Former President Trump’s criticism of hard-line abortion opponents is laying bare the tension over the issue within the GOP as the party looks to regroup after a bruising midterm election.
On Monday, Trump accused Republicans, particularly those against abortion with no exceptions, of underperforming in the election.
“It wasn’t my fault that the Republicans didn’t live up to expectations,” Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social. “I was 233-20! It was the ‘abortion issue,’ poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother, that lost large numbers of Voters.”
The attack drew a response from the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which was amplified by Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence, underscoring the divide within the party over how to message on the issue.
“There was ALSO a profound midterm lesson for future federal candidates: those who adopt the Ostrich Strategy on abortion lose,” the group said in a statement.
Terry Schilling, the president of the conservative American Principles Project, lambasted Trump’s statement as “stupid” in an interview with The Hill.
“Ultimately I thought it was so unlike Trump,” Schilling said. “First of all, it’s not true. The candidates that he endorsed that lost all went with this strategy of deflecting and the ostrich method.”
At the root of the back and forth is the fact that Democrats have successfully used the abortion issue as a galvanizing force in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade last summer.
“The problem is either when candidates stick their head in the sand and don’t know how to deal with it or don’t want to talk about it,” one Republican strategist told The Hill.
Conservatives point to a number of Senate candidates in tough races, such as Mehmet Oz, who lost to now-Sen. John Fetterman (D) in Pennsylvania in November.
“All throughout the campaign Fetterman is accusing Dr. Oz of being an extremist on abortion,” Schilling said. “And Dr. Oz’s strategy, and this is not just him it was most of the candidates that lost, his strategy was to deflect, not address that claim, and then immediately shift it over to inflation. That’s a losing strategy.”
There were other Trump-endorsed candidates that leaned in on abortion restrictions and ended up losing their races, including former Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker, who said he opposed exceptions. Additionally, former Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano and Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon voiced opposition to exceptions and lost their races.
Of course, there are also other factors as to why these candidates lost. Whether abortion was the main reason, or whether it was due to other factors like flawed candidates or ties to Trump, is a matter of debate.
Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last month that while abortion may have galvanized some support for Democrats, the GOP’s main problem was candidate quality.
Throughout the midterm campaign, Republican candidates leaned on the three-fold strategy of focusing on rising inflation, crime and the flow of migrants over the southern border.
As the smoke has cleared in the months since the midterms, more Republicans, including Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, argue that candidates could have mirrored their Democratic opponents by taking a stronger approach on the issue.
Conservatives lay blame on the GOP’s leadership on Capitol Hill, arguing that they have set the tone for what they say is the party’s less-than-aggressive strategy on abortion.
“When I talk about leadership, I’m not talking about the RNC,” Schilling said. “I’m more talking about McConnell and a lot of these House leaders who refuse to have any votes that put Democrats on the defense.”
McConnell has thrown cold water on the idea of a national abortion ban, arguing that the issue should be dealt with at the state level. Anti-abortion advocates have strongly pushed back against that notion.
“Don’t say it’s just up to the states now,” said Marilyn Musgrave, vice president of government affairs at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “No, it’s up to the people and their elected representatives and that includes federally.”
“Our candidates need to point out how extreme the other side is,“ she added.
Many anti-abortion proponents say their best-case scenario would be a national 15-week ban on the procedure.
“The winning strategy is endorsing an aggressive 15-week bill with exceptions,” Schilling said.
Still, Republicans say the party needs to find its footing on the issue ahead of 2023’s off-year elections and the presidential election in 2024.
“We’re the pro-life party, we’ve been the pro-life party,” said the GOP strategist. “How do you not know how to talk about it? We’ve been running on this issue for decades.”