A year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, some of the Republican Party's most powerful evangelical Christian voices are gathering to celebrate a ruling that sent shockwaves through American politics and stripped away a constitutional protection that stood for almost a half century.
At the Faith & Freedom Coalition's annual conference in Washington, GOP presidential candidates will be urged to keep pushing for stronger abortion restrictions, even as Democrats insist the issue will buoy them ahead of the 2024 election.
Former President Donald Trump, whose three nominees to the high court allowed for the reversal of nationwide abortion rights, will give the keynote address Saturday night, the anniversary of the court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. Many of his Republican rivals are set to speak Friday, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, said the conference's dates were negotiated years ago, so the fact that it's falling on the Dobbs anniversary 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. “Those who are afraid of it need to, candidly, grow a backbone.”
Such a political pep talk may be necessary since Democrats say fighting to preserve abortion rights can energize their base and help the party hold the Senate, flip the House and reelect President Joe 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, posting on his social media site in January that the party’s underwhelming midterm performance “wasn’t my fault” and instead blaming “’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."
Democratic National Committee chair Jaime Harrison said this week, “Every 2024 Republican presidential candidate — every single one — is running on an extreme anti-choice record." The DNC announced a six-figure ad campaign, including billboards from Tallahassee, Florida, to Phoenix, 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 vowed 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 United Nations 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, meanwhile, 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.
The former vice president is also expected to speak Saturday at the National Celebrate Life Rally at the Lincoln Memorial.
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.
“I think the bar has been raised and I think the ceiling is going to keep moving up," Reed said of evangelicals' expectations for pro-Israel, anti-abortion presidential primary candidates.
That's because, he said, the candidates understand “there is no path to the Republican nomination for president that doesn’t go through the evangelical vote.”