Evangelical Leaders Press GOP Presidential Candidates to Advocate for More Abortion Restrictions

June 23, 2023by Will Weissert and Michelle L. Price, Associated Press
Evangelical Leaders Press GOP Presidential Candidates to Advocate for More Abortion Restrictions
President Donald Trump walks around the stage before speaking at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, June 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, some of the Republican Party’s most influential evangelical Christian figures assembled Friday to celebrate a ruling that sent shockwaves through American politics and stripped away a long-standing constitutional protection.

At the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s annual conference, Republican presidential candidates were urged to push for more abortion restrictions, even as Democrats insist the issue will buoy them going into the 2024 election.

Former President Donald Trump, whose three Supreme Court nominees allowed for the reversal of nationwide abortion rights, will give the keynote address Saturday night, the one-year anniversary of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. On Friday’s schedule were many rivals, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Not far from the conference site, President Joe Biden planned a rally with abortion rights activists, underscoring how important the issue is for both sides.

Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, said the conference’s dates were negotiated years ago, so the fact that it spans the Dobbs anniversary, which comes Saturday, is a “serendipitous coincidence.”

“But we’re certainly going to do everything that we can, as an organization and as a pro-life and pro-family movement, to give our candidates a little bit of a testosterone booster shot and explain to them that they should not be on the defensive,” Reed said in an interview. “Those who are afraid of it need to, candidly, grow a backbone.”

Such a political pep talk may be necessary because Democrats say fighting to preserve abortion rights can energize their base and help the party hold the Senate, flip the House and reelect Biden. Despite unfavorable historical precedent, Democrats managed a stronger-than-expected showing during last year’s midterm elections and continue to point to abortion as a key reason why.

Even Trump has suggested that strict abortion restrictions were a weakness for Republicans. He posted on his social media site in January that the party’s underwhelming midterm performance “wasn’t my fault” and blamed “’the ’abortion issue,’ poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother.”

Reed drew cheers from the crowd when he opened the gathering by saying that “after 50 years of prayer and fasting and knocking on doors and electing candidates and registering voters and changing the culture of our country, Roe v Wade has been overturned.”

He added: “They accuse us of being a part of a cult of personality of the former president of the United States. We’re part of a cult of only one personality. There is only one person that we worship. And that is the person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”

Earlier in the week, Democratic National Committee chair Jaime Harrison said all the 2024 GOP presidential candidates are “running on an extreme anti-choice record.” The DNC announced a six-figure ad campaign that will trumpet GOP support for a nationwide abortion ban.

The Supreme Court ruling paved the way for near-total bans in some Republican-led states, though voters in others rejected state constitutional referendums that would have removed virtually any abortion right protections. Democrats have pledged to codify the right to an abortion in federal law, but don’t have the votes in Congress to do so.

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, head of the Democrats’ Senate campaign arm, said top Republican presidential candidates will back a nationwide abortion ban to win support in their GOP primaries, then shift to a more moderate position for the general election.

“They will try to juice up their base with the issue and then pretend that that’s not their position,” Peters said. “They’re not going to get away with that.”

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last July found that a majority of Americans say Congress should pass a law guaranteeing access to legal abortion nationwide. But the same poll showed that many Americans back some restrictions on abortion, especially after the first trimester of pregnancy.

Among the GOP candidates, DeSantis and Pence support bans after six weeks of pregnancy. Scott has backed a 15-week ban, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is speaking to the conference on Saturday, has said she supports a federal ban but has not said at what point in pregnancy she would seek to ban abortions.

Trump has avoided specifying what national limits, if any, he would support on abortion.

One major anti-abortion group, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, has said it would not support any White House candidate who did not, at a minimum, support passing a nationwide ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Those attending the gathering will encourage the presidential candidates to “shift the focus and shift the language” around abortion, Reed said, so as to “frame the narrative, not around stages of gestation — whether weeks or months or trimesters, which I think is falling into the trap of the left — but talking about the unborn child.”

Pence, an evangelical Christian, will be speaking at the Faith & Freedom Coalition event for the first time since 2021, when he was booed by some and faced shouts of “traitor.” That event, held in Florida, came months after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, when Pence defied Trump’s unprecedented demands to overturn Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

Reed warned Friday’s audience about booing or verbally expressing any disagreement with any presidential candidates: “If they’re not where they need to be, then let’s just love them and pray them right where they need to go.”

The former vice president has made abortion a centerpiece of his campaign and was also expected to speak Saturday at the National Celebrate Life Rally at the Lincoln Memorial. He is also doing a weekend tele-town hall in Iowa that will focus on abortion.

Despite evangelicals’ initial reluctance to back Trump in 2016, Reed said the former president’s administration had a strong abortion record to point to. He said Trump also impressed evangelicals by moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018, which the evangelical movement supported because of the deep religious significance of the area.

Candidates understand “there is no path to the Republican nomination for president that doesn’t go through the evangelical vote,” he said.

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