Anti-abortion crusader Pence capitalizes on a playing field reshaped by pending Roe decision

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WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Mike Pence has leaned heavily into his role as an anti-abortion crusader since leaving the White House, making anti-abortion groups and Christian right audiences the centerpiece of his would-be campaign for president in 2024.

On Thursday night, Pence addressed a powerful Christian conservative group in the early-voting state of South Carolina, delivering the first extended remarks from a likely 2024 Republican contender since the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning federal abortion rights was leaked.

“Now much has been made of the wrongness of that leak. And I welcome Chief Justice [John] Roberts’s commitment to get to the bottom of it,” Pence said at a fundraiser for the Carolina Pregnancy Center. “But we must remain steadfast. The decision is not final. I want to encourage you to keep praying to stand firm. Keep praying that those five justices would have the courage of their convictions.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence sits for an onstage interview.
Former Vice President Mike Pence at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in November 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

But the impact of that draft opinion, and the expectation that the court’s conservative majority will formally overturn Roe v. Wade in about a month, is still being gauged by Republican operatives. Some see a wider opening for Pence to run in 2024, with a fired-up base of anti-abortion activists and Pence’s own anti-abortion bona fides on full display. Others say it will matter little in a 2024 field still handily dominated by former President Donald Trump.

“I hope he’s president, and I think, given his circumstances, he’s going to run to be a player no matter what. And he will be significant no matter what happens,” said an Indiana anti-abortion activist who has known Pence for years.

But abortion might not play in Pence’s favor, the activist said, noting that the left will likely be more energized by being on the losing side of this battle and that if the draft opinion holds, the fight will likely move from Washington to statehouses across the country — potentially defusing it as a key issue.

Meanwhile, Trump, the de facto frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2024, spent the week basking in an Ohio U.S. Senate primary win by critic turned supporter J.D. Vance. The Vance win, built on Trump’s endorsement and GOP megadonor Peter Thiel’s infusion of cash, was widely interpreted as a sign of Trump’s still-firm grip on the party.

Whether the abortion issue propels Pence back to the White House or not, the former vice president has been addressing anti-abortion and Christian right groups in key early-voting states as part of the “pre-run” for president that he and almost a dozen other potential Republican contenders have been doing for more than a year.

Abortion rights advocates in front of the Supreme Court hold up signs reading: If you cut off my reproductive choice, can I cut off yours?
Abortion rights advocates demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

His first event since leaving the White House was a speech to the Palmetto Family Council, a conservative nonprofit based in Columbia, S.C., just three months after his life was threatened by pro-Trump rioters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. A few months later his political group, Advancing American Freedom, submitted an amicus brief supporting the Mississippi abortion ban that landed at the Supreme Court and appears likely to spark the end of Roe v. Wade. And he has headlined fundraisers for Christian right and anti-abortion groups throughout the country since leaving office.

“We may well be on the verge of an era when the Supreme Court sends Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history where it belongs,” Pence said last November at a fundraiser for the anti-abortion group SBA List, held one day before the high court heard arguments in the Mississippi case, Dobbs v. Jackson. “We are asking the court, in no uncertain terms, to make history. We are asking the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn Roe v. Wade and restore the sanctity of human life to the center of American law.”

On Thursday the Democratic National Committee started a series of press calls blasting potential 2024 Republican candidates on various positions, and it picked Pence for its first target.

“We know that Pence is a full-card believer in what he believes, and what he believes is that women shouldn’t have the right to control their bodies,” DNC Chair Jaime Harrison said Thursday in response to a question from Yahoo News ahead of Pence’s speech. “It’s going to be interesting to see this play out on the Republican side, but I can let you know that as Democrats we are going to do everything we can within [our] power to protect a woman’s right to choose.”