As voters continue to reject abortion restrictions, Republican candidates say there's more to do
Gov. Ron DeSantis said the "pro-life cause" was "caught flat-footed."
Five of the leading Republican candidates for president this week reiterated their opposition to abortion, though they had varying responses to how the anti-abortion movement should react in the wake of the public continuing to support access to the procedure when the issue is put up for a vote.
At the third 2024 primary debate, on Wednesday in Miami, the five White House hopefuls were asked what they saw as "the path forward" for their views just one day after election results that continued to show abortion access to be a motivating issue for voters.
In Ohio, voters overwhelmingly approved adding abortion rights to their state constitution while in Virginia, local Democrats flipped control of the state Legislature after Republicans had said they would seek a 15-week abortion ban, with exceptions, if they won unified control of the state government.
"How do you see the path forward for Republicans on this issue?" debate moderator Kristen Welker first asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
"I stand for a culture of life," he said, adding, "We're better off when we can promote a culture of life. At the same time, I understand that some of these states are doing it a little bit different. Texas is not gonna do it the same as New Hampshire."
DeSantis said he felt the issue was in how Republicans had organized themselves in responding to the trend of advocates in various states adding abortion rights questions directly to the ballot -- in Ohio this week and in Kentucky, Kansas, Vermont and elsewhere before that.
"I think of all the stuff that's happened to the pro-life cause, they have been caught flat-footed on this referenda. And they have been losing the referenda," DeSantis said. "A lot of the people who [are] voting for the referenda are Republicans who would vote for a Republican candidate. So you gotta understand how to do that."
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has sought to differentiate herself from the field by pitching the need for understanding rather than debate on the issue, followed DeSantis in answering the question.
"I think you have to be honest with the American people," she said. "This is a personal issue for every woman and every man. I am unapologetically pro-life -- not because the Republican Party tells me to be, but because my husband, Michael, was adopted and I had trouble having both of my children. So I'm surrounded by blessings."
"Now we're seeing states vote," Haley continued. "And what I'll tell you is as much as I'm pro-life, I don't judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don't want them to judge me for being pro-life."
She went on to call for finding some areas of agreement, which she described as pushing for a ban on "late-term abortions," pushing for widely available contraception and "good quality adoptions" and ensuring women aren't criminally pushed for receiving abortions.
Fellow South Carolinian Tim Scott, answering after Haley, said the country must enforce a 15-week abortion ban.
"I'm 100% pro-life," the senator said.
Scott went on to tout a plan to grant funding for "crisis pregnancy centers," rather than facilities to provide abortions. "We should support adoption. There are a number of ways that we can say to the expectant mother that we stand with you. We should not only be pro-life before the child was born," he said. "We should be pro-life after the child is born just as much."
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie echoed that view but, unlike Scott, said there should be no national restriction.
"This is an issue that should be decided in each state," he said. "And I trust the people of this country, state by state, to make the call for themselves. Now, it's gonna lead to a lot of divergence. ... And we should not short-circuit that process until every state's people have the right to weigh in on it."
But, he said, his party had erred by not being "pro-life for the whole life."
"To be pro-life for the whole life means that the life of a 16-year-old drug addict on the floor of the county lockup is precious, and we should get treatment for her to restore her life," he said.
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy focused in his answer on what responsibility men should shoulder for reducing abortions.
He also blamed anti-abortion defeats in the Ohio and other ballot measures on a "Republican culture of losing."
"The Republicans did not have an alternative amendment or vision on the table," he said. "I know Ohio. I was born, raised and I lived there. It's representative of the country. ... Here's the missing ingredient in this movement: sexual responsibility for men."
He went on to suggest that that "responsibility" included ensuring men who father children become parents.
Ramaswamy has discussed this on the trail before but it's not entirely clear what he means or how it would be carried out. He's said it should be codified into law that men have greater responsibility, financially or otherwise, when they are confirmed via paternity test to be a father.
The GOP field's views on abortion are likely to be important to some voters: Exit polling in the 2022 midterms showed it was a top issue in some areas of the country, including the battleground state of Michigan.
The 2024 Republican front-runner, former President Donald Trump, skipped Wednesday's debate.
He has touted his support for abortion restrictions and his role in appointing three conservative Supreme Court justices, all of whom helped strike down the Roe v. Wade ruling that had guaranteed national abortion access.
Earlier this year at a Faith & Freedom convention, Trump said there should be some role for the federal government on the abortion issue but most other times has remained skeptical of a federal ban.
"It could be state, or it could be federal," Trump said in an interview with NBC News in September. "I don’t, frankly, care."
He has also suggested the issue hurts Republicans at the ballot box and said on NBC in September that some politicians "speak very inarticulately about this subject."
ABC News' Alexandra Hutzler, Lalee Ibssa and Soo Rin Kim contributed to this report.