WASHINGTON — Donald Trump has tapped a leading abortion-rights foe to launch a nationwide effort to mobilize pro-life voters in the final weeks before U.S. voters go to the polls.
The appointment of Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List), as the leader of Trump’s national pro-life coalition marked a new front in his battle to activate the GOP base. In a recent letter to pro-life leaders, Trump also vowed to support the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would end late-term abortions nationwide,” protect the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding of elective abortions, and defund Planned Parenthood.
“As we head into the final stretch of the campaign, the help of leaders like you is essential to ensure that pro-life voters know where I stand, and also know where my opponent, Hillary Clinton, stands,” wrote Trump in a letter that outlined his pro-life policy goals.
“Your help is crucial to make this contrast clear in the minds of pro-life voters,” Trump continued, “especially those in battleground states.”
“The whole plan is to rally pro-life voters around the nation, especially in battleground states, and let them know where the Trump ticket is on life issues,” Marilyn Musgrave, vice president of the Susan B. Anthony List and a former GOP congresswoman from Colorado, told the Register.
Dannenfelser’s endorsement signaled that some pro-life leaders and grassroots activists had finally warmed to Trump, after a long and often acrimonious courtship.
Back in January, Dannenfelser was among a group of pro-life leaders who warned Iowa Republicans not to trust the real estate tycoon, who once described himself as “pro-choice.” Not only did she challenge the candidate’s pro-life credentials, she also raised questions about his character.
But as Trump clinched the necessary delegate votes, pledged to put a pro-life jurist on the U.S. Supreme Court, and selected pro-life Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana as his running mate, some of the skepticism began to fade.
Asked to explain Dannenfelser’s about-face, Musgrave told the Register that Trump had earned her support.
“The commitments that Donald Trump has made to the pro-life community are extraordinary,” she said.
“We have never gotten these commitments from any other candidate, including the last two candidates who were pro-life.”
“While Clinton and the Democratic Party have talked about doing away with the Hyde Amendment, Trump has pledged to make the Hyde Amendment permanent,” she explained.
Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, confirmed the pro-life movement’s growing enthusiasm for the GOP’s presidential nominee.
“I have seen overwhelming support for Trump from pro-lifers,” Tobias told the Register.
She emphasized that the sharp contrast between Trump and Clinton helped foster that support.
“Trump has said he will nominate pro-life judges to the Supreme Court. We know Hillary Clinton will appoint judges who will probably expand Roe v. Wade.”
That said, Tobias also noted that the National Right to Life Committee would not join Trump’s new pro-life coalition. The SBA List is expected to announce its coalition partners on Friday.
“We don’t know if [participating on the coalition] will limit what we can do,” explained Tobias.
Pro-life activists have also kept an eye on Trump’s campaign appointments and have been heartened by his decision to tap Kellyanne Conway, a Catholic pro-life lawyer, as his new campaign manager, following a campaign shake-up in the summer.
Musgrave described Conway as a “committed pro-life” Republican.
Though some pundits have questioned whether Conway had the professional experience to manage a presidential campaign, the National Right to Life Committee also applauded her appointment.
“[A] movement pro-lifer, someone who has labored in the trenches for decades on behalf of unborn babies, someone who in the past has polled for National Right to Life, is now in charge of Mr. Trump’s campaign,” trumpeted the National Right to Life Committee in a story on its website.
Trump’s decision to make legal abortion a high-profile issue just weeks before voters go to the polls surprised pundits. By this point in the election cycle, both presidential nominees generally shift their focus to policy positions with broad bipartisan appeal, like their plans for job creation.
But when Conway was asked during an August media interview to outline her plans for the last phase of the campaign, she emphasized the crucial importance of activating the Republican base.
“I think my role will be … working with our many different messaging partners in our coalitions, just to make sure that we are all coordinating and doing [it] together,” she said.
The new pro-life coalition will coordinate support for Trump at the national and state level. And Dannenfelser’s visible role has offered the GOP some reassurance that Trump has finally “consolidated support from social conservatives who were initially skeptical of him,” as Politico put it.
Yet several surveys conducted in recent months paint a more complex portrait of religious conservatives’ response to Trump.
Though white evangelical Protestants strongly favor Trump, National Review’s analysis of polls surveying Catholics identified a significant shift in their support for GOP presidential nominees between 2012 and 2016.
“Catholics who attend Mass weekly have been found to support Clinton over Trump by a slightly wider margin than do Catholics who attend less frequently or not at all,” noted the assessment. “In June 2012, this subset of Catholics, those who are at least minimally observant, split for the Republican, Romney, by three percentage points; in June 2016, they split for the Democrat, Clinton, by 19 points.”
A Pew survey, released in July, also found that white evangelicals favored Trump, while Catholics were more likely to support Clinton.
“Hispanic Catholics overwhelmingly favor Clinton over Trump, while white Catholics are evenly divided between those who prefer Trump and those who favor Clinton,” noted Pew’s summary of its findings.
Church Leaders’ Guidance
With the election less than two months away, Church leaders have begun to offer their own guidance to the faithful, and that could have some impact.
“Catholics may never legitimately promote or vote for any law that attacks innocent human life,” stated an election-year booklet distributed by Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix.
“Being right on all the other issues can never justify a wrong choice on this most serious matter.”
But Bishop Olmsted also exhorted his flock to respect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, in an apparent reference to the polarized debate on illegal immigration and restrictions for Muslims entering the country. That additional guidance served as a reminder that Catholics should give a candidate’s views on abortion special weight, but other concerns also shape their assessment of a presidential candidate’s fitness for office.
Moral absolutes, including the Church’s consistent teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion, “are a limited but important matter for reflection by citizens in making decisions about how to vote,” agreed Bradley Lewis, a philosophy professor at The Catholic University of America.
“Secretary Clinton’s views about abortion are quite clear and well-known. Donald Trump … has generally claimed to hold a pro-life view, but this seems to be a suspiciously recent development,” said Lewis, in comments that sought to explain why polls reflected Catholic resistance to Trump.
Trump’s vow to name pro-life jurists may still win over some holdouts, Lewis suggested.
“Then again, he has also occasionally seemed to endorse both torture and the intentional killing of innocent non-combatants (the families of terrorists). These two positions are expressly at odds with Catholic teaching.”
Further, Lewis noted that the Church’s moral and social teaching offer additional context for voter assessments. “Catholic teaching holds that the end of politics is the common good, and so we are enjoined to look to the common good in making our political choices,” he explained.
At times, the Church’s repeated call for politicians to respect the common good may seem like a cliché, he said. But Catholics should be rightly concerned about a candidate’s character as well as policy positions.
“When one candidate holds a press conference in large measure to show off his newest hotel, one begins to ask questions about his understanding of and commitment to the common good,” Lewis said.
Yet Trump’s recent surge in the polls suggests that an increasing number of Americans have set aside such qualms and made their peace with his iconoclastic practices. Indeed, when Hillary Clinton recently sought to frame half of his supporters as a “basket of deplorables” who shared Trump’s allegedly extremist views, the remark backfired, and Clinton was forced to apologize.
But if Trump hopes to mobilize the pro-life vote, he and Dannenfelser still have a hard road ahead.
When the Register reached out to some pro-life organizations and commentators for this story, most said they would not comment, but gave no reason.
The SBA List, for its part, has vowed to “hold Trump to his pledge,” should he reach the Oval Office.
“These commitments have been made public,” said Musgrave, “and we have distributed them far and wide.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.