Sioux City, Iowa
Ask Lisa McGaffey if she has ever voted for a Democrat and there is no pause.
“Oh, heavens, no,” she says quickly and emphatically. “Oh, no. There’s no – abortion. … They have to have a chance to grow up. They have to have the chance. You never know who that’s going to be.”
McGaffey is a loyal Donald Trump supporter and is grateful for his three appointments to the conservative Supreme Court majority that erased Roe v. Wade last year and returned the question of abortion rights to the states.
Two-hundred miles away, in the fast growing Des Moines suburbs, Betsy Sarcone takes a different view.
Iowa, like Florida, in recent months enacted a law outlawing most abortions at six weeks. Sarcone – a single mother and a Catholic and Republican who told us, “I don’t believe in abortion” – thinks that is too restrictive.
“I agree with a time limit,” Sarcone said in a recent interview in her West Des Moines home. “I’ve had three babies grow inside me. I agree when you feel them kicking and you feel them moving – that’s in my heart, is a time when that (a cutoff to abortion access) would be. Which is around say, like 18 weeks, something like that typically. So in my heart, that’s what I feel. I again, I just I don’t know that much further than that it’s somebody’s place to judge.”
Abortion is among the fault lines in the 2024 Republican campaign, and a likely debate topic in Wednesday’s first primary season showdown between Republican candidates – all of whom support abortion restrictions. It’s also an issue that splits GOP voters, even those who share an opposition to the procedure. Sarcone and McGaffey, for example, are among a group of Iowa Republicans we are tracking as part of a CNN project designed to view the 2024 campaign through the eyes of voters – to see firsthand if their views change over the course of the cycle, and if so, why.
Among that group is also Chris Mudd, a businessman in Cedar Falls and a Trump supporter, who signals a potential warning for GOP hopefuls on abortion.
“I’m a pro-life guy,” Mudd told us. “But I think it is a losing issue for Republicans.” Of the six-week bans enacted in Florida and later in his home state of Iowa, Mudd said: “I think that was a mistake.”
Among Republican candidates there’s some disagreement over whether a national ban should be a priority, or whether the issue is best left to the states.
Trump, for example, has called the six-week ban signed by DeSantis in Florida “too harsh.” The GOP front-runner is choosing to skip the Milwaukee debate.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina favors a federal law banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Mike Pence, the former vice president and Indiana governor, supports a six-week federal ban.
GOP rivals Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum describe themselves as staunchly “pro life” but argue the principled conservative position is that each state should make its own law. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has said she would sign a 15-week national ban, but also frequently notes the votes aren’t there in the current congressional balance of power and that the federal conversation is best put aside unless and until there is more consensus.
Democrats see opportunity in almost any Republican conversation about abortion, citing how the issue has consistently helped galvanize voters in elections – from ballot initiatives to last year’s midterms – since the Dobbs decision.
The last public poll on the issue in Iowa was in March, for the Des Moines Register.
A clear majority, 61% of Iowans, said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. But the first competition here is the Republican caucuses, and the poll found that 59% of Republicans and 64% of evangelicals believed abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.
Sarcone, a suburban Des Moines real estate agent, made a point worth remembering as the candidates debate for the first time this week.
“I don’t know that I will have any candidate that I agree with on everything,” she said. “So the character, the leadership, the military is very important to me.”
To that end, she listed DeSantis as her early favorite, despite her opposition to a six-week ban, but said she would consider Haley, Scott and perhaps others, too.
Our first visit with this voter group, before the first debate, was to get a sense of how they rate the candidates and the issues early on.
McGaffey, an administrator at the Jolly Time Pop Corn company, was the only member of the group who brought up the abortion issue in our conversations.
Mudd, the pro-Trump businessman who’s wary of the GOP leaning too heavily into abortion, listed the economy as his lead issue.
Similarly, attorney Priscilla Forsyth from Sioux City said abortion was not an issue on her debate priority list.
“Issues like abortion are not my issue,” she said. “A lot of the social issues are not. It’s all the economy, really.”