Democrats overperformed, driving high turnout among women and in the suburbs that allowed the party to narrowly hold the majority in the U.S. Senate, lose the House by only a handful of seats, win key governors’ races and flip a few state legislatures. Exit polls showed that in several states, voters named abortion their most important issue.

In an off-year state Supreme Court judicial race in Wisconsin, the Democrats’ choice prevailed in a blowout this month – a victory that may signal that abortion remains salient among voters and is likely to still be top of mind heading into the presidential election year.

Among Republican voters, though, abortion remains a dominant issue in primary elections – and one for which not taking a strong enough stand against abortion may be harmful.


Abortion rights advocates were frustrated when Trump chose not to mention abortion in his November speech announcing his candidacy for president, despite the role he played in reshaping the Supreme Court. During a donor retreat in Nashville last weekend, Trump did not mention the issue at all in private meetings, according to audio and attendees.

“His silence spoke very loudly to the pro-life movement,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of the national antiabortion group Students for Life. “We were pretty disappointed.”

The Washington Post contacted the campaigns of eight Republican candidates who are either running or have indicated an interest in running for president asking whether they support a national ban at various gestational ages – 20 weeks, 15 weeks or six weeks – and whether they support exceptions in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s life. The Post also asked whether they supported a Texas judge’s ruling this month to invalidate the federal government’s approval of a drug used in more than 50 percent of abortions.

Some of the campaigns did not respond to requests for comment about their positions on the issue. A spokeswoman for the RNC declined to comment.

A spokesman for Mike Pence, Devin O’Malley, pointed to numerous on-the-record statements Pence has made about abortion, including that he wants to see it outlawed in every state, which effectively amounts to a national ban. Pence, who is a fervent opponent of abortion, also praised the Texas judge’s decision on the abortion pill, saying, “life won again today.”

“One of the areas we sense the biggest response is Trump’s retreat after the Dobbs victory. Pence leaned in. We received a lot of encouragement from pro-life advocates – contrasting the stance of where Trump was on that,” Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, said in a recent interview. “People felt like this was something we’ve been fighting for 50 years, and he was kind of raining on the parade. They question whether he was really heartfelt on his stance being pro-life.”


Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a onetime adviser to Trump who has become a vocal critic of the former president and has talked about launching a 2024 campaign, said he opposed a national abortion ban.

“I’ve always been pro-life with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother,” Christie said in an emailed statement. “I believe these are decisions that should be made by Governors, state legislatures and their citizens at the state level. The states, not the federal government, should be making these decisions.”

What has confounded many in the party is that an abortion position in a primary that appeals to the Republican base could be damaging in a general election.

Kevin Madden, a GOP adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said Republicans have not offered a coherent message on abortion since the Dobbs decision. Before, when abortion protections were considered settled law, it was easier for Republicans to have a unified antiabortion message.

“Fifty years of message discipline is now gone, and in its place is this balkanized issue,” he said. “There’s no party-wide effort to provide information or policy direction on this. The other wild card is the Trump effect, as the titular leader of the party, he’s not exactly a reliable policy lodestar on this issue.”

McDaniel has privately told others that candidates have to address abortion, or it will damage their political fortunes, and she is expected to urge candidates to address abortion during a speech at the Reagan Library in California on Thursday night.


Some of her advisers have discussed trying to get candidates to commit to a 15-week rule – believing that the six-week “heartbeat” bans that Republicans have pushed or enacted in several states aren’t helpful. When Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a bill to ban abortion nationally after 15 weeks last year, though, Republicans largely ran from the plan or were silent on it.

“You have to address it, not avoid it,” McDaniel has told candidates. “And then you can talk about other things.” A person close to her said she had not taken a formal position on the issue.

“She has been sharing polling and saying for months that you should take whatever is the most conservative position that still allows you to win,” a person close to her said. “It depends what district you’re in.”

In private, Conway has told donors and candidates that they should talk about the need for exceptions and speak with “compassion” about the issue – but also focus on characterizing Democrats as wanting abortion to be legal no matter what. She has told candidates that the American public will not like that position either and to “go on offense.” She has been working with McDaniel behind the scenes on the issue and briefed donors in Nashville..

