© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Abby Johnson
“I don’t know that God has called me here to win this election, and I’m OK with that,” Abby Johnson said. Darron Cummings/AP

Anti-Abortion Activists Want a Seat at the Political Table. Neither Party Wants Them There.

“Neither party may want them” at the table, “but only one party sent them an invitation,” a longtime Democratic strategist said.

Prominent anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson took the stage at the Texas Republican Party convention last Thursday to urge party delegates to choose her as vice chair. The crowd applauded as she talked about how the 2020 election was stolen, how liberalism is “a belief full of demonic ideas” and how abortion should never be removed from the GOP platform — even as some want the party to stay away from the topic.

She and her running mate, Weston Martinez, wound up in third place, losing the election. She expected it.

“I don’t know that God has called me here to win this election, and I’m OK with that,” Johnson told NOTUS ahead of the state party elections. “But I know that he’s called me to be here for a reason, and I believe that reason is to really proclaim the truth about abortion, to help people understand that biblical principles are more important than simply winning elections.”

Johnson is one of several anti-abortion activists who are seeking a political position this year. After years of advising politicians and drafting legislation, some advocates are hoping to serve themselves — or at least lay the groundwork for other anti-abortion activists to seek and win office.

But they have one major problem: Many party officials and politicians would rather these activists stay behind the scenes.

On Capitol Hill, one House Republican told NOTUS that abortion is a very “sensitive” issue and that these anti-abortion advocates’ views will not become the leading message within the GOP, given the politics. Most Americans support keeping abortion legal, and Democrats have found access to be a winning issue.

The Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak frankly on the issue, suggested that anti-abortion activists should stick to state-level politics because abortion matters are mostly handled by the states.

The activists seem to disagree. Mark Houck, a first-time candidate who was acquitted last year after an altercation with a Planned Parenthood clinic escort, mounted a primary challenge against GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. Houck raised more than any other Republican who has tried to unseat Fitzpatrick, one of the few Republicans currently occupying a district carried by President Joe Biden in 2020.

Houck lost the primary but told NOTUS his bid was still worth it.

“The best people don’t want to run — I hate to say that. The best people, most qualified, probably don’t want to run because they don’t feel they can be effective,” Houck told NOTUS. “We need more people of faith and more … pro-life people to step out, even if it means not winning, and that it is a sacrifice for a year or six months of your life, but you can make an impact, and the fact that I’m talking to you is evidence of that.”

Fitzpatrick, who claims to be the most independent member of Congress and does not support a federal abortion ban, said that extreme anti-abortion views will not be leading Republican ideas because “not only is that not where Americans are, it’s not where the GOP is.”

“What I’ve seen a lot in politics on a whole host of issues is because of social media, people can be in an echo chamber, and they only talk to each other, so they think that their group is reflective of the broader community when it’s not,” the congressman told NOTUS.

Focusing a campaign solely on seeking to end abortion will only help in “deep red states or districts,” said Liz Mair, a former top staffer for the Republican National Committee and GOP presidential campaign strategist. “I think in a post-Dobbs world, it’s hard” to have anti-abortion activists run for office and gain voter support, she added.

For some activists, though, it’s not about gaining voter support — but about discouraging voters from supporting abortion rights supporters. Randall Terry, an anti-abortion advocate who founded Operation Rescue, a group that became notorious for blockading abortion clinic entrances, started a third-party presidential campaign with the religiously conservative Constitution Party. He said in his campaign announcement video that he was not running to win but to “run television ads that show aborted babies and we can say, ‘Hey, you vote for Biden, this is what you’re voting for, and you have blood on your hands.’”

His campaign website says that the ads are aimed at convincing Catholic, evangelical and Black Democratic voters to oppose Biden in November and ultimately “destroy the Democrat Party.” The website initially had statements criticizing Republicans for “running from” abortion, but those were removed last week; only criticism against Democrats remains.

Terry — who previously ran for office as a Democrat, Republican and an independent — declined to be interviewed for this story. His running mate, Stephen Broden, told NOTUS that their goal is to defeat Biden, so “by default, that means Donald Trump wins. If that’d be the case, we would rather see that than to see Joe Biden go forward.”

But running on an intensive anti-abortion platform could ultimately help Democrats, said Amanda Iovino, principal at the conservative polling firm WPA Intelligence.

“Abortion is one of the few topics where the Democrats hold clear advantages, and the Democratic Party has been effective at distorting Republicans’ views on the subject,” Iovino said. “Though well-intentioned, it can be counterproductive for GOP candidates to force the issue, even with long-shot, single-issue campaigns.”

Democrats have heavily aligned themselves with state ballot measures on abortion in hopes of increasing turnout in battleground states like Arizona and Florida. Many Republicans, meanwhile, have tried to distance themselves from abortion. If Republicans field candidates with an anti-abortion activism background, strategists say it only helps Democrats frame the party as extreme on the issue.

There are, however, some Democratic candidates from the anti-abortion activist world. Terrisa Bukovinac, who identifies as a “pro-life leftist,” is hoping to reach Democrats who identify as “pro-life.” She launched a campaign for president so she could show ads with allegedly aborted fetuses.

“I’m not a real candidate,” she told NOTUS, but later added that she hopes her decision to run for president will “weaken, I think, the relationship that the, you know, what we refer to as the abortion industry … has on the Democratic Party.”

Most Democrats who have opposed abortion, even when it’s not a major part of their campaign, have lost their races. Heath Mello, for example, ran as a Democrat for mayor in Omaha, Nebraska, receiving support from Sen. Bernie Sanders and then-Democratic Party Chairman Tom Perez, but lost the race after abortion rights groups attacked his anti-abortion record as a member of the state’s legislature.

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, who has identified himself as a “pro-life Democrat” and whose family was heavily involved in the 1992 Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, has carefully threaded the needle on the issue ahead of his reelection bid this year. After the Dobbs opinion was leaked in May 2022, he said that “Congress should be working to reduce the number of abortions.” After Roe was definitively overturned, he denounced the decision, saying that it “[ripped] away a constitutional right that generations of women have known their entire lives.”

“There will certainly be Democrats … who consider themselves personally in different places on the issue,” said Jesse Ferguson, a longtime Democratic strategist. “But as a matter of public policy, the Democratic Party will be united as a pro-choice party. There is room for a variety of personal opinions, but there’s not a wing of the Democratic Party that will believe in a public policy of banning abortion rights.”

Those seeking abortion restrictions should stick with Republicans, Ferguson told NOTUS.

“Neither party may want them” on the table, he added, “but only one party sent them an invitation.”

Oriana González is a reporter at NOTUS.