Republicans are openly distressed about the prospect of losing younger voters over their stances on abortion, firearms and democracy.
By week’s end, their challenges on those three fronts could grow worse.
Days after a mass shooting in Louisville, Ky., many declared and undeclared 2024 candidates will be brandishing their Second Amendment bona fides at the National Rifle Association’s annual leadership forum in Indianapolis. From there, a number of the candidates will travel south on I-65, where they will make their cases to Republican National Committee grandees for a gathering in Nashville — the site not only of another mass shooting, but also the state GOP-led ejection of two Black Democratic lawmakers last week.
“Talking at the NRA meeting in Indianapolis then going to the RNC meeting in Nashville all fits together,” said Paul Helmke, the former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., and president and CEO of the Brady Center/Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “You’re giving a single unified message: You don’t brook dissent or disagreement on guns.”
The cattle calls in Indiana and Tennessee, on the books for months and aimed at reaffirming core principles for the party, come at a moment when there are growing questions from within about its direction. Inside the party’s headquarters, there has been recognition that Republicans need to change their message on abortion with pollsters arguing for a more moderate tack. And among some committee members, there is a belief that the GOP’s image could be bolstered if it lessened its strident opposition to gun safety measures, especially among a group of voters who are just engaging in national politics.
“Every life matters,” said Oscar Brock, an RNC member from Tennessee. “Including those three 9-year-old kids in Green Hills,” the neighborhood in Nashville where they were shot and killed at school. Brock said he believes the party is suffering among swing voters on the issue of guns and abortion.
But while a corner of the party has begun pushing for nuance, others are making the case for staying the course on long-held policies.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a 37-year-old presidential candidate and wealthy biotech entrepreneur, warned that the party would not succeed “by compromising on its core principles.”
“We should be at once unapologetic on principles, and also live up to the principle instead of just uttering the slogan,” he said in an interview this week.
Ramaswamy suggested the party neither increase abortion access nor tighten gun laws, but instead take steps to make it easier for women to obtain child care or “tap into Social Security early” to fund a family. On guns, Ramaswamy, a father of two young children, said the GOP should get serious about funding armed guards in every school — and “none of us should tolerate kids being killed.”
It’s not uncommon for there to be disagreement within Republican ranks over whether to shore up the party’s standing with the base or adjust and moderate to appeal to independent voters. But the latest round of debate has taken on greater importance after a series of poor election performances, including a Democratic win in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race. And it has been sparked by a series of events, including those recent mass shootings and a Trump-appointed federal judge’s ruling to suspend the FDA’s approval of a commonly used abortion pill.
The fissures were on vivid display Tuesday in deep-red Tennessee. After previously resisting calls for red flag laws — including from former President Donald Trump in 2019 — Republican Gov. Bill Lee publicly urged the state Legislature to pass a version of it, and announced he would sign an executive order strengthening background checks for firearm purchases.
Lee’s news conference, which came as a surprise even to GOP legislative leaders, followed a shooting March 27 that killed three 9-year-olds and three adults at a Nashville Christian school. Lee said one of his wife’s closest friends — with whom she was planning to have dinner that night — was murdered.
It was a remarkable illustration of a GOP official moving swiftly to try and sand down the party’s image. Less clear is whether a GOP-controlled Legislature that has worked for years to roll back gun regulations will heed the governor’s call to act.
Republicans in the Legislature were already facing the reality that their plan to expel two Democratic House members for protesting the state’s gun laws inside the Capitol had backfired. One of the expelled members, Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville, quickly returned to his seat on Monday after being reappointed by local officials. The other, Justin Pearson of Memphis, is expected to return later this week.
But that wasn’t the only front on which the party was showing signs of retrenchment. On the topic of abortion, Republican anxieties have been building for months.
Last week, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel declared that the party had a “messaging issue” surrounding abortion, citing recent GOP losses. The New York Times, meanwhile, reported on Tuesday that the RNC has been circulating a memo showing that voters are more comfortable with a 15-week abortion ban — even as state GOP lawmakers, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, embrace far more restrictive measures. Left unsaid in the article was that the memo had been put together back in September, well before the midterm elections.
“She was right,” said Brock, referring to McDaniel’s call for a party messaging shift on issues such as abortion. “And yet she got shouted down by the hardcore pro-life wing of the electorate. And I’m sorry that happened.”
The party’s divides on the issue of abortion have erupted into clearer view since last week’s Wisconsin Supreme Court race and Friday’s ruling by the Trump-appointed Texas federal judge on mifepristone. Within hours of the ruling, the only likely 2024 GOP candidate to issue a statement of support was former Vice President Mike Pence. No other GOP candidates have commented on the matter.
Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, an anti-abortion group, said it was the silence itself, not the ruling, that was making life hard for Republicans.
“It’s foolish not to take these issues head on. They paint our side as extremist when there aren’t any counternarratives,” said Nance.
Former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), a donor who operates Greater Georgia, a GOP voter outreach group in her purple Southern state, agreed, arguing that Democrats calling for gun reform and expanded abortion access are “gaslighting the issues that Americans care about, which is the economy, crime, education, open borders, fair elections.”
A Republican pollster who has conducted surveys on the issue but declined to speak on the record said the problem was that party officials were “not articulating our position very well and so voters in the absence of information fill the void with what’s provided to them, and it’s largely provided by Democrats.”
But when asked if there was anyone in the party singing the right tune on the issue, the pollster would only name only Rep. Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican, Mace has repeatedly sounded the alarm that the GOP is wrong on abortion, and on Monday told CNN that the FDA should ignore the Texas judge’s ruling.