A spokeswoman for McDaniel declined to comment.

Momentum is building in antiabortion circles around the potential candidacy of DeSantis. At a conference in January, Students for Life polled several thousand antiabortion activists on who they would most like to see win the Republican nomination. DeSantis won more than 50 percent of the vote, leading Trump by more than 20 points.


“There is a lot of excitement around Governor DeSantis,” said Hawkins, the Students for Life president. By signing the six-week ban, she added, he proved he has the “chops to back up his claims that he is pro-life.” Facing a presidential primary where hard-line activists and voters wield significant influence, Hawkins said, Republican candidates need to back some kind of national ban to be successful.

A “states’ rights” argument, she added, “is almost a guarantee that they’re not going to advance out of the primary.”

In New Hampshire last week, DeSantis met with a group of two dozen activists for a private policy roundtable at the Airport Diner in Manchester. The first question he fielded, according to six attendees of a private meeting in New Hampshire, was from an activist who told him she is “pro-life” but wondered how the GOP could recast its messaging to broaden its appeal to more moderate voters.

DeSantis answered by saying that abortion is an issue that is now in the purview of the states, according to five participants who were in the room, and he acknowledged that what resonates in Iowa may not resonate in New Hampshire. He also pointed to his reelection margin of victory in a year that he signed a measure that banned most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

But while in New Hampshire – a narrowly divided state where abortion is banned after 24 weeks with certain exceptions – DeSantis did not mention the six-week ban he had just signed either in his Friday remarks to the state GOP’s Amos Tuck Dinner or in a private policy roundtable with activists on Saturday, according to five participants who attended.

Asked whether she was satisfied with DeSantis’s answer about abortion at the Airport Diner, Kate Day, the GOP activist who asked the question, said: “I want to hear more from him on this.”


“In so much of the fighting, I feel like sometimes there are women that are just pushing back because they don’t want to be told what to do, and in that fight, we lose the message of why we want a woman to be pro-life and why we want her to choose life – and more importantly try to avoid an unwanted pregnancy,” said Day, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 2020.

The six-week ban gives Florida one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, but it did so without drawing much attention.

As a member of Congress, DeSantis voted for bills banning abortion after 20 weeks but never joined more than 170 House Republicans who signed on to a federal six-week ban in 2017 and 2018.

Other Republican hopefuls have grappled with the abortion question recently, most notably Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who, after announcing his presidential exploratory committee this week, has repeatedly stumbled over his answers when pressed for his stance on abortion laws.

During his time in Congress, Scott co-sponsored federal legislation to ban abortions after 20 weeks and has also supported bills declaring that life begins at conception, using the 14th Amendment’s right to life to effectively outlaw all abortions.

Scott has not, however, signed on to the 15-week national ban proposed by his South Carolina colleague Graham. Asked in a television interview last week whether he would back Graham’s proposal, Scott replied that he was “100 percent pro life.” When pressed on whether that was a yes, he said, “That’s not what I said.”


His answer continued to shift over several days as he demurred on the exact number of weeks he would support for a national ban. Then on Friday, when Scott was asked by an NBC News reporter whether he supported a six-week ban, the senator said that if a state legislature can pass it, then “absolutely.”

“If I were president of the United States, I would literally sign the most conservative pro-life legislation that they can get through Congress,” Scott added.

“Even if that was six weeks?” the reporter clarified.

“I’m not going to talk about six or five or seven or 10,” Scott responded.

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump ambassador to the United Nations who announced her candidacy in February, has also danced around the question. She gave incomplete answers about where she stands on a national ban, saying in Iowa last week that she didn’t want to “get into that game” of how many weeks it should be.

Days after she announced her presidential campaign, Haley was asked in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show whether she supported Graham’s 15-week national ban and gave a similar non-answer.

“We need consensus on this because I want to save as many babies as possible, and I want to support as many moms as possible,” Haley said then. “Is that consensus 15 weeks? Is it 10 weeks? Is it six weeks? I don’t know what that is, but we need to figure this out for the good of these babies and for the good of the moms.”


Reston reported from New Hampshire.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: