GOP Presidential Hopefuls Face Question on Pro-Life Protections and Elections
The second Republican primary debate Wednesday night included a question about spreading the pro-life message despite losses.
The question of how voters react to state and national abortion limits continued to loom large over pro-life GOP presidential hopefuls Wednesday evening at the second Republican primary debate in Simi Valley, California. Fox News anchor and debate moderator Dana Perino pointed out that in the six states where abortion was on the ballot in the 2022 midterm elections, the pro-life side lost.
She highlighted a ballot initiative effort in Arizona to enshrine abortion with few limits into the state constitution, asking Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, “How are you going to win over independent pro-choice voters in Arizona?”
DeSantis pointed to his decisive win in the gubernatorial race in Florida in 2022 after he signed a law limiting abortion to 15 weeks in pregnancy, saying the midterm win was due to “leading with purpose and conviction.” He subsequently signed a heartbeat bill in April that limits abortion to the first six weeks of pregnancy.
“I reject this idea that pro-lifers are to blame for midterm defeats,” he said. “I think there are other reasons for that.”
In 2022, pro-lifers faced midterm disappointments on pro-life ballot initiatives in Kentucky, Montana and Kansas along with pro-abortion amendments being added to state constitutions in California, Michigan and Vermont. However, pro-life advocates pointed out at the time that many vocal pro-life candidates were elected in the midterm elections as well, including Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas and Gov. Mike DeWine in Ohio, who had both enacted heartbeat laws.
Ahead of the efforts to get abortion on the ballot in Arizona, Ohio is the next battleground for the abortion issue as the state will vote on an amendment enshrining abortion access with few limits into the state’s constitution this November. Abortion advocates are pouring money and resources into these ballot initiatives in the states in the wake of Dobbs.
DeSantis noted that former president Donald Trump, who blamed a “poorly handled” pro-life stance by Republicans for midterm losses, was absent from the debate stage and cited his recent comments calling Florida’s heartbeat law “terrible,” saying “he should be here explaining his comments to try to say that pro-life protections are somehow a terrible thing.”
Earlier this month on NBC’s Meet the Press, Trump called Florida’s heartbeat law “a terrible mistake” for DeSantis, saying he would “come up with a number” for an abortion limit and “Democrats won’t be able to go out at six months, seven months, eight months and allow an abortion.”
Trump met with backlash from pro-life groups after that interview and after posting on Truth Social Saturday that “Pro-lifers had absolutely zero status on the subject of abortion until I came along.” While taking credit for the overturning of Roe v. Wade and again going after DeSantis’s six-week limit, he did not specify a point in time at which he would limit abortion.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who along with former Vice President Mike Pence has backed a 15-week national abortion limit, pressed DeSantis on the stage on whether or not he would limit abortion federally to 15 weeks and DeSantis replied that he would.
In July, DeSantis faced criticism from pro-life groups for not committing to a national 15-week limit. He said at the time that “Congress is probably not the place you want to put your hopes and dreams if you're supporting pro-life, and so I think we're going to really have a strong bottom-up approach” and “we're going to be working with states and localities to be able to advance the cause of life."
Polling does suggest that the majority of Americans would support limiting abortion to the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. A Harvard Harris survey conducted in June 2022 after Roe v. Wade was overturned found that 72% of voters, including 60% of Democratic voters, thought their state should not allow abortion past 15 weeks. Knights of Columbus-Marist polling from January 2023 found that 69% of voters would limit abortion to, at most, the first three months of pregnancy.
During the debate, Perino also asked former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie about pro-life prospects in Arizona and the ballot initiative there. He responded by citing his record of vetoing Planned Parenthood funding in New Jersey.
“In eight years, I vetoed Planned Parenthood funding 14 times,” he said. “The Democrats just kept sending it to me, and I kept saying no because I believe in life. But I also believe in state’s rights and I think we fought hard against Roe v. Wade for decades to say that states should make these decisions.”
“We're going to have those fights in the states where what you need is a leader who can talk to people and make them understand that if you're pro-life, you have to be pro-life for the entire life, not just the nine months in the womb," he added.
Christie recently told NPR more about his decision not to back a federal abortion limit.
“I hope that what happens over the course of the next 16 months or so is that each of the states and their people weigh in on this issue of abortion, whether it's through referenda or whether it's through actions by the legislature and the governor,” he said. “After that, if there were a consensus, an obvious national consensus that was adopted by the Congress, I would consider signing such a piece of legislation. But I don't think the federal government should preempt the rights of the states and their people to make these decisions. And I have a hard time at the moment believing you can get 60 votes in the Senate for any of those proposals.”
While she did not weigh in on the issue in this debate, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley expressed similar skepticism in the last GOP debate in August about getting the votes in the Senate to back a national abortion limit.