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GOP Candidates Are Going All in on the Post-Roe Abortion Crackdown
Plus: The plan to “expunge” Trump’s impeachments creates more problems than it solves.
Good afternoon and welcome to Press Pass, The Bulwark’s twice-weekly newsletter on Congress, campaigns, and how Washington works.
Congress is out for two weeks after having been in session for seven. Everyone has been getting cranky and fed up with each other, so this will be a welcome break. With lawmakers departing the capital, I stopped by one of the first big conferences for all the 2024 candidates over the weekend to get a sense for how some influential evangelicals are thinking about the next election. Below, I’ll also take a look at how the House plans to “expunge” Trump’s impeachments, which will put some of the Republican caucus’s most vulnerable members in a political bind. Let’s dive in.
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Over the weekend, the “Road to Majority” conference came to Washington; it was hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an advocacy group founded and led by longtime conservative activist Ralph Reed. The conference fills an interesting niche: It’s too narrowly focused to give an accurate picture of what the Republican electorate looks like, but it isn’t as flamboyantly weird as CPAC, either. What it offers is a gathering place for some of the power players in an important faction of the Republican base: evangelicals. By attending, I was able to get a sense for their mood as they look to the year ahead.
Speakers included 2024 presidential candidates, Republican up-and-comers, and already-popular conservative stars. A common theme among the speakers was their unapologetic embrace of the abortion crackdown in the year since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling.
Former Vice President Mike Pence called for a minimum 15-week federal abortion ban. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis went further, touting his state’s six-week ban as “the right thing to do.” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) walked to the back of the room after his speech to talk to the press; he told us there is a national consensus on the issue, which he spelled out for us. “The deal ought to be 15 weeks,” he said. “There, I made it easy.”
Attendees ate it all up, although at times they seemed a bit confused about what they were hearing or who was speaking. They seemed largely unaware of who Asa Hutchinson even is. He seemed to take the hint, and partway through his speech added, “by the way, I am running for president of the United States.” The line received a polite, muted response.
At least one candidate was not there to make friends: former New Jersey governor and recently evangelized Never Trumper Chris Christie. He made a bid for the audience’s approval early on by mentioning certain acts he took as governor, including his yearly veto of Planned Parenthood funding from the state, and he also highlighted his Catholic faith. But he lost many of his listeners when he suggested that true leaders take responsibility for their actions. In case there was any question about the intended target of these remarks, Christie called him out by name:
Because beware, everybody, of a leader who never makes mistakes. Beware of a leader who has no faults. Beware of a leader who says that when something goes wrong, it’s everybody else’s fault. And he goes, and he blames those people. For anything that goes wrong, but when things go right, everything is to his credit.
Now, there are a lot of people, a lot of people who wonder. After I was the first candidate to endorse Donald Trump in 2016, the very first. After he made me chairman of his transition. After he made me chairman of his Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission. After—and this one will keep you up at night, everybody—after I played Hillary Clinton in debate prep . . .
Why am I running for president of the United States? I’m running because [Trump has] let us down. He has let us down because he’s unwilling: He’s unwilling to take responsibility for any of the mistakes that were made and any of the faults that he has and any of the things that he’s done. And that is not leadership, everybody. That is a failure of leadership.
This gloss prompted booing from the crowd. “You can boo all you want,” Christie said.
Immediately after his speech, I walked to the back of the venue where the candidates exited and a handful of other reporters were staking out. There was a large crowd of younger people—mostly college-aged—waiting for Christie. While security guards were gesturing to clear a path for the candidate, the group was very excited to see Christie and insisted that he pose for a group photo with them.
It was a small group, but their enthusiasm was real. Christie’s actual chances of receiving the nomination are vanishingly small, but he is distinguishing his message from that of every other candidate, focusing his campaign efforts almost solely on one of the most critical early voting states (New Hampshire), and he’s doing it all without any apparent regard for how he’s perceived. (In reply to an interviewer’s question about Trump making fun of his weight, Christie replied, “Oh, like he’s some Adonis?”) This combination is enough to make him a real problem for candidates who aren’t Trump. Just look at some of the recent polls showing him ahead of much of the field, with anywhere between 3 and 9 percent. Not bad for a guy whose reputation in his own party is, as Politico put it, “overwhelmingly negative.”
Overall, the conference provided some useful context for the months ahead. Although Trump has in the past questioned their loyalty, evangelicals are still solidly behind him: He remains far and away the leader of the 2024 field, especially among this part of the electorate. Most conference attendees were clad in full MAGA-branded gear, and one of the biggest moments on stage happened when North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson endorsed Trump in the middle of his speech. Evangelicals are still one of the former president’s most prized assets, a fact that is unlikely to change as we head into 2024.
The fake expunging of Trump’s impeachments
If you consider Trump’s behavior surrounding the events of January 6, 2021—as well as his attempt to seek political favors by withholding aid to Ukraine—entirely reprehensible and worthy of impeachment, you might be upset to learn that Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have introduced resolutions to “expunge” these impeachments.
I put “expunge” in quotation marks because it is not actually possible to perform the action of that verb on that noun. Stefanik, Greene, and co. can draft resolutions saying they expunge it, and might even get such resolutions passed in the House, but such resolutions would be functionally meaningless. What’s more, they would actually create more problems for Republicans than their sponsors seem to realize. Allow me to explain.
It is a fact that during the 116th and 117th Congresses, the House of Representatives impeached Donald J. Trump. That the impeachments happened is a matter of historical record; the fact will never change or be stricken from the books. But, as is literally always the case with messaging bills of this kind, these resolutions are meant to create some extremely online material for MAGA die-hards—not achieve any actual legislative goals.
The resolutions also pose a significant risk to some of the most vulnerable members of the GOP’s tiny House majority. Reps. David Valadao (R-Calif.) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) both voted on conscience to convict Trump in his second impeachment, but unlike all the other House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, Valadao and Newhouse’s careers managed to survive into the 118th Congress. They will be needlessly put at electoral risk again thanks to the egos of their least-threatened colleagues.
Valadao’s and Newhouse’s choices in response to the resolutions are limited to a bleak menu of consequences:
Voting no might invite a challenge from a far-right primary challenger who would almost certainly go on to lose in a general election. It could also draw renewed, needless wrath from Trump himself, potentially inspiring personal threats against them from deranged constituents.
Voting yes to “expunge” the impeachment would also “expunge” their own previous votes and make them look like total hypocrites.
Any way you slice it, Stefanik and Greene’s fake impeachment “expungement” stunt can only create problems for these Republicans whose seats are critical to their party’s majority.
A version of this problem also applies to many other frontline-district Republicans who may not have been around when the original votes were cast, but who likely have no interest in participating in a symbolic record-clearing. Do freshman representatives like Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) and Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.) want to have their names attached to Trump and January 6th? Voting yes on the resolutions will make things much harder for moderate GOP candidates in districts House Republicans barely won but Biden carried with relative ease. Maybe Stefanik and Greene just don’t care.
A normal House majority looks to solve problems for Americans while racking up legislative wins that members can brag about back home. These resolutions do the opposite: They accomplish nothing while putting vulnerable Republicans in a bind.