In the first of five newly scheduled visits to the Hawkeye State, Donald Trump arrived in northeast Iowa with a warning.
“In order to win in 2024, Republicans must learn how to properly talk about abortion,” he told an audience of some 2,000 potential voters, packed into a ballroom here.
"This issue cost us unnecessarily but dearly in the midterms. It cost us dearly, really, and unnecessarily."
Amid his customary MAGA slogans and jokes at the expense of Ron DeSantis, the moment stood in stark relief as a rare attempt at clear-eyed, political sobriety on Trump’s part. It’s also the latest in a week-long saga in which Trump, the self-described “most pro-life president in history,” has sought to loudly position himself as the GOP’s resident moderate on abortion. It began with a bang on Sunday, when the former president denounced the idea of a six-week “fetal heartbeat” ban on abortion as a “terrible mistake,” and pledged to negotiate a compromise with Democrats on the issue.
Ever since the 2022 Dobbs decision that vacated Roe v. Wade, abortion has emerged as a highly salient issue that cuts in Democrats’ favor. This summer, it emerged as a flashpoint dividing the Republicans’ crowded presidential primary field – and nowhere is this more true than in Iowa. Participants in the state’s first-in-the-nation GOP caucus are more likely to identify as pro-life than anything else, and victory in the state is nigh impossible without the support of evangelical Christians, a majority of whom enthusiastically support Iowa’s six-week abortion ban.
Trump’s campaign knows all this, but his concern appears to be with electability in swing states during the general election – which is the kind of luxury available only to a candidate leading the primary field by 40 points in the polls.
On stage, Trump recalled the GOP’s recent losses in Michigan and Pennsylvania: “Good candidates” who ultimately “got clobbered” because they failed to read the room on abortion.
Trump may see something in the tea leaves for 2024, as well. At the GOP debate in Milwaukee last month, eight of Trump’s most prominent challengers all took the opportunity to identify as some shade of “pro-life.” But in the weeks since, the only challenger to have moved the needle against him has been Nikki Haley – the lone woman on stage, who drew a sharp contrast with the pack when she offered a nuanced take on the issue, and rebuked the idea that a Republican president could pass any kind of federal abortion ban.
“No Republican president can ban abortions any more than a Democrat president could ban all those state laws," she said in Milwaukee.
"Don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue, when you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes."
Notably, a September 7 poll by Fox found Haley to have a better hypothetical matchup against Joe Biden than any other GOP candidate, Trump included. But others in the race insist the path forward is to the right of Trump’s current post. At a Saturday town hall with Iowa evangelicals in Des Moines, his former sidekick called for a nationwide 15-week ban, in a direct response to Haley.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,” Pence said.
“Why would we leave unborn babies in California and Illinois and New York to the devices of liberal state legislatures and liberal governors? We need to stand for the unborn, all across America.”
And for Ron DeSantis, who signed a six-week ban identical to Iowa’s in Florida last March, it might be just what his struggling campaign needed. The campaign took to Iowa’s radio waves the morning after Trump’s “horrible mistake” clip went viral, ready to position himself as the more authentic pro-life candidate.
“I don’t know how you can even make the claim that you’re somehow pro-life if you’re criticizing states for enacting protections for babies that have heartbeats,” DeSantis said in an interview with Radio Iowa on Monday.
“I think if [Trump’s] going into this saying he’s going to make the Democrats happy with respect to right to life, I think all pro-lifers should know that he’s preparing to sell you out.”
On its surface, it would seem like an easy inroad for the Florida governor. But it may not be so simple. When RealClearPolitics spoke to Emerson College’s Spencer Kimball, he pointed to a counterintuitive finding in their post-debate Iowa poll. Trump was found to have roughly equivalent support among Republicans both against and in favor of a complete federal abortion ban (51% and 52%, respectively).
“There’s this idea that the abortion issue is really driving, or that it’ll curtail Trump somehow, but I don’t see that. He’s getting it from both directions,” Kimball said.
“The issues just don’t line up perfectly, where if you go with one thing, everyone will fall in line.”
Kimball also felt that Trump’s anxieties about another pro-choice “clobbering” may be justified, based on recent electoral losses for the GOP, like the Michigan governorship. Democrat Gretchen Whitmer managed to overperform last November, in part thanks to messaging that leaned heavily into anxiety around “reproductive rights.”
“You had, in my opinion, a clear example of somebody ‘staunch pro-life’ and somebody ‘staunch pro-choice’,” Kimball said of the race.
“We thought it would be somewhat competitive. It was not, and it really speaks to how motivating abortion can be as an issue.”
Is the pro-life right forever doomed to moderation, then? Not necessarily. In a statement to RCP, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the advocacy group SBA Pro-Life America, provided an alternate telling of 2022’s Red Wave That Wasn’t.
Republican governors who exceeded expectations that year – Georgia’s Brian Kemp, Texas’ Greg Abbott, and, yes, Florida’s Ron DeSantis – were all unabashedly pro-life in their campaigns.
“Life is a winning issue for those that speak clearly and confidently,” Dannenfelser explained.
“Republicans need to stand firm in serving mothers and protecting the most innocent among us. And when they do, they see great success. Governors who boldly spoke on pro-life won by double-digit margins in the midterms against pro-abortion candidates.”
Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow at the Catholic Association, amplified this point, saying that successful candidates in 2022 were not only pro-life, but were able to “clearly define their opponent's unpopular no-limits extremism” as well.
“Pro-choice extremists are playing dangerous rhetorical games with voters and using deceptive language in their ballot initiative efforts, and so it’s more important than ever that pro-life politicians clarify their positions and clearly define those of their opponents,” McGuire said.
It’s here that both sides of the GOP’s schism of the week seem to agree. In Dubuque on Wednesday, Trump stressed to the audience that a lasting pro-life victory would come through regaining leverage and reframing the issue around the extremes of the left.
“Pro-Lifers aren’t the radicals. They’re the radicals!” Trump said Wednesday. Should horror stories of practices like “post-birth” abortion become more widely known, Trump argued, it would become clear that “nobody wants that, not even Democrats.”
And in the short term? Trump is hoping Iowans remember that he’s still the guy who overturned Roe v. Wade. Challengers looking to attack him on this issue must tip-toe around the fact that his Supreme Court appointments are the only reason this debate is possible in the first place.
“The same people attacking us now are those who have been failing you for decades,” Trump said in Dubuque, referring to the hardline pro-lifers within the party.
“Unlike them, I don’t just talk, I get the job done. I got this job done.”
Trump’s rivals, of course, are hoping he’ll never have the chance to be proven right in the general election. At least one group seems to believe Trump’s gambit will pay off, though: Democrats reportedly scrambled the metaphorical jets following Trump’s interview on Sunday, anxious that they won’t be able to draw an effective contrast with Trump on what was previously seen as a “sensitive issue.”
Republicans like DeSantis, though, may finally have the contrast they were looking for. Although Trump isn’t expected to attend next week’s GOP debate in Simi Valley, Calif., we can expect the contrast will be on full display when he and DeSantis attend California’s GOP convention, two days later.