Republican Presidential Candidates Chart Divergent Paths on Abortion in First GOP Debate

Former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy in the first debate of the GOP primary season. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
August 24, 2023

The eight Republican presidential hopefuls who participated in Wednesday evening’s debate offered differing visions on how to regulate abortion, a sign that the party is still struggling to navigate the tricky electoral waters of a post-Roe world.

Former vice president Mike Pence came out strongly in favor of a national ban on abortion altogether, as did Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.). Others, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declined to say what he would do as president. Instead, DeSantis touted his record at home—which includes a ban on abortion after six weeks—and said as president he would "stand on the side of life."

"I understand Wisconsin will do it different than Texas," he said. "I understand Iowa and New Hampshire will do it different. But I will support the cause of life as governor and as president."

The question from Fox News moderator Martha McCallum about whether any of the candidates support a national abortion ban came at an awkward time for Republicans. The party faced an underwhelming midterm performance last fall that many political analysts attributed in part to its inability to find the right message on abortion. Polling shows most voters want abortion to remain legal early in a pregnancy, with support dropping beyond 15 weeks gestation.

Veteran political strategist Liam Donovan told the Washington Free Beacon that Republicans have been slow to adapt to a new normal as more than two dozen states have effectively outlawed abortion. With Roe overturned, many candidates would rather talk about something else, he added, even if their opposition to abortion rights remains a political liability.

"I think this is one of those situations where the movement got what it had been ostensibly seeking for a generation," Donovan said. "There's no consensus on how to proceed, and it's easier to declare victory while moving onto other issues that everybody can agree on."

Former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley took the most pragmatic approach, arguing that the question of a federal ban is moot given that Republicans do not have 60 Senate votes to pass one. Republicans, Haley added, need to soften their rhetoric on abortion and stop "demonizing this issue," and instead find areas of consensus.

"Can’t we agree that contraception should be available?" she said. "Can’t we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?"

Even among Republicans, it is unclear whether abortion is as salient an issue among primary voters as it was just a few years ago, though it was a motivator for Democrats in the 2022 midterms. Just 34 percent of self-identified Republican primary voters said it was important to hear from a candidate about how he or she plans to "stop abortions," compared with 86 percent who said the same about inflation and 81 percent for stopping illegal immigration, according to a CBS poll released this month.

But articulating bold positions on social issues such as abortion can still be an asset for one critical voting bloc in the GOP primary: evangelical Christians.

"I do think that it’s important for candidates to be clear and have conviction," Faith and Freedom Coalition executive director Timothy Head told the Free Beacon. "There’s a cluster of issues, life, religious liberty, and probably marriage and family issues are what I would consider to be kind of like latent issues that exist for most voters."

Self-identified evangelical Christians made up as much as 64 percent of caucus-goers in 2016 and were the driving force behind the surprise caucus victories of former candidates such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

Although former president Donald Trump did not participate in the debate, he holds a 2-1 lead with evangelical Christians in Iowa, according to a Des Moines Register poll released this month. That same poll found Trump leading in the field with 42 percent of the vote.

Much of Trump’s strength with pro-life voters stems from his three Supreme Court appointees, who were instrumental in overturning Roe. Still, Trump has played coy about whether he would support any national abortion restrictions.

In private meetings, the former president has said he believes overturning Roe hurt Republican electoral prospects. Trump once supported a national abortion ban past 20 weeks, although he says now that he believes "pro-life people are in a strong position to make a deal that’s going to be good and going to be satisfactory for them."

"I think the confounding factor is that Trump has a unique mix of credibility as the guy who did Dobbs and a general secular and libertine identity that does not read as preachy," Donovan said. "You're not going to get to either side of him and it's an open question as to whether it would do you any good anyway."