Iowa at Odds with N.H. on Abortion, Posing Challenge for GOP Candidates

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump participates in a Fox News town hall event Wednesday in Des Moines.

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – Billie Veach didn’t pause to think last year when asked what issues matter most to her as an Iowa voter who will play an outsize role in selecting the Republican nominee for president.

“We are pro-life,” the 49-year-old said one Sunday on her way out of church. Her husband, Lyle Veach, said the federal government “needs to do something” to curb abortion.

In New Hampshire – which will have its say on Jan. 23, eight days after the Iowa caucuses – another Republican couple wanted something very different. “I don’t think a bunch of politicians, mostly males, have the right to say you cannot do it across the board,” Joan McMahon said, prompting her husband to add, “It’s been kicked down to the states, anyone talking about it on the federal level is wrong.”

In GOP-controlled Iowa, where evangelical Christians dominate the caucuses, the candidates have many incentives to support abortion restrictions. But the same positions that appeal to Iowa conservatives can backfire in New Hampshire, a swing-state where independents play a large role and where a slight majority of likely GOP primary voters say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

The gap has at times created some awkwardness for the candidates as they toggle between the two states and attempt a careful balancing act. It has also amplified larger GOP divisions over abortion as candidates navigate competing pressures in a party that has struggled to find a politically effective general election message since a conservative-leaning Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in 2022, generating wide backlash.

Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have long gravitated to different kinds of candidates, and their differences on abortion have only sharpened in the first presidential election since the end of Roe, which guaranteed access to abortion nationwide.

Disappointing GOP losses over the past year-and-a-half haven’t deterred some antiabortion activists who play an influential role in the primary – even as many Republicans would rather minimize abortion’s role in the presidential race.

“We’re really not looking for a leader that just responds to the polls – we’re looking for the leader that will shape the polls,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an Iowa evangelical leader who has endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and is the president of a conservative Christian organization called the Family Leader.

The candidates have tailored their message to each state – and seen their applause lines in one place become vulnerabilities in another. More than three-quarters of likely GOP primary voters in Iowa say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a CBS News poll from September, a stark contrast to New Hampshire, where 49 percent agree.

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley’s appeals to find areas of “consensus” on abortion – and her declarations that she doesn’t “judge anyone for being pro-choice” – are especially well-received by many voters in the Granite State, where she has gained the most traction.

Now grappling with DeSantis for second place in Iowa, Haley’s campaign is running an ad touting the support of an antiabortion leader in the state, former Iowa Right to Life president Marlys Popma, who calls Haley “a sister in Christ.” No such ads are running in New Hampshire, where one campaign spot features Gov. Chris Sununu (R) praising Haley as someone who “understands fiscal responsibility and individual liberty.”

Haley has faced some skepticism among Iowa evangelical activists such as Vander Plaats, who pressed Haley at a Family Leader forum last fall.

“I had some pro-lifers say, that sounded like a pro-choice answer,” Vander Plaats asked Haley in front of a crowd of 800. “Can you assure them why that’s not a pro-choice answer?”

Put on the spot, Haley later said she would sign a six-week abortion ban in South Carolina if she were still governor there. Soon a rival 2024 candidate, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, was assailing Haley’s answer in New Hampshire, suggesting she sent a different message in Iowa. Christie, who staked his campaign there before dropping out on Wednesday, appealed heavily to centrist voters who are also key for Haley.

Former president Donald Trump, meanwhile, has run ads reminding Iowans that he appointed conservative Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe – even as he’s resisted calls to back a specific national limit on abortion and angered activists by calling six-week bans at the state level “terrible.” In many ways, Trump has nodded to both sides of a divisive debate regardless of the state where he is campaigning.

At a Fox News town hall in Iowa this week, one voter pressed Trump to “reassure” her he could “protect life without compromise.”

“You wouldn’t be asking that question, even talking about the issue because for 54 years they were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated, and I did it, and I’m proud to have done it,” Trump said to applause and cheers. But he added, “a lot of women don’t know if they’re pregnant in five or six weeks, I want to get something where people are happy.”

