DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A man in Iowa stood up at a recent town hall and told Ron DeSantis he had an “easy” question: How would the Florida governor address abortion when it’s sure to be a big issue in the coming 2024 presidential election?
DeSantis said he’d talk about it “the same way I did in Florida. I just articulated kind of, you know, where we were, what we do.”
Abortion has largely been absent as an issue in the lead-up to this year’s Iowa Republican caucuses, a remarkable change in a state that has long backed religious conservatives vowing to restrict the procedure. Part of the change is because Republicans achieved a generational goal when the Supreme Court overturned a federally guaranteed right to abortion. But it also underscores a pervasive fear among Republican candidates and voters alike that vocalizing their desire to further restrict abortion rights in 2024 has become politically dangerous.
Democrats outperformed expectations in the 2022 midterms and several state races last year campaigning on the issue. And President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign plans to make abortion rights central to its strategy this year.
“At this stage, if we’re going to continually lose elections because of that issue, I’d say dump the whole damn thing and let God be the judge,” said Greg Jennings, a 68-year-old retired painting contractor from Clear Lake, Iowa, who was attending a rally for Trump.
In interviews with more than two dozen GOP voters around the state in the past week, almost none cited abortion as one of their top issues this election year, instead pointing to concerns about the border, the economy or America’s standing in the world. That’s not to say there aren’t strong exceptions among some evangelical voters who represent a core segment of the Republican base.
Brian Downes, a Winterset Iowa resident, said abortion is a “huge” issue for him. He said he would only change his plans to caucus for Trump next Monday if the former president reversed course and embraced the pro-choice movement.
Downes urged his party not to ignore their opposition to abortion rights.
“Pro-life presidents have won going, let’s say, going back to Ronald Reagan. Always pro-life. The Bushes, pro-life. Trump pro-life,” he said. “They won. That didn’t cancel any of them. So that’s just an old story that just won’t die.”
But Downes appears to be in the minority.
Cindy Leonhart, a 68-year-old wearing a DeSantis button on her shirt after she heard the governor speak last Friday, said she doesn’t believe that abortion should be legal but said: “It’s not a decisive issue for me.”
Earlier in the Iowa campaign, DeSantis and some others in the primary criticized Trump for refusing to endorse a national abortion ban. Trump has at times highlighted his role as president in appointing the Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade. But he’s also argued Republicans shouldn’t lock themselves into positions that are unpopular with a majority of the public and argued that the Supreme Court gave abortion opponents the right to “negotiate” restrictions where they live.
DeSantis and other GOP hopefuls now increasingly speak of a need for “compassion” for women. Asked about a six-week ban he signed in Florida, DeSantis this week on Fox News defended the law as protecting life and that it was “compassionate to be able to respect that and to be able to protect that going forward.”
Haley, the former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor, has repeatedly said that she would sign any national abortion restrictions passed by Congress if elected president, but that Republicans are unlikely to have enough seats or supportive members in their ranks to pass them.
“The fellas just don’t know how to talk about it. Instead of demonizing this issue, you have to humanize this issue,” she said in a separate Fox News event this week. Haley is the only woman in the Republican primary field.
Trump, in a Fox News town hall of his own Wednesday night, took credit for having “terminated” Roe and told a woman who opposed abortion and asked about the issue that he “loved” where she was coming from but “we still have to win elections.”
He blamed DeSantis’ ban at six weeks for the governor’s stagnant poll numbers and said, “If you talk five or six weeks, a lot of women don’t know that they’re pregnant in five or six weeks. I want to get something where people are happy.”
Angela Roemerman, who attended a Haley event last week, described herself as pro-life but said she doesn’t like how ugly the politics of abortion have become.
“It used to be an issue for me,” said the 56-year-old from Solon, Iowa. “I guess it’s not a real hot-button issue today.”
“Women in general are getting smarter about birth control and about how everything works,” she said.
At a campaign rally in Newton on Saturday, Trump didn’t dive into the issue on stage, but his campaign handed out fliers that touted his appointments to the court and spotlighted a 2020 quote from his former Vice President Mike Pence, calling him “the most pro-life president in history.” Pence, whom Trump has repeatedly attacked for refusing to try to overturn his former boss’ 2020 election loss, dropped out of the primary last year after criticizing Trump for not endorsing a national abortion ban.
Steve Scheffler, the Iowa GOP’s Republican National Committeeman and president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said that if the Supreme Court hadn’t overturned Roe, the issue would probably be more pressing in this presidential race.
But Scheffler said Iowa voters may feel that with the court’s ruling and a law signed by GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds last year banning abortion after six weeks, the state’s Republicans may feel they’ve “kind of addressed that.”
“It’s an issue that’s very important to these evangelical voters but because that’s where we’re at here in Iowa, I suppose maybe there’s other issues that are really important right now,” Scheffler said.
Dan Corbin of Cedar Falls, the voter who put DeSantis on the spot at his town hall, said afterward that whether Republicans want to talk about it or not, Democrats have made it clear they will press the issue in 2024.
Corbin, who plans to caucus for Haley, said he likes the way she speaks about the issue and that Republicans overall “need to have a strategic approach” and not “demonize women that are having to make that decision.”
“I don’t believe in abortion in any way, shape or form,” he said, “But I think it’s going to make the Republicans less attractive.”
Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard, Jill Colvin and Nathan Ellgren in Des Moines, Iowa and Jonathan Cooper in Phoenix contributed to this report.
Michelle L. Price And Steve Peoples, The Associated Press