In January, Marjorie Dannenfelser and nine other antiabortion activists urged Iowa voters to support anyone but Donald Trump. Now she is fully backing the Republican nominee, chairing the pro-life coalition of a man the activists said “cannot be trusted.”
The dramatic about-face for Dannenfelser and other religious and social conservatives who were once leery of supporting a brash, thrice-married New Yorker who supported abortion rights and called Holy Communion a “little cracker” is due in large part to one man: Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
Trump’s running mate has a long record of supporting antiabortion and conservative causes, and he is now the key to smoothing over relationships with skeptical antiabortion and Christian leaders. Pence has met with anti-Trump voices including conservative commentator Erick Erickson. He was reportedly instrumental in helping Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who ran as a Christian conservative and pointedly refused to endorse Trump, eventually throw his support behind the nominee last month.
“I really do feel much more comfortable with Donald Trump as the candidate with Mike Pence as his running mate,” said Penny Nance, chief executive of Concerned Women for America, a group that opposes abortion. Nance had been skeptical of Trump but now fully supports him.
Pence, who was raised as a Catholic, converted to evangelical Christianity in his 20s. While in Congress, he filed the first legislation that called for barring Planned Parenthood from receiving federal funds and attempted to shut down the government over it.
Pence has crisscrossed the country, speaking at churches and Christian conservative gatherings. In the past week, he headlined a meeting of the Home School Legal Defense Association in North Carolina, spoke at a dinner held by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, and appeared at churches in Arizona, Colorado and Florida.
“I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” Pence said at the Values Voter summit last month.
Pence spokesman Marc Lotter said the governor has long been in the orbit of these issues.
“Obviously, it makes sense that he would continue to reach out and to build on those relationships that he has,” Lotter said.
Pence’s role comes as some religious conservatives still have major problems with Trump and say they cannot vote for the ticket.
“Mike Pence is one of the greatest leaders this country has ever seen. . . . If he was at the top of the ticket, I’d probably quit my job and go full time to help him,” said Michael Farris, general counsel of the Home School Legal Defense Association, who said that in no way did Pence pressure him to support the ticket.
“But he’s not at the top of the ticket, and the top of the ticket is so utterly flawed that I’m still not intending to vote for either Trump or Hillary,” Farris said. “His pro-life positions and everything else are custom-made for the moment, and I don’t believe him.”
Pence, he said, is another story. Earlier this year, Pence signed one of the nation’s furthest-reaching abortion laws, barring abortions of fetuses with Down syndrome or any other disability or because of their race, sex or ancestry. It also mandates that fetuses that are miscarried or stillborn in a medical facility be buried or cremated and that women have an ultrasound at least 18 hours before a scheduled abortion.
Portions of the law, including making it illegal to abort fetuses because of specific circumstances, were struck down by a judge in June.
“He’s just rock-solid on the issue of life, and no one will ever doubt his integrity on the issue or his willingness to lead on the issue,” Nance said.
In 2015, Pence signed a controversial religious liberty law branded as anti-gay. Pence reversed course and amended it to include a provision that prohibits business owners from denying services to gay patrons — a measure that made few people, on either side of the issue, happy.
“How Pence caved on religious liberty last year is the worst act of political treachery I’ve ever seen from a Republican,” said Steve Deace, a prominent Iowa evangelical who does not support the Trump-Pence ticket.
But to others, Pence is a rock-solid conservative who can be fully trusted. He has been especially successful in helping those in the antiabortion movement sign on to the Trump campaign. They say that his record and that of Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, who has a long history of working for candidates who oppose abortion, helped assuage any doubts about the ticket.
“Governor Pence had a lot to do with it,” said Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List.
Now the organization’s super PAC, Women Speak Out, is going door to door in the swing states of Ohio, North Carolina and Florida, specifically targeting Democrats and Hispanics, who they think can be persuaded to vote for Trump on the issue of abortion — specifically late-term abortion and taxpayer funding of abortion. More than 500 people have knocked on more than 700,000 doors, taking aim at Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s record on abortion.
Trump, who once said he supported late-term abortions, now says he is against abortion except in the cases of rape and incest as well as when the woman’s life is at risk. As a presidential candidate, he has pledged to nominate antiabortion justices to the Supreme Court, abolish federal funding for Planned Parenthood, sign legislation banning late-term abortions and defend the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits Medicare from paying for abortions.
“The goal is to reach every single pro-life voter in a battleground state that needs to hear these commitments and compare them” to Clinton’s, Dannenfelser said.
Trump’s campaign announced its full pro-life advisory council with CBN News on Thursday. It includes 30 national co-chairs, including members of Congress. Abortion rights groups heavily criticized the move.
“Trump’s coalition is a who’s who of antiabortion politicians and extremists,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “Anyone who questions whether Donald Trump wants to ban safe, legal abortion clearly has been answered. Trump’s policies and the sexist, abusive, dismissive way he treats women show his disregard for women’s health and lives.”
Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, said Trump’s record on abortion had been “spotty” but that he thinks Trump has opposed abortion for about a decade. He and others said they welcome converts. Scheidler thinks Trump has surrounded himself with people who know how to push through antiabortion laws should he be elected president.
Russell Moore, who has been one of the religious right’s strongest anti-Trump voices, said he exchanges text messages with Pence about personal issues, such as how their families are doing. Although he will not be supporting Trump, he understands why some people have changed their minds because of Pence.
“Mike’s a reassuring figure sort of across the board to people because Mike is obviously a man of integrity, he’s obviously a very stable person and leader. I’m sure that plays some in calculations with people,” Moore said.