DeSantis and his allies have assailed those comments as they struggle to chip away at Trump’s daunting polling lead in Iowa – where GOP lawmakers passed a six-week ban. At a CNN town hall last week in Des Moines, DeSantis noted the former president’s 2020 speech at the March for Life in Washington. “Did he flip-flop?” DeSantis asked. “Did he not believe it at the time?”

Yet Trump hasn’t paid much of a political price for backing away from the restrictions he cleared the way for – even in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. He’s expanded his lead in the polls there as the caucuses near. “President Trump’s unmatched record speaks for itself,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in response to DeSantis’s criticisms.

DeSantis, who is pinning his presidential hopes on Iowa, promoted Florida’s six-week abortion ban on the trail in the Hawkeye State and attended an Iowa antiabortion group’s Christmas gala. In some visits to New Hampshire last year, he didn’t so much as bring up the issue. DeSantis has spent far less time and polls far lower in New Hampshire, where some voters cite his abortion stance as a turnoff.

“I’m a fiscal conservative, but I do not like conservative views on issues like abortion,” said Melissa Fitzpatrick, 45, an undeclared voter from Derry, N.H., who plans to vote in the Republican primary. Out grocery shopping this fall, she said DeSantis’s signing of a six-week ban in Florida added to her concerns about him – she believes “a woman’s body is her choice” – and was more drawn to Christie and Haley.

Abortion is legal in New Hampshire through 23 weeks of pregnancy, a sharp contrast to Iowa, where Republicans passed a six-week ban that is caught up in the courts.

Policy-wise, Haley and DeSantis’s stances on abortion are similar. Haley has said she will sign whatever restrictions can pass, suggesting that would reflect the will of “the people” in different jurisdictions. DeSantis has said the federal government should play a role in abortion but, like Haley, avoids espousing a specific limit.

But they’ve struck different tones and formed different alliances. Haley has the backing of Sununu, who supports significant access to abortion and recently scoffed at near-total ban proposed by a handful of state lawmakers, saying it was headed for the “crazy pile.” DeSantis has the endorsement of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who has championed priorities of the base, including the six-week ban.

“If you like what we’re doing in Iowa, you’re going to love what Ron will do for this country,” Reynolds said Thursday at an event where DeSantis also spoke.

Despite their broad differences, Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire are similarly skeptical that many antiabortion measures can pass at the federal level – regardless of who’s president.

Even at Billie and Lyle Veach’s evangelical church outside Des Moines – full of social conservatives who are politically active – many congregants thought Haley was smart to emphasize the political barriers to most national measures.

“I think it’s a realistic attitude about where the country is really at,” said Dave Bubeck, standing next to his wife, Denise, last fall.

Nodding to the church behind them, he said: “These people are completely pro-life. … And we are too. But I’m not opposed to the message that she’s saying. Because we live in a fallen world.”

Showing up to a DeSantis event this month, however, he was ready to serve as a “precinct captain” for the Florida governor on Monday.

“He’s clearly the strongest in his positions on being pro-life,” Dave Bubeck said.

Activist efforts to get the 2024 candidates to commit to specific national measures on abortion have been, in many ways, unsuccessful. Two presidential candidates who advocated a 15-week federal limit – former vice president Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) – dropped out this fall, unable to catch fire even with the socially conservative Iowans they heavily courted. Many Republican voters who oppose abortion do not view it as a primary issue in the presidential race, eager to elevate other, more unifying priorities or satisfied to see restrictions play out in the states.

“Leave it up to the states, leave it up to the people … let the general population decide how they want it,” said Wayne Defeo, a voter in his 60s who attended a DeSantis event in Laconia, N.H. and calls himself “pro-life.” He said the issue didn’t matter much in his vote.

“It’s probably a state issue at this point,” echoed Meg Jaques, 39, an Iowan who believes that life begins at conception. She wants candidates to share that belief but doesn’t fault them for steering clear of a specific national limit.

Kathy McNutt, 60, from the area of Gilford, N.H, supports restrictions on abortion but doesn’t hold Trump’s recent comments against him. “I think the Democrats have pushed the pendulum so far to the other side that any conservatism, to me, is better – is helpful,” she said.