Nikki Haley stood out from the crowd in April when she gave a statement against abortion at the headquarters of the anti-abortion nonprofit Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.
Rather of calling for a government 15-week ban on the surgery, the former U.N. ambassador spoke generally about “sensitivity” and achieving “national consensus.” Pro-lifers told her that her stance would turn off abortion opponents.
On Wednesday, Haley delivered a similar position on abortion during the third GOP primary debate, declaring that she is personally opposed but does not “judge anyone for being pro-choice.” She was seen as more of a normative example for the party’s candidates this time around rather than an outlier.
“It feels like everyone’s kind of heading in the same direction, and it’s towards the position Nikki has articulated from the beginning,” Republican strategist David Kochel, a longstanding fixture of Iowa politics, said. As Haley put it, “the answer that most Republicans should be learning how to communicate, because it makes so much sense… Diverse viewpoints on abortion are necessary for our cooperation.
There may be a major movement in the Republican Party’s position on abortion right now. Few, if any, serious presidential hopefuls in the years before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade were willing to risk being seen as anything less than fully on board with the anti-abortion standards set by leaders of the movement.
GOP candidates up and down the ticket have tried to temper or muddle their message, even while continuing to advocate abortion limits, since voters have regularly supported codifying abortion rights in their states over the past year, including in Ohio the night before the debate.
Republican Party might face electoral disaster if it appears too doctrinaire, a warning that has been reiterated by frontrunner Donald Trump. The fact that Haley, the frontrunner among the pretenders, has also taken out a moderate position implies there is currently little political risk in doing so.
Haley’s team believes she is “teaching the GOP how to talk about this,” as one of their members put it, despite early criticism of her strategy. The fact that she is the sole female candidate in the election is not lost on anyone.
“She is on a primary debate stage surrounded by men,” the anonymous campaign official added. “The first debate, they were basically all wearing the same outfit. Finally, a voice of clarity and reason had appeared. Simply put, I believe that it hit people.
Democrats claim that Haley’s moderation is all talk and no action. She has vowed to sign the strictest anti-abortion bill that makes it to her desk and has consistently shown support for such legislation in her roles as governor and state legislature. Even while she was hesitant to support a precise federal standard, top surrogates for the Biden campaign, which has made no secret of its ambitions to run on abortion, were eager to trash her debate response in an attempt to cast her as an extremist.
However, the GOP primary field has shifted its narrative in Haley and Trump’s favour. Little public support exists in the GOP primary for a nationwide abortion bill, and with the elimination of former Vice President Mike Pence and the resignation of former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, this support is unlikely to grow.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who passed a six-week abortion ban in his state and vowed to sign a 15-week national abortion restriction if president — didn’t mention that pledge during the third debate. Instead, he shared a touching anecdote about selecting a woman to the state supreme court who had been advised to have an abortion by her own mother.
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie has said that each state should make its own decision on the matter. Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy avoided answering the subject of a 15-week ban during the debate, instead advocating for “sexual responsibility for men.” Ramaswamy has previously argued that the issue should be resolved at the state level.
Senator Tim Scott was the lone holdout, supporting a ban of 15 weeks.
The fact that the most vocal opponents of abortion have not embraced the proposed 15-week messaging has left anti-abortion activists feeling uneasy and frustrated. Now that they have succeeded in overturning Roe v. Wade after decades of effort, they think Republicans shouldn’t be so defensive.
According to Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, “I think clarity is a gift in politics, and the only one with any sense of clarity at all was Tim Scott,” in reference to the most recent debate. Republican primary voters should be told what the candidates intend to do, not what they hope to achieve. The moderators have asked the simplest possible version of the question.
According to Dannenfelser, she hasn’t talked to either Haley or Trump since April, when Haley gave a speech at their headquarters, or May, when she met with Trump. She continues to hold out hope, however, that they may reconsider their abortion stance.
But a change of heart appears increasingly unlikely.
On Tuesday, voters in the red state of Ohio approved an amendment to their state constitution that will make abortion illegal. This election was widely viewed as a political barometer for voters in 2024. And Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who championed a 15-week limit as a logical medium position, saw Democrats in his state hold the state Senate and win over the House.
Trump has been advocating for a new approach to abortion policy within the GOP for quite some time prior to then. More recently, he indicated that it is possible to win on abortion during back-to-back events in September for the conservative groups Concerned Women for America and Family Research Council, but that “it’s very delicate and explaining it properly is an extremely important thing.”
Trump, who brags about choosing the conservative Supreme Court judges who overturned Roe but rarely shares details on his abortion views, has emphasised the need of exceptions in the case of rape, incest, or where the life of the mother is endangered. Furthermore, he has stated that bans on abortion after six weeks are “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” Instead, he proposed meeting with both parties to “negotiate something” about abortion.
Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Nance agreed with Trump’s premise that better messaging is needed around abortion. She argued that the best course of action was not to “dodge the issue and go soft on [it],” but rather to rally more support for the anti-abortion movement.
It’s going to be at the top of the Democrats’ agenda in 2024, and it’s not going away. In light of this, Nance argued that Republicans should “put their money where their mouth is.” What did they expect to happen when they outspent us nine to one?
Haley’s camp, for their part, sees no reason to reverse direction. A campaign official stated that the candidate received overwhelmingly positive public and private response after Wednesday’s debate. In the 24 hours following the debate, Haley raised almost $1 million, breaking her own record for a single day of small-dollar donations. A post-debate 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll declared Hillary the obvious winner of the night.
Some leaders of socially conservative groups may be frustrated by the acclaim she is receiving for a less-defined abortion policy, but others have been less keen that the candidates follow a precise script.
Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed has called for a “highly organic process and an ongoing conversation” among conservative groups like his own, anti-abortion activists like himself, voters, and party leaders.
Reed argued that pro-life advocates “need to be both principled and pragmatic,” meaning that they should not compromise on their stance of supporting the right of every unborn child to be protected within the womb. But they need to be realistic about what can be accomplished at the federal and state levels right now.
Reed predicted that “in the near term,” “most of the progress will be in the states.”