Paula Westwood can’t recall the last time her pro-life organization didn’t endorse a presidential nominee.
She’s worked for Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati for 14 years – four presidential election cycles – and the nonprofit’s board has always backed the Republican candidate.
Until this year.
“We’re just staying out of that race,” Westwood said of Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati’s candidate endorsements, which were released in July. “Because there’s some uncertainty with some people with the candidates.”
Trump, who for years identified as pro-choice and has praised the work of abortion rights proponents such as Planned Parenthood, has put a reliable Republican voting bloc in a tough spot.
On one hand, many pro-life voters question Trump’s true commitment to their issue. But for that same demographic, a vote for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – who has long had the backing pro-choice groups – is unfathomable.
“I don’t care if they hold their breath or hold their nose, as long as they vote for Donald Trump,” said Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis. “This isn’t a pastoral search committee. Does Donald Trump have issues and concerns? Sure. So does Hillary Clinton. We shouldn’t be holding them up in this Christ-like standard.”
But Trump has done little on the campaign trail to soothe the concerns of pro-life voters, many of whom are religious, said Ohio State University political science professor Paul Beck.
He’s not a churchgoer and has fumbled while quoting Bible passages on the campaign trail, Beck said.
Past Republican politicians have worked hard to connect with religious, pro-life conservatives. Most of the GOP nominees spoke at the National Right to Life Convention last year as the presidential campaign picked up steam; Trump was not in attendance.
“Trump has never really been actively engaged with these groups until this year. They can’t say, ‘He is one of us,’” Beck said of pro-life voters. “It’s important for these single-issues groups to feel the candidates are going to endorse is really someone who thinks like them, is one of them.”
Unknowns surrounding Trump are what led Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati to hold off on an endorsement for the presidential primary – at least for now – Westwood said.
“The lack of endorsement does not mean a negative, it just means there’s some information that we don’t have,” Westwood said. “Because Donald Trump has not held office before, you’re continually finding out and learning.”
Pro-life voters haven’t been thrilled with GOP nominees in years past, either. Many questioned presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s commitment to tougher abortion restrictions in 2012.
But the conversion to Trump is a bigger stretch.
His responses to where he stands on abortion have run the gamut, from describing himself as “very pro-choice” to saying women should be punished if they undergo an abortion.
And at a Republican presidential debate earlier this year, Trump described Planned Parenthood, which provides access to abortion procedures at some of its locations, as helpful to millions of women.
Those are the comments that made Lori Viars, a Warren County Republican, weary about Trump before he was officially crowned the party’s nominee.
“As time has gone on and I’ve listened to him more closely, I don’t think he’s going to hurt us on the pro-life issue,” Viars said. “He might not be a big champion of it, but he’s not going to hurt us.”
But many pro-life supporters believe Clinton would hurt their cause.
As they knock on doors, Ohio Right to Life canvassers are sure to remind voters that at least one U.S. Supreme Court pick rests with whoever wins the White House. Trump, Gonidakis argues, has indicated he will pick pro-life justices.
Beck expects many of those voters will end up – even if reluctantly – supporting Trump for that reason. A few might stay home. But they almost certainly won’t flock to Clinton on Election Day.
“Hillary Clinton’s position on the pro-choice measures is so clear – they’re going to vote against her,” Beck said. “I think in the end, they will come to the polls to vote for Donald Trump.”