CHICAGO (AP) - Emboldened anti-abortion activists are looking to the 2024 presidential election as an opportunity to solidify their influence over the Republican Party.
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, the most influential group in the anti-abortion movement, is telling each potential GOP presidential hopeful that to win its backing - or avoid being a target of its opposition - they must support national restrictions on the procedure. Exceptions in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother are acceptable, the activists say, but leaving the question for states to decide is not.
"It is a level of protection that goes to every single state. That's the baseline of what we're looking to do," said Frank Cannon, Susan B. Anthony's chief political strategist. "Anything less than that will not be acceptable and will not be somebody that SBA can support. So, it's that simple."
That directive is creating an early litmus test for Republicans considering entering the first presidential election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that enshrined federal protections for abortion for roughly 50 years. While the hard-line stance could please anti-abortion activists who hold sway in GOP primaries, it could create problems for the party's eventual nominee in the general election.
Voters protected abortion rights via ballot measures in six states in 2022, including Kansas, a state former President Donald Trump twice won by double-digit margins. AP VoteCast, a survey of the midterm electorate, showed the Supreme Court's decision was broadly unpopular. About 6 in 10 said they were angry or dissatisfied by it, and roughly the same percentage said they favor a law guaranteeing access to legal abortion nationwide.
Supporters of abortion rights say the issue was a "game changer" that helped Democrats last year and that will motivate voters even more in 2024, after two years of seeing the effects of restrictions.
"We're in a nation where 18 states have no access to abortion, and that number is not going down. It's going to go up as additional court cases get decided," said Jenny Lawson, vice president of organizing and engagement campaigns at Planned Parenthood Action Fund. She predicted people will see headlines "over and over again" about pregnant children forced to travel out of state for abortions or people unable to get proper miscarriage care because doctors are afraid of liability.
Pressure from the anti-abortion movement has put Trump, who announced his third run for the presidency last year, in perhaps the most complicated position.
He is arguably more responsible for the overturning of Roe than anyone else, having appointed three anti-abortion Supreme Court justices who backed last year's ruling. But he has also made clear that he believes pushing any further will hurt Republicans, and he accused anti-abortion leaders of failing to do enough to help GOP candidates in the midterms.
"I just didn't see them fighting during this last election, fighting for victory," Trump said in an interview with David Brody, a longtime commentator for the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Trump, who described himself as "very pro-choice" before entering politics, stressed that objecting to exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother makes it "much harder to win elections." He has criticized evangelical leaders who have been slow to endorse his latest run, blasting decisions by pastors like Robert Jeffress to wait to assess the rest of the field as "a sign of disloyalty."
Cannon called the notion that opposing abortion hurt the GOP last year "absolutely absurd," pointing to candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis - a top potential GOP presidential candidate - who easily won reelection. DeSantis signed into law last year a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The Republican candidates who got "clobbered," Cannon said, were those who tried to avoid the topic.
"What you have to do is argue for protections that the American people see as reasonable versus the extremism of no exceptions, even late-term abortion," Cannon said. "And if you do that, it's a winning combination."
SBA Pro-Life America, which raised over $60 million for 2020 campaigns along with its affiliated super PAC, is talking with each potential candidate, Cannon said. While records are being discussed, what matters in 2024 is what policies the candidates prioritize when they announce their bids. SBA's specific request is to support "at a minimum" a "heartbeat bill" or "pain-capable" bill, he said.
The heartbeat bill would make abortion illegal after cardiac activity is detected, which occurs at roughly six weeks of pregnancy - before some women know they're pregnant. Legislation that references the fetus feeling pain, such as a measure introduced last year by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would ban the procedure at around 15 weeks. Graham's bill didn't advance in the Democratic-controlled chamber, and even some fellow Republicans distanced themselves from it ahead of the midterms.
Trump's stance has provided an opening on the right for potential rivals like former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom are evangelical Christians with long-held anti-abortion stances.
Pence has spent months visiting so-called crisis pregnancy centers that counsel women against abortions. And he has embarked on a tour of megachurches, including Jeffress' First Baptist Church in Dallas, and spoken before major anti-abortion groups.
His advocacy group, Advancing American Freedom, has pushed for Congress to pass legislation including a national abortion ban beginning around six weeks of pregnancy and a bill that would establish legal personhood at conception. Marc Short, Pence's former chief of staff and longtime adviser, said that when it comes to declared and potential 2024 candidates, "I see him as the most comfortable explaining his pro-life convictions and the basis for them."
For Pence, he said, the issue is about much more than politics.
"Mike does it because this is core to the reason that he ran for office and won for the first time. It's always been for him a top issue and it's a priority," he said.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, is another potential candidate who signed abortion prohibitions into law in her state. The 2016 law bans abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy and includes an exception if the mother's life is in jeopardy but not for cases of rape or incest.
After the Supreme Court's decision, Haley said states, and not "unelected justices," should control abortion policy. That position puts her at odds with SBA and other anti-abortion groups.
Others see abortion as a potential vulnerability for DeSantis. A spokesperson for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who is also exploring a potential run, recently unloaded on DeSantis, questioning where he stands on the issue.
"Governor Noem was the only Governor in America on national television defending the Dobbs decision," Ian Fury wrote in an email to the National Review. "Where was Governor DeSantis? Hiding behind a 15-week ban. Does he believe that 14-week-old babies don't have a right to live?"
Cannon stressed that those in the anti-abortion movement are the "foot soldiers" of the Republican Party during elections and comprise a huge percentage of primary voters.
"No Republican candidate can win the presidency without the backing of the pro-life movement," he said.
Colvin reported from New York.