How Anti-Abortion Politics Swallowed Up the GOP

The American anti-abortion movement contributed far more to the rise of Donald Trump and the transformation of the GOP than we often think. Scholars have traced how an ascendant form of Christian nationalism—the belief that the United States was and always should be a Christian nation—was needed for Donald Trump to edge out Hillary Clinton in 2016. But the influence of the anti-abortion movement went much further, and it had everything to do with money in U.S. politics.

Political scientists and historians of the religious right have told part of the story of the fascinating partnership between abortion foes and Republican leaders. Their studies often suggest that while pro-lifers became dependent on the GOP, the Republican Party did not fundamentally change its priorities. Some assert that the GOP co-opted the religious right, gaining its votes while offering little but speeches in return.

By focusing on the anti-abortion movement and its complex relationship with the broader religious right, my book Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment shows that this partnership with the movement had consequences for the GOP that went well beyond abortion. Anti-abortion operatives helped make control of the Supreme Court a deciding issue for conservative voters who had no legal background. And to gain control of the Supreme Court, abortion foes joined and ultimately helped to lead a growing fight against campaign finance laws, persuading many social conservatives and GOP leaders to oppose them as well.

These shifts to a focus on judicial nominations and money in politics helped the GOP score electoral victories it might not otherwise have managed. But in the long term, the changes in campaign finance rules that the anti-abortion movement helped to achieve came at a terrible price for the Republican establishment—and had important consequences for the functioning of American democracy.

Because the Republican Party tended to benefit disproportionately from a surge in outside spending—and attracted most of the top-dollar donors behind it—changes to campaign finance rules often had a greater influence on the balance of power within the GOP. In the past, when charismatic populists like Pat Buchanan ran for the GOP presidential nomination, the Republican establishment used its campaign spending advantage to crush them. But after the rules of campaign finance were changed by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) and SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission (2010), nonparty outside spending—money independent of candidates, campaigns, and parties— soared. Republican insiders ran some of the nominally “outside” spending groups, but the party itself did not control them, and many of these groups had agendas quite different from those of the conventional GOP leadership. Issue-based and ideological groups had always been able to push their own candidates, but they could never hope to dominate the party. In the old world of campaign finance rules, when populists ran for office, the Republican establishment spent them out of the race. In the world of Citizens United, populists had more than enough to win.

How did the abortion debate come to revolutionize the broader struggle over money in politics? The story has many characters, but James Bopp Jr. stands out. A proud Hoosier, Bopp was a passionate conservative before he ever worked a day on abortion politics. He was a state prosecutor in Indiana when Congress passed crucial amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974, a major overhaul of campaign finance inspired by President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal. By the late 1970s, Bopp had become the general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, the largest national anti-abortion group. At first, he and other anti-abortion lawyers viewed campaign finance laws as no more than a nuisance, but by the mid-1980s, they saw these laws as a lasting headache and began arguing that campaign finance limits were unconstitutional.

This shift came because the anti-abortion movement had embraced a new mission: control of the Supreme Court. In the 1970s and early 1980s, conservative attorneys in groups like the Federalist Society mobilized to influence the courts, forming professional networks that would find promising judicial nominees, influence legal norms, and legitimize conservative legal arguments. At first, pro-lifers mostly stayed out of this work. Instead, for a decade after Roe v. Wade, abortion foes promoted a constitutional amendment banning the procedure and worked to elect candidates who pledged their support for such an amendment. One of Bopp’s colleagues at NRLC, Dr. John Willke, a pro-life celebrity known for his anti-abortion slideshows, led efforts to make pro-life voters into a significant swing vote. When the GOP became the only party endorsing the “human life amendment,” most leading pro-life groups cast their lot with the Republicans.

To learn more about the Willkes, listen to Slow Burn Season 7, Episode 2:

By the mid-1980s, however, abortion foes recognized that even if Republicans controlled Congress, the human life amendment would never pass. Desperate for a new strategy, they focused on changing the composition of the Supreme Court in the hope that it would overrule Roe. Allying with the GOP became more important than ever: Republican presidents could select nominees skeptical of Roe, and Republican senators could confirm them. Rather than try to influence legal elites, pro-life leaders set about convincing grassroots activists, even those with no knowledge of the law, that control of the court was essential.

In 1992, however, a Supreme Court transformed by Republican presidents defied expectations by preserving abortion rights. The court’s decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey convinced many in the pro-life establishment that their movement lacked real influence over the GOP. Despite the presence of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas on the court, right-to-lifers felt that Republican presidents still too often gravitated to consensus nominees who could sail through Congress—the kind of judges who shied away from overturning a major precedent like Roe. Bopp argued that the movement needed the freedom to spend more on political speech if abortion foes expected more influence—or more say in Supreme Court nominations. He asserted that deregulating campaign finance would help pro-life candidates win and that, if right-to-lifers helped Republicans raise and spend more money, the anti-abortion movement would prove its worth to the GOP.

