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Trump, Kari Lake
Both Donald Trump and Kari Lake have said recently that abortion is a personal issue. Matt York/AP

GOP’s Latest Abortion Strategy: Sound Pro-‘Choice’

“It’s crucial for Republican candidates to present themselves as reasonable and empathetic,” one GOP pollster said.

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade almost two years ago, GOP officials have gone from supporting a national limit on abortion to saying it’s a state issue, to avoiding talking about abortion and focusing on “pro-family” values, to now saying that abortion is a personal and private issue — the main argument of the abortion rights movement.

“You must follow your heart,” former President Donald Trump said in a video posted on Truth Social earlier this month. “Do what’s right for your family, and do what’s right for yourself. Do what’s right for your children.”

Trump has multiple times bragged about his role in overturning Roe (including in that video), previously backed a 20-week federal ban when he was in office and recently said abortion should be left to the states and their voters.

Kari Lake, who is running for Senate in Arizona, also released a video this month that, she said, outlined her official abortion position. In it, she claimed she opposed her state’s newly upheld 1864 pre-Roe abortion ban, which is likely to be repealed soon, and said that she “agree[s] with President Trump — this is such a personal and private issue.”

“I chose life, but I’m not every woman. I want to make sure that every woman who finds herself pregnant has more choices so that she can make that choice that I made,” said Lake, who supported the 1864 ban in 2022. Despite her official stance, Lake seemed disappointed over the weekend that Arizona’s Democratic attorney general doesn’t plan to enforce the law, saying, “We don’t have that law, as much as many of us wish we did.” Her campaign did not respond to NOTUS’ request for comment to clarify what her most recent position is.

West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference, told NOTUS that abortion was an “evolutionary topic” as more states enact different laws and as voters in several states are set to decide on abortion-related measures in November.

“I think there’s a lot of rethinking and thinking,” Capito said.

Sen. Steve Daines, chair of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, specifically commended Lake, saying that “she is taking the position that we’ve been taking around the country,” which he said is having “reasonable limits on late-term abortions.” (Lake did not specify in her video what week limits she supports nor whether she opposes abortions later in the pregnancy.)

Other Republicans were more cautious about using language that abortion should be a decision made on an individual level. Sen. Josh Hawley told NOTUS that calling abortion a personal choice “means that you’re going to have the Roe v. Wade regime.” He clarified that he believes in letting the electorate decide: “That’s what we call democracy; we have a dialogue about it, and then voters make up their minds.”

Some of the most vocal anti-abortion lawmakers have softened their tone since Roe v. Wade was overturned. When Trump said abortion should stay a state issue, many of them backed his stance and said it’s now up to voters.

Messaging focused on individual privacy is surprising — to say the least — coming from the GOP, which had for decades called for the end of Roe, the landmark case that decided a person’s ability to choose an abortion was deeply rooted in their right to privacy.

Anti-abortion groups slammed the mixed messaging coming from Trump and others.

Kristi Hamrick, vice president of media and policy for Students for Life of America, called Trump’s position “muddy” in a statement to NOTUS, adding that this “tepid support for women and the pre-born … is a great way to discourage voters.” The organization has previously said that Republicans risk losing voters for lacking a clear anti-abortion stance.

“Abortion is rarely a woman’s ‘individual choice,’ coercion, abandonment, abuse and societal pressures are almost always at play,” said Jesse Southerland, federal policy director for Americans United for Life. “This sort of political hedging is uninformed on the reality of abortion and only marginalizes women and unborn children even more.”

Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice president and a staunch conservative, wrote in an op-ed that Trump’s stance on abortion was a “retreat from the pro-life cause” that was “leading other Republicans astray.” Pence appears to be right that where Trump goes, the GOP will follow.

Republicans are “strategically addressing the abortion issue,” said Amanda Iovino, principal at WPA Intelligence, a conservative polling firm. “The goal is to appeal to voters who are dissatisfied with Biden’s performance, particularly on the economy and immigration, but are wary of abortion extremism. By soft-pedaling their stance on abortion, Republicans hope to signal to this critical segment of the electorate that views strict abortion measures as potential deal-breakers that they can be trusted.”

“It’s crucial for Republican candidates to present themselves as reasonable and empathetic,” Iovino added.

GOP officials are veering away from outside groups’ strong anti-abortion talking points because “no one has a lot of faith in their ability to navigate the politics of this,” said one GOP consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “When women want just basic assurances … ‘can you at least guarantee me these three exceptions?’ [Anti-abortion groups] are just unwilling to acquiesce because they approach this issue very philosophically.” (Some anti-abortion groups, like Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, have been outspoken critics of what they call the “GOP consulting class” that they say is wrongly advising Republicans.)

Since the Dobbs decision, abortion rights have won on the ballot. Democrats have closely aligned themselves with maintaining and increasing access, as polls show that most voters support keeping the procedure legal. These circumstances, Democrats and abortion rights advocates say, are the reason why Republicans are loosening their anti-abortion rhetoric.

“They are taking these pivots in this moment right now because they think it’s politically expedient, and voters have actually made them pay a price in states around the country,” said California Sen. Laphonza Butler, former head of EMILYs List, a political organization that supports abortion rights.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren doesn’t think there’s room for voters to be convinced by Republicans’ messaging.

“It’s nonsense, nobody’s fooled,” she told NOTUS. “There’s not a woman on this earth who is fooled by that.”

Oriana González is a reporter at NOTUS.