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The Arizona Supreme Court just upended Trump’s gambit on abortion

It took little more than a day for Donald Trump’s political gambit on abortion to come undone.

On Monday, the former president declined to support any new national law setting limits on abortions. Going against the views of many abortion opponents in his Republican Party, Trump was looking for a way to neutralize or at least muddy a galvanizing issue that has fueled Democratic victories for nearly two years. He hoped to keep it mostly out of the conversation ahead of the November elections.

On Tuesday, the Arizona Supreme Court showed just how difficult it will be to do that. The court resurrected an 1864 law that bans nearly all abortions, except to save the life of the mother. The law also imposes penalties on abortion providers.

Trump had said let the states handle the issue. The Arizona court showed the full implications of that states’ rights strategy.

The Arizona ruling came in a state that will be especially crucial in deciding the outcome of the presidential election, a state that President Biden won by fewer than 11,000 votes and that Trump’s campaign team has eyed as one of the best opportunities for a pickup. It is likely that a referendum to protect abortion rights will be on Arizona’s ballot in November. The court ruling only heightens the significance of the issue for the rest of the campaign year.

But the court ruling reverberated far beyond Arizona’s borders. The Biden-Harris campaign and other Democrats pounced on the ruling in an effort to further their argument that Trump and Republicans are a threat to freedoms.

All abortion politics are national, not local. Abortion developments — new laws, new restrictions, new stories of women caught up in heart-wrenching and sometimes life-threatening decisions — are no longer confined to the geography where they take place. They are instantly part of the larger debate.

That has been true ever since the Supreme Court, in its 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, ended the constitutional right to abortion, which had existed for half a century. That decision, which overturned the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, provided a long-sought victory to abortion opponents, and they have since helped enact highly restrictive laws in states where Republicans control legislatures and the governor’s offices.

Politically, however, Republicans have paid a high price. Time after time, in red states and blue states alike, in both votes to install abortion rights into state constitutions and political campaigns waged around the issue of freedom of choice, Democrats have consistently won, often by significant margins.

The energy of this movement was first seen in Kansas soon after the Dobbs decision, when voters in that Republican stronghold supported keeping abortion rights in the state constitution. It continued through the 2022 midterm elections and after. Abortion rights proponents are working to put referendums on several state ballots beyond Arizona in November. An issue that once was more motivating for abortion opponents has become one of the most energizing issues on the left.

Over the years, Trump has tried to have it all ways on the issue. In a 1999 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he said: “I am very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion. … I just believe in choice.” By 2011, at a time when he was thinking of running for president and had his eye on the Republican Party, he told the Conservative Political Action Conference, “I am pro-life.”

When he ran for president the first time in 2016, he was asked by Chris Matthews, then of MSNBC, whether there should be punishment for abortion. “There has to be some form of punishment,” he said. “For the woman?” Matthews asked. Trump responded, “Yeah, there has to be some form.”

In that campaign, he vowed to nominate justices to the high court who would vote to get rid of Roe. He made good on that promise and helped install three new members — Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — to give conservatives a 6-3 majority. Once the Dobbs case came before the court, Roe became history. Few decisions in recent years have had such an instantaneous political impact.

Trump has said repeatedly he is proud of what he did to assure that Roe would be overturned. Nobody did more to get rid of Roe than he did, he says. He said it again Monday in the video statement he issued outlining his thinking about a national ban on abortion.

But Trump can also see the political damage that could occur if he had come out in support of a national ban, even one that allowed abortions until the 15th week of pregnancy, as many Republicans favor. To Trump, winning elections — winning his election — is everything and he calculated that a campaign debate about a national abortion law would lessen his chances in November. About that he is not wrong.

His announcement Monday split the right. Many Republicans fell in line behind him, as they always do. But not everyone. His former vice president, Mike Pence, one of the strongest opponents of abortion in the land, called it “a slap in the face” to those who have long fought to restrict abortion and who favor a national law.

So, too, did Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said that Trump had made a mistake in suggesting that abortion restrictions should be determined by states. Trump fired back at Graham as misguided, arguing that by opposing Trump’s position he was putting Republican candidates at risk.

“Many Good Republicans lost Elections because of this Issue, and people like Lindsey Graham, that are unrelenting, are handing Democrats their dream of the House, Senate, and perhaps even the presidency,” he wrote on Truth Social.

By now it is clear how Trump has used the abortion issue to advance his own political ambitions. By declaring his strong opposition to abortion and by championing conservative nominees to the Supreme Court, he helped to cement support among evangelical Christians. They are now among his strongest backers.

His statement Monday was the latest effort to turn the issue to his personal advantage. On the politics, he is correct about the dangers to Republicans of continuing the intense debate about abortion rights. But as Pence said, he has abandoned those whose interests he once vowed to serve.

There is no safe harbor for Trump and the Republicans at this point. The abortion issue is no less complex and no less difficult for many Americans than it was while Roe was in force. But politically the winds have shifted, and done so dramatically.

Trump can make his own statements about state vs. national restrictions, but the debate set off by the Supreme Court nearly two years ago is not abating, as Arizona’s landmark decision Tuesday showed. Trump set this in motion, and now it is mostly out of his control.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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