The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pence leans in on abortion, as Trump, other potential 2024 candidates are more cautious

The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade has opened up new fissures offering early clues about the contours of the primary

Vice President Mike Pence addresses a rally on the National Mall before the start of the 44th annual March for Life on Jan. 27, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, former vice president Mike Pence says abortion should be banned nationwide and is planning behind the scenes to focus on the issue in the coming weeks, according to advisers.

Former president Donald Trump, in contrast, fears the ruling could hurt the GOP’s election chances, his advisers said, even as he hailed the ruling as “victory for life” at a Saturday rally.

And some ambitious Republican governors have called for tightening restrictions in their states while other leading figures in the party have avoided such ideas, as strategists say it remains unclear how abortion will reshape key races in future elections.

The court’s ruling has opened up new fissures among potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates, offering early clues about the contours of the primary. The differing reactions underscore the dilemma confronting Republicans in the aftermath of a far-reaching court decision that animates their base but could alienate other parts of the electorate.

Lawmakers like Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and more spoke on June 26 about the overturning of Roe. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Roughly half of all states are likely or certain to ban or restrict abortion without Roe, according the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion access. Among them: battleground states such as Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan that will be crucial in 2024.

The responses from potential 2024 contenders in the GOP “have been all over the map,” said Bob Heckman, a Republican political strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns and counts the antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America among his clients.

Democrats, while united in their outrage with the court’s ruling, are also confronting divisions about the path forward. President Biden, who has said he plans to run for reelection, has urged voters to channel their anger into their votes this November and elect more congressional Democrats who can then codify abortion rights. Others, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has said he might run if Biden doesn’t, are calling for swifter action: ending the Senate filibuster to enable Democrats to codify abortion rights.

But in the Republican Party, there is a debate underway about whether the ruling could come back to haunt candidates in future elections. One Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid, said the presidential primary may push GOP candidates further to the right on abortion in ways that could hurt them in the general election.

“The safest place for Republicans is to say, ‘Send it to the states,’ ” said the strategist, who has experience with presidential campaigns. But the strategist viewed even that more cautious message as a liability “when it comes to soft Republican women, independents, soft Democrat women, all of which you need to, you know, be elected president.”

Democrats seize on abortion ruling in midterms, as Republicans tread carefully

Pence has gone in the other direction — writing on Twitter last week that “we must not rest and must not relent until the sanctity of life is restored to the center of American law in every state in the land.” Advisers to Pence said his firm position on abortion could help in conservative states such as South Carolina, and one said his team has been surprised that more candidates have not taken his stance.

“It’s been a large part of his career,” said Marc Short, Pence’s former chief of staff, who is currently advising him. “This is who he’s always been.” Short said the former vice president will be traveling and advocating for antiabortion legislation in states.

On Friday, Pence’s organization, Advancing American Freedom, shared a video highlighting that record: Pence led efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health organization, while serving in Congress and signed “every pro-life bill that crossed his desk” as governor of Indiana, the video says.

“And in the White House, Mike Pence provided the guidance and advice to the president to select Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, three of the five votes making this incredible moment possible,” it continues. “Lives will be saved.”

Advisers noted Pence’s stops before Friday’s ruling included a South Carolina crisis pregnancy center; a South Carolina church where Pence asked to lead a prayer about Roe; and a convention for students opposing abortion, where the former vice president urged others to pray the Supreme Court justices weighing Roe “hold firm.”

Some Republican strategists called the end of Roe an opportunity for Pence, who has faced Republican backlash over his refusal to overturn Trump’s 2020 election loss.

“He just needs an issue set that he can really dig into that’s not about January 6 or Trump or anything,” said Republican strategist David Kochel, who has worked on six presidential campaigns. “He’s comfortable talking about [abortion],” he added.

But Kochel said Trump still has the simplest message to voters about the Supreme Court ruling: “You’re welcome.” He argued Pence will never be able to take the kind of credit Trump can — even if Trump has privately fretted about fallout for Republicans. “I think the more [Trump] hears himself getting praised, the more likely it is he leans into it,” said Kochel, who most recently worked on Jeb Bush’s presidential bid in 2016.

