The anti-abortion “March for Life” for decades demonstrated to Republicans that they could not reach the Oval Office without the support of the anti-abortion movement.
On Friday, marchers will gather in Washington with a decades-long mission accomplished, after the Supreme Court’s removal of a constitutional right to an abortion by overturning the Roe v. Wade decision last year.
That means this year’s march will be a time for celebration but also of debate about where the movement goes next with some campaigners seeking to restrict the procedure everywhere. But such a refocused goal carries big risks. Democrats after all belatedly leveraged their own energy over abortion in the midterm elections in a backlash against the right-wing Supreme Court majority that helped stave off a big Republican midterm election wave.
The March for Life also comes at an extraordinary moment when Donald Trump, the president who did more than any other to end Roe after a pact with social conservative voters that helped win him the 2016 GOP nomination, has launched an extraordinary attack on evangelical leaders he sees as insufficiently loyal, as CNN’s Gabby Orr, Kristen Holmes and Kaitlan Collins reported this week.
“Nobody has ever done more for Right to Life than Donald Trump. I put three Supreme Court justices, who all voted, and they got something that they’ve been fighting for 64 years, for many, many years,” Trump said in an interview on Real America’s Voice Monday, referring to the overturning of federal abortion rights.
“There’s great disloyalty in the world of politics and that’s a sign of disloyalty,” Trump told conservative journalist David Brody.
The comment was a window into Trump’s psychology, revealing his transactional understanding of politics and his highly developed sense of fealty he sees owed to him.
Trump nurses grievances – and political fears
The former president is specifically angry over the failure to immediately endorse his 2024 White House bid by some evangelical leaders who remain influential figures in the conservative movement. Trump’s third White House run has so far failed to pick up significant energy.
But Trump has also shown signs recently of questioning whether his purported greatest domestic achievement – the building of a generational conservative Supreme Court majority and its subsequent overturning of Roe – may end up hindering his hopes of a return to the White House in 2025. He wrote on his Truth Social platform earlier this month that the “abortion issue” had been poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those who insisted on no exceptions in the case or rape, incest or life of the mother, which he said “lost large numbers of voters.”
The former president’s comments are backed by exit polls from November’s midterms that showed more than a quarter of voters listing abortion as a top issue. About 61% said they were unhappy with the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, and about 7 in 10 of those voters backed a Democratic House candidate.
In his Truth Social comments, Trump appeared to be seeking to offload blame for the Republicans’ failure to win back the Senate and the party’s smaller-than-expected House majority. Trump took on waves of criticism after the election for promoting extreme, election denying candidates who often lost in swing states in the midterm elections.
But it is notable seeing Trump navigate the shifting politics of abortion and apparently sizing up how it could affect his political prospects in future. After all, he was once unapologetically pro-choice before his foray into Republican politics dictated a shift in position and led to the bargain with evangelicals, which included an effective commitment to appoint anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court in return for the crucial votes of social conservatives.
In the past, Trump has been a fixture of the March for Life rally, and in 2020, he became the first sitting president to attend in person as he geared up for his reelection race. He told marchers that “unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House.”
There is no sign yet that he will call into Friday’s event, which will include a detour to the US Capitol on its usual route to the Supreme Court to underline how Congress is now a focus of the movement, as Democrats seek to codify Roe v. Wade protections into law.
Did Trump make a tactical error?
Trump’s comments on abortion and his feuding with evangelical leaders raise the question of whether the former president has made a tactical error and is harming his 2024 candidacy by targeting a critical GOP primary voting bloc at a time when there are growing questions over whether he is still the dominant force in Republican politics.
Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told CNN that there is “no path to the nomination without winning the evangelical vote. Nobody knows that better than President Trump because, to the surprise of almost everyone, he won their support in 2016.”
This question is especially acute in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucuses – for Republicans at least – in the 2024 primary season, which will be the first test of the ex-President’s hold over conservatives and evangelicals especially.
Trump didn’t actually win in Iowa in 2016, coming second to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and just beating out Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and the state has often not been a true barometer of how the GOP nominating contest will go.
However, it will take on extra significance in 2024 and is likely to be seen as a strong indicator of Trump’s appeal to the conservative base. A loss there would create a painful narrative as he headed into subsequent contests – especially since he strongly carried the state in the general elections in 2016 and 2020.
And it’s easy to come up with a list of potential GOP candidates that might have appeal in the state if they challenge Trump, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, former Vice President Mike Pence or Cruz once again. Only Trump so far is a declared 2024 Republican presidential candidate.
Trump would be in an odd situation in 2024, in that he is in many ways effectively an incumbent given his strong support in the GOP and the fact that he didn’t go away after losing reelection. But at the same time, he’s not a sitting president and looks likely to face a contested primary and so may be more exposed in early contests.
Still, while some conservative base voters might want to move on, there’s still strong goodwill among many toward Trump, gratitude for the change he brought during his term and admiration for his attitude.
“Many people forgave him for his misstatements and his missteps because they generally liked his ability to fight, even if that became a cliché for some people, Trump’s detractors,” said Timothy Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa who is an expert on the state’s politics.
This gets to point often missed about Trump. For many of his supporters, he offered an emotional as much as a political connection. His willingness to say what many grassroots conservatives thought and to assail institutions they despised, like the media or Washington experts and other elites, were as important as many of his often-ill-defined individual political positions.
And it’s also often forgotten that evangelical voters in places like Iowa do not necessarily vote as a bloc, or according to what their leaders or pastors recommend and may prioritize issues such as taxes over social questions if a candidate is deemed to be generally acceptable. That may give Trump more leeway than more conventional candidates in departing from traditional conservative orthodoxy even over abortion.
Still, Hagle said, even small numbers of disaffected Iowa voters could make a difference to Trump’s chances in the state if they don’t show up for him, as could more mainstream GOP caucus voters who may be taking a look at other aspects of his candidacy and those of potential rivals.
“Are they going to support Trump because he fights, or because of his economic position or his position on the border?” Hagle said. “The abortion stuff may not be as important to them, or will they go a different direction at this point?”