The 2024 presidential election will have many themes, and Democrats are working hard to make sure that the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision and what Republicans want to do about it is one of them.
The Democratic National Committee held a press conference ahead of the Milwaukee debate featuring three party leaders and just one elected official: Madison, Wisconsin, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway.
“I’m sure that [the candidates are] going to talk about freedom on the debate stage tonight,” Rhodes-Conway said in her opening statement. “But what about the freedom to make my own healthcare decisions? I guess their version of freedom doesn’t include women.”
She and the other speakers focused heavily on abortion access throughout, contrasting the Republican stance with that of President Joe Biden, who they said fights for freedom and rights.
The Democrats weren’t done either.
Sign trucks hit the streets around the debate arena with pro-abortion rights ads, one featuring the Dark Brandon meme and the message, “What happens when you take fundamental rights away from women? I think these Republicans are about to find out.”
There was less unity on the debate stage.
When the topic came up, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley emphasized a practical approach to the controversial procedure, saying that “we need to stop demonizing the issue” to find consensus on banning late-term abortions, encouraging adoption, and protecting healthcare providers who have objections to the procedure.
But former Vice President Mike Pence pushed back while calling for a federal 15-week ban.
“Nikki, you’re my friend, but consensus is the opposite of leadership,” Pence said. “When the Supreme Court returned this question to the American people, they didn’t just send it to the states only. It’s not a state’s-only issue. It’s a moral issue.”
Others took an in-between approach.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) said he supports a “culture of life” but did not explicitly state that he wants to see a national limit, while Gov. Doug Burgum (R-ND) and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said it should be up to the states.
Choosing the wrong abortion stance could lead to GOP losses in 2024 and beyond, according to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who spoke to the Wisconsin chapter of Moms for Liberty ahead of the debate.
“Right now, the pro-life groups are in danger of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory,” Johnson warned.
While stressing that he supports anti-abortion groups and their concerns about helping mothers, he also noted, “We’re living in a secular society.” Johnson thus called for a series of stand-alone, statewide abortion votes to decide the issue at the ballot box and predicted that Republicans would continue to lose statewide elections otherwise.
He cited his abortion stance as the reason he won reelection last year while Democrats took the governor’s race.
“I’d much rather, through an education campaign, decide that now: to protect life pretty darn early,” Johnson said. “Not as early as some people like, but it’s a whole lot better than I think the eventual alternative. And along the way, we’d just lose election after election after election like we did in the [state] Supreme Court race, like we did the governor’s race.”
Conservatives nationwide are working out how to speak about the issue now that it’s back in the hands of legislatures for the first time in 50 years. Evangelical leaders like Pence see abortion as a crucial moral issue, as do many voters, and not everyone agrees with the ballot initiative idea.
“When Roe and Casey were enforced, politicians who didn’t want to deal with the issue would toss it as a hot potato back to the judges,” said Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life. “There are some Republican politicians who are basically looking for someone else to take the heat on abortion. And so, saying ‘let the states decide’ can be a convenient out for a member of Congress or for a president.”
Pavone said he understands Haley’s pragmatic points about the limits of presidential power, as well as the threat of losing elections, but he wants leaders who will push the issue when and where they can.
“We don’t want to be unrealistic, but we don’t want to be too compromising,” he said. “We want to get the maximum protection we can for a child and for a mom as soon as we can.”
Democrats, on the other hand, are likely to repeat their strategy from 2022. Vice President Kamala Harris led the charge by appearing in more than a dozen states for pro-abortion rights speeches and focus groups, and her party outperformed expectations in the midterm elections.
Democratic strategist Brad Bannon thinks it will work again.
“They say elephants never forget, but they obviously forgot what happened to them in 2022,” he said. “By talking about abortion, the Republicans killed their prospects.”
Haley argues that Democrats have their own questions to answer, such as whether they support late-term or gender-selective abortions. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked about Haley’s late-term comments in June and pointed back to the old Supreme Court standard.
“The president has said that he will continue to call on Congress to restore Roe v. Wade,” Jean-Pierre said. “And so, if you know the particulars of Roe v. Wade, you’ll see where the president stands.”