Less than two decades ago, President Donald Trump described himself as “pro-choice in every respect.” He’s now the most pro-life president in modern history, rolling back Obama-era abortion funding, and nominating conservative Supreme Court justices. Critics and conservatives alike remain skeptical that he is personally pro-life, yet pro-lifers offer him fervent support due to his policies. However transactional his evolution on the issue seems, it may be having a broader effect down the ballot.
Rep. Kay Granger is the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House, and represents the 12th district of Texas, which encompasses half of Tarrant County, the most reliably red, urban county in the Lone Star state. Republicans were shocked when Tarrant country flipped blue in the 2018 Senate race, voting for Democrat Beto O’Rourke over incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz.
It’s surprising then, that Granger’s primary opponent this election cycle was not someone looking to appeal to the growing number of moderate, suburban voters in Fort Worth, the 13th largest city in the United States, but someone even further to her right. Chris Putnam, who was backed by the conservative Club for Growth, ultimately lost to Granger on Super Tuesday, with 42 percent of the vote to Granger’s 58 percent, but gave her her toughest primary race since she took office more than 20 years ago.
Putnam accused the incumbent of not being aligned with Trump, even though Granger earned Trump’s endorsement. He called her “too Washington,” and hammered on her a boondoggle construction project on the Trinity River just north of downtown Fort Worth. Residents have complained about its overrun budgets and missed deadlines for years. Lastly, Putnam put the spotlight on Granger’s history as a pro-choice Republican.
After her tenure as a popular mayor of Fort Worth in the early ’90s, Granger was recruited by both Democrats and Republicans to run for the open House seat in 1996. Despite voting for several pro-choice bills in the early 2000s, including a vote against the Mexico City Policy that prohibits funding for abortion internationally, it never seemed to be an issue for conservative voters of her red district, who voted for her 12 terms.
But as Democrats moved the line from “safe, legal, and rare” to “#ShoutYourAbortion,” the issue moved to the front of the culture war, forcing politicians to move out of grey areas. In the same way there is no longer room for pro-life Democrats in their increasingly progressive party, Trump’s GOP is increasingly hostile to “pro-choice Republicans,” a label Granger gave herself in a 2007 MSNBC interview. Putnam used the MSNBC clip in attack ads against Granger, and the “pro-choice Republican” charge became a problem for Granger in the tight race.
Whether she saw the writing on the wall, or decided to take page out of Trump’s transactional politics playbook, Granger was able to tout enough of a recent pro-life record to earn the endorsement of the pro-life groups like Susan B. Anthony List and National Right to Life. In January 2019, Granger motioned to remove language from a House appropriations bill that would provide funding to international abortion advocates and eliminate the Mexico City Policy, the very same pro-abortion policy she voted for a decade prior. Granger’s campaign did not return request for comment.
When asked about endorsing Granger despite her pro-choice past, a Susan B. Anthony List spokesperson pointed me to an op-ed about their endorsement that highlights how the pro-life movement is “made up of people who have had their hearts and minds changed on life.”
Other groups like Texas Right to Life endorsed Putnam, saying Granger is an inconsistent vote for pro-life policies, and quoted Granger describing abortion as a “situation that a woman makes a decision with her own self and her own physician and her own family.”
At a February candidate forum event in Fort Worth, when Granger was pressed on the issue, she said she has “evolved” and changed, “just like President Trump’s position has changed.” A Granger campaign mailer touted Trump’s “100% pro-life” endorsement