From the mid-1990s onward, groups like NRLC brought abortion foes into a broader coalition committed to deregulating money in politics. Champions of civil liberties, GOP power brokers, advocacy group staffers, and small-government libertarians worked together to deregulate campaign finance. It was far from inevitable that the Republican Party would unite against campaign finance reform. To be sure, business interests that backed the GOP had historically denounced campaign limits, and the GOP often enjoyed a fundraising edge that made it favor more campaign spending rather than less. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, Republicans felt tremendous pressure to embrace campaign finance reforms that many saw as an effort to clean up elections. They also supported campaign limits that hurt union-backed urban Democratic machines. Anti-abortion lawyers gave a crucial boost to the efforts of other Republican insiders, hoping to convince social conservatives and party leaders that opposing campaign finance limits was a matter of principle.

A decadeslong attack on campaign finance rules in the courts also helped to cement a conservative political consensus about the issue. In the 1990s, Bopp and his colleagues reframed campaign finance rules as the kind of government overreach that genuine conservatives had to oppose. After the 2002 passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, they had begun to focus on donor secrecy and corporate campaign spending, honing a message that would unite business and social conservatives.

By the mid-2000s, however, other conservative attorneys and movements sometimes took the lead in major campaign finance cases and pursued a different tactical plan than the one favored by right-to-life litigators. And some of the changes to campaign finance rules did not reflect the strategy of any litigator or movement, beginning instead with the reasoning of a new conservative Supreme Court majority. But even when other conservative movements dictated strategy, right-to-lifers understood more than enough about what changed campaign finance rules could mean for the Republican Party: The new laws gave conservative movements a chance to take power away from the GOP establishment.

As anti-abortion groups made campaign finance a priority, NRLC leaders also retooled their strategy to dismantle abortion rights. Larger anti-abortion groups would shift to promoting abortion restrictions that enjoyed the most popular support, and these restrictions, in turn, would increase public approval of both the GOP and the anti-abortion cause. Helping the GOP out-raise and outspend the opposition would give abortion foes more allies in the White House and Congress. More GOP leaders in office created more opportunities to transform SCOTUS and overturn Roe. This plan of attack helped produce a series of Supreme Court decisions, including Gonzales v. Carhart (2007) and Citizens United.

But leading anti-abortion groups did not always successfully harness their movement’s energy. Clinic blockaders, Catholic absolutists, and other grassroots activists contended that dependence on the GOP had made the pro-life movement unable to demand social change. These activists also questioned the wisdom of relying on a Supreme Court that had hesitated to dismantle abortion rights. Many within the right-to-life movement also questioned the value of investing so much in the rules of campaign finance.

At first, when Bopp and his allies focused on narrow challenges to rules that hobbled the anti-abortion movement, such as limits on voter information guides or nonprofit corporations, few right-to-lifers objected. But by the 1990s, when NRLC made opposition to all campaign finance laws a priority, many anti-abortion leaders rebelled. Some, like right-wing icon Phyllis Schlafly, argued that focusing on campaign finance needlessly divided the movement and hurt political allies whom it needed to pass abortion restrictions. Others, like anti-abortion activist Judie Brown, saw the emphasis put on campaign finance as a sign that their colleagues in NRLC cared more about the success of Republican candidates than about advancing the rights of the unborn. Still others questioned whether Bopp’s strategy would help the pro-life movement to gain influence in the GOP as much as it would to expand the power of large corporations and major donors.

The GOP establishment initially found nothing to dislike in the dominant pro-life strategy. The promise of controlling the Supreme Court could unite a fractious coalition and turn out voters who might otherwise not care about a particular race. The fight to deregulate campaign finance also suited the GOP hierarchy. Activists like Bopp helped the Republican Party perfect fundraising techniques from super PACs to “dark money” organizations.

But changes to campaign finance rules ultimately helped to shatter the traditional GOP hierarchy. Of course, other forms of spending can also boost extreme candidates; at times, small donors, who tend to sometimes be on their party’s radical flanks, have banded together to influence the GOP or the Democratic Party. In 2020, for example, small donors offered a lifeline to politicians like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who opposed certification of the 2020 election results. But small donors at times became apathetic, and outside spending organizations, which provided an attractive vehicle for professional activists and major donors, often had more staying power. It is true that the party establishment, too, benefited from the new super PACs and nonprofits. But so did issue-based organizations, many of which looked to remake the GOP. With a surge in outside spending, the GOP establishment had less control over the flow of campaign dollars. Already weakened by conservative media and negative partisanship, the establishment no longer had the tools to put down a populist insurgency.

The GOP establishment had hoped to emerge from the abortion conflict unscathed. Abortion itself was merely one issue—and to the establishment, far from the most important—in a broad right-wing agenda. Abortion foes had helped the party by convincing rank-and-file Republican voters that control of the Supreme Court should be on their minds on Election Day. But to many Republican leaders, the justices they nominated and confirmed were often more valuable for other reasons, such as limiting environmental and workplace regulations, than for their opposition to abortion. The party leadership ignored the anti-abortion movement when it was convenient to do so. It was no surprise that pro-life leaders would try to gain more leverage. Their campaign to unleash political spending, however, had consequences they most likely did not anticipate. In their efforts to reinvent the Republican Party, abortion foes changed how American democracy works.

Excerpted from Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment, by Mary Ziegler, published June 2022, Yale University Press. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.

Dollars for Life book cover

Dollars for Life book cover

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