At a rally in Illinois on Saturday, Trump paused as the crowd took up a chant: “Thank you, Trump! Thank you, Trump!”

Trump touted his role in shaping the Supreme Court but did not call for an end to abortion nationwide, emphasizing the role of states.

“Thanks to the courage found within the United States Supreme Court,” he said, “this long divisive issue will be decided by the states and the American people. That’s the way it should have been many many years ago, and that’s the way it is now.”

Trump publicly praises Roe’s repeal — but privately frets about impact

GOP candidates “have to balance, you know, the wishes of their own constituencies, which often conflict with what the national Republican constituencies might prefer,” said Costas Panagopoulos, chair of the political science department at Northeastern University, who noted that polling shows most Americans opposed overturning Roe. “Especially in a Republican primary in which the voters who participate will be more extreme on the issue of abortion than the overall Republican electorate.”

Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich on Friday disputed that Trump has privately expressed misgivings about overturning Roe. On Sunday, he said in an email that Trump “remains the only Republican in the country who would have been able to ensure the confirmation of all three justices — end of story.”

Many Republicans are hoping the burst of attention on abortion fades. At a weekend gathering in Chicago, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told donors that they should be less worried about suburban women than some feared, arguing they will ultimately care more about other issues such as rising gas prices, broader inflation and coronavirus restrictions on schools, according to a person with knowledge of the event, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private gathering. McDaniel said polling had not shown in recent weeks that Republicans were going to pay a price for the ruling.

Democrats are hoping anger over the court ruling can shift their fortunes in a tough midterm election year. Strategists see a state-by-state fight over abortion access as a potential motivator for each party’s base.

Around the country, potential Republican presidential candidates in state leadership roles have signaled a range of next steps.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — one of the most prominent potential 2024 candidates — said in a recent statement that the state would “work to expand pro-life protections” but did not chart out specifics. Florida banned abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy this spring and could become a destination for women from other states embracing stricter rules.

Florida emerges as key battleground in state-by-state abortion fight

In South Dakota — where a “trigger” law has swiftly banned abortion, except to save the mother’s life — Republican Gov. Kristi L. Noem emphasized Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week” that Roe “gives the power back to the states” and said women can speak to their elected officials “to make sure that their laws reflect what they value.” While some legislators have pushed to restrict out-of-state travel for abortions, Noem did not take a position on that step and said, “We’re having lots of debates in South Dakota.”

Asked about penalties for those who seek abortions with pills, Noem said, “I don’t believe women should ever be prosecuted.”

GOP governors in liberal-leaning states, meanwhile, have vowed to preserve abortion rights: In Maryland, for instance, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said he would “uphold” his state’s laws, which bar interference with “a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy.” In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu (R) said he was a “pro-choice governor” after a draft opinion overturning Roe leaked.

In Virginia, however, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) said he will seek to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, drawing pushback from both Democrats alarmed at the idea and conservatives who want to see him go further.

“I am not someone who is going to jump in and try to push us apart. … There is a place we can come together,” he told The Washington Post right after the Supreme Court’s decision was announced.

Potential 2024 Republican candidates have also focused their messaging on supporting those with unplanned pregnancies.

Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo called for increased support for pregnancy care centers, organizations that counsel people against abortions and provide them with resources. “With Roe overturned, let’s take this opportunity to get these care centers the resources they need to thrive, succeed, and continue helping women,” Pompeo tweeted on Saturday. He also praised Trump for “Returning America to its Constitution with your Court picks.”

Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and United Nations ambassador under Trump, said in a statement that she hopes for “a renewed commitment from elected lawmakers to support and protect mothers and their pre-born babies,” She also said the Supreme Court’s ruling “puts the debate back where it belongs — at the state level, closest to the people.”

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement that “the fight to protect the sanctity of life is not over” but went on to focus on families’ struggles, rather than call for specific restrictions.

“Lawmakers and the pro-life movement have the responsibility to make adoption more accessible and affordable, and do everything in our power to meet the needs of struggling women and their families so they can choose life,” he said.

Michael Scherer contributed to this report.

Loading...