Trump, GOP scramble to contain abortion ‘earthquake’

The one-two punch from Florida and Arizona left Republicans reeling across the electoral map.

Former President Donald Trump gestures as he visits a Chick-fil-A eatery, Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Atlanta. | Jason Allen/AP

First came the Florida state Supreme Court decision allowing a six-week abortion ban to go forward. Then, it was Arizona’s state Supreme Court bombshell decision restoring an 1864 law effectively banning all abortions, with exceptions only for the life of the mother.

Not long after Donald Trump said the issue should be left to the states, the GOP was reeling Wednesday from the fallout — acknowledging vulnerabilities on the twin issues of abortion and in vitro fertilization virtually all across the map.

Even Trump conceded Wednesday the two rulings posed problems for the party, telling reporters in Atlanta that the Arizona decision went too far.

“Florida is probably going to change,” he said. “Arizona is definitely going to change, everybody wants that to happen.” Later, at a Chick-fil-A, Trump would not take a definitive position when asked whether physicians should be punished for administering abortions.

“Let that be to the states,” he said. “Everything we’re doing now is states, and states’ rights.”

The one-two punch of both Sun Belt decisions will have seismic implications for campaigns up and down the ballot in the run-up to November, and Republicans were scrambling to contain the fallout by distancing themselves from an issue that still animates whole swaths of the GOP.

“Republicans were on offense, they won constantly on this,” said Doug Heye, a veteran Republican strategist. “Now, post-Dobbs, the situation is reversed. Republicans are having to react, and they don’t know where they’re going to have to react … They’re constantly responding, and the conversation is going to revolve around those places where the restrictions are the strictest.”

The issue shows no signs of fading — and not just in Arizona. In Florida, voters will have a chance to overturn a six-week ban this fall with a ballot initiative. In Nevada and Montana, home to other competitive Senate seats, activists are actively trying to get similar measures in front of voters for November, driving turnout that could help Democrats at the top of the ticket.

That all is putting abortion rights — a winning issue for Democrats in the 2022 midterms — front-and-center in a handful of battleground states that are poised to have initiatives protecting access to the procedure on the ballot. That includes Arizona, where organizers said they have collected well above the necessary signatures to qualify for the ballot, giving voters the opportunity to override the ban.

And the problem for Republicans doesn’t stop at abortion, but extends to the possible curtailment of IVF. A constellation of right-leaning groups, from former Vice President Mike Pence’s Advancing American Freedom to the Heritage Foundation, have mounted efforts to restrict the widely popular procedure.

“Republicans,” said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster, “are going to have to not be on the other side of IVF — I mean, we’re looking at an issue that is 90 percent supported by Americans.”

In Florida, the court also triggered a six-week abortion ban that will become law on May 1, just six months before the general election.

Justin Sayfie, a Miami-based partner at the lobbying firm Ballard Partners who was the top policy adviser for former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, said the ballot question and abortion laws in Florida will make the issue dominant for voters and require Republicans to “run a flawless and perfect campaign in order to succeed in November up and down the ballot in Florida.”

“It will require more effort and more resources to achieve the same outcome than would have been the case without the abortion amendment and without the six-week ban in effect,” he said, noting that Florida Republicans have a large voter-registration advantage.

Sayfie recommended that Republicans turn the abortion question around to Democrats to specify which gestational limits they support on the procedure, but also added that November’s outcome would greatly hinge on whether an outside group or individual launched a well-funded campaign to get people to vote against the amendment.

“If you’re the Democratic Party, you want to lean in as hard as you can into reproductive rights,” Sayfie said, “and for the Republican Party you want to lean in as hard as you can on immigration and the economy.”

Republican leaders, for their part, know there isn’t much of an advantage in avoiding the topic, and are urging candidates to lean into talking about abortion. Last month, the National Republican Campaign Committee issued guidance urging candidates not to shy away from talking about their position. And Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, praised Trump’s position of leaving it up to the states.

But if Republicans are talking about abortion, they are also moving swiftly to distance themselves from the hardest-line positions on the issue, with those running for Senate in political battlegrounds, including Dave McCormick of Pennsylvania and Sam Brown of Nevada, aligning themselves with Trump’s message that abortion will be left up to the states. Former Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, who is running for the open seat in Michigan, told POLITICO in a statement that a national ban is “at odds with the Michigan Constitution,” referring to the 2022 ballot initiative that enshrined abortion protections in the state.

Rep. John Duarte, a vulnerable Republican from California, said that he’s “happy that the top of our ticket is in step with the American voters.”

“It’s what we’ve been looking for,” Duarte said. “In California, there’s gonna be plenty of access to abortion as it’s left to the states.”

In Florida, vulnerable incumbent Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) introduced legislation that would cut off federal maternal grants from states that ban IVF. Likewise, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who is up for reelection in November, introduced a resolution with Florida Republican Rep. Kat Cammack last month that says Congress supports IVF.

But while Florida has raced away from Democrats in recent years, Arizona has emerged as a new battleground. It’s a major prize for the party and one that they are desperate to retain after it went for President Joe Biden in 2020. Democrats have also captured Senate seats there in 2022 and 2018. And some Republican strategists in the state saw the court decision there as a major setback.

“April 9 was an earthquake, the magnitude Arizona has never seen in its politics,” said Barrett Marson, an Arizona-based GOP strategist. “Republicans should only be talking about two things: the economy and inflation, and the border. Those are the winning arguments. And now, abortion will suck all the oxygen out of the air of any other issue. This puts Republicans on their heels — even in a state like Arizona.”

Within minutes of the abortion ruling, Arizona GOP Senate hopeful Kari Lake reaffirmed her opposition to a federal abortion ban and swing-seat Republican Rep. Juan Ciscomani, who has also said the decision should be left to the states, called the law “archaic.” Battleground Republican Rep. David Schweikert said he does “ not support” the ruling, and that the issue should not be “legislated from the bench.”

Democrats were quick to note that Lake’s position is a reversal of her earlier stance on the 1864 territorial era law, calling it “ a great law.”

And they are readying to yoke any Republican who thinks states should determine the law to places like Arizona.

“Being able to tie folks — which we can do easily — directly to the words that they have said and to Trump and the words that he has said makes a beautiful combination of words that we can share with our voters about ‘this is what the MAGA Republicans say,’” said Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.