Trump’s Mixed Messages on Life Push RNC Chair to Demand More Fight from GOP
After a turbulent week, the relationship between former President Donald Trump and pro-lifers took another testy turn on Saturday night. Days after calling Florida’s six-week abortion limit “terrible,” the 45th president launched into a lengthy post on Truth Social warning Republicans that it will “be very hard to win Elections” if the party insists on stronger protections for the unborn. No, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel pushed back on Fox News Sunday. What makes it hard to win elections is sitting back and letting Democrats control the conversation. It’s time to go on offense, she insisted — and soon.
The back and forth capped off a roller coaster 10 days for Trump, who spent the evening of September 15 at the Pray Vote Stand Summit lauding his position as “the most pro-life president in history” before making a series of head-scratching statements on that same issue. Hours later, his most committed base was shocked to hear him call Florida’s popular heartbeat bill a mistake. For many, it was a confusing statement for a man whose legacy made the passage of these tighter laws possible.
Governor Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) seized on his rival’s criticism, warning pro-lifers in a new campaign ad that Trump will “sell you out” on abortion. “I don’t know how you can even make the claim that you’re pro-life if you’re criticizing states for enacting protections for babies that have heartbeats,” he told a radio station in Iowa last Monday.
Two days later, the former president countered at a rally that Republicans shouldn’t be taking a hard line on abortion, because it makes it “very difficult to win elections.” “This issue cost us dearly in the midterms — and unnecessarily,” he repeated.
That opinion — which Trump first aired in January — wasn’t shared by party leaders like McDaniel, who pushed back on the notion that the issue itself is what cost conservatives. Instead, she argued, it was how Republicans articulated it — if they did at all.
“We’ve seen what happens when we let Democrats define who we are and what we stand for,” the RNC chief insisted at a speech at the Reagan Library in April. In 2022, “a lot of Republican candidates took their D.C. consultants’ bad advice to ignore the subject,” she reminded people. “Then what happened? Democrats spent $360 million running ads filled with lies about abortion, and most Republicans had no response.”
Her advice? “Let’s talk about abortion, which has become a huge issue coming after the Dobbs decision,” McDaniel urged her fellow Republicans. “When you don’t respond, the lies become the truth.”
And the November results backed her up. The most outspoken pro-lifers rode the cause to reelection in 2022, even in some of the most unpredictable swing states. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, Ohio’s Mike DeWine, and Iowa’s Kim Reynolds signed bills protecting nearly all children from abortion. As Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America fired back in the middle of the party’s post-election finger-pointing, “There was also a profound midterm lesson for future federal candidates. Those who adopted the Ostrich Strategy on abortion lose.”
FRC Action’s Brent Keilen agreed, pointing out to The Washington Stand that life “is an important issue for a large number of GOP primary voters — particularly in some of the early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina.” In his mind, Republican candidates should be clear about where they stand for two important reasons.
“One is that GOP primary voters want to know as they decide who to support. Secondly, as we learned the hard way in 2022, when pro-life candidates are silent on this it allows the other side to completely control the debate. That is a losing strategy. As GOP leaders look for the best way to build some consensus within conservative ranks, it’s helpful to remember that there were 11 governors who had signed meaningful pro-life legislation who were up for re-election in 2022, and all 11 won easily.” In fact, Keilen went on, “The only U.S. Senate seat to flip party control was in Pennsylvania where the GOP candidate was quite moderate on the life issue.”
That’s why, to many — including National Review’s Rich Lowry — Trump’s most recent statements on abortion are among his most shocking. Why would the former president — with such an unrivaled record on life — portray himself as “a neutral arbiter” capable of bringing truce between Democrats and Republicans on the issue, “rather than an advocate and leader for social conservatives?” It would almost certainly “entail a settlement deeply unsatisfying to social conservatives; they are disunited and on their back foot on the issue while Democrats are almost uniformly in favor of the ‘Women’s Health Protection Act’ that would establish a sweeping right to abortion at the national level.”
That confusion deepened this weekend when Trump posted a lengthy rant on the subject, claiming, “Pro lifers had absolutely zero status on the subject of abortion until I came along. For 52 years everyone ‘talked,’ but got nothing. I GOT IT DONE! There would be no talk of a six week ban, or anything else, without me. Roe v. Wade allowed the killing of a baby at any time, including the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th month, and even after birth. They, therefore, are the RADICALS, not us, and now, because of our Supreme Court victory, the power has shifted and, for the first time, those fighting for the Pro Life movement have been given tremendous Power on this issue. Before our victory, they had nothing, and they will have nothing again if we don’t win ELECTIONS.”
Like Ronald Reagan, the president continued, “I believe in the three Exceptions for Rape, Incest, and the Life of the Mother. You have to follow your HEART, but without the Exceptions, it will be very hard to win Elections. The six week ban on abortion, among other things, like his fight against Social Security & MediCare, killed the DeSanctus Campaign!”
Meanwhile, Democrats, who are scrambling to address Trump’s 10-point lead over Joe Biden in the latest Washington Post survey, are hoping all of this infighting continues to gnaw at the conservative coalition. Asked how they plan to respond to the gap between Biden and his predecessor, senior advisors are telling Axios that the friction in the GOP camp is working in their favor. “We don’t take the ups and downs of individual polls to heart,” one said. “… While Republicans are going after each other, we are already reaching persuadable voters in battleground states. Our eyes are focused on the long game.”
To a man, they’re counting on abortion to help pull their otherwise feeble candidate over the reelection finish line. “We’re encouraged by what we’re seeing in Ohio,” the president’s campaign manager Julie Rodriguez said about the state’s ballot fight over life, “and it’s yet another data point based on what we’ve seen really across the country … that abortion is a potent issue. It’s an issue that is top of mind for many voters across this country.”
But, as McDaniel insisted, it’s an issue Republicans can win if they go after the issue head-on — something observers say the GOP has been increasingly reluctant to do since Dobbs. On Sunday, Fox News’s Bill Hemmer asked the chairwoman to address the differences roiling the party and pressed her on what she believes the strategy should be moving forward. “How do you want your candidates to talk about it?” he asked.
“Well, I’ll be very clear,” she responded. “… We have to put money behind our message, and we have to put the Democrats on defense. [W]e can’t just say it in an interview like this. Our candidates have to go on TV and say we are for pregnancy [care] centers. We are for easier adoption. We are for humane limitations. We believe that the rest of our country agrees that there should be limitations when a baby feels pain. That’s where most of the world is. That’s where Europe is. And that’s where we should be as a civilized country.”
For now, she insisted, Republicans shouldn’t waste their ammunition on each other. Instead, their sole focus should be highlighting the Democrats’ unpopular position of taxpayer-funded abortion on demand through all nine months of pregnancy. In other words, the question shouldn’t be where pro-lifers draw the line, McDaniel argued, but why the Left refuses to draw one at all.
“Where do the Democrats stand? What is an abortion they’re against? Nine-month, eight-month, seven-month, gender-selection abortions [like] where China is? So we have to define this issue and take it back for ourselves and push out the Democrats’ extremeness on this issue. And if we don’t do that, they’re going to spend another $350 million lying to the American people.”
As the RNC chair has said before, “We cannot back away from being pro-life. … We have to show compassion, but we also have to push back on the Democrats. They’re the ones in the position that’s not compassionate. … We’re running away,” she chided. “We should stand right in their face and say, ‘Tell me, when do you think it’s all right to fight for the unborn? When do you think it’s time for us to stand up for that baby?’ They’ll be silent. They have no answer.”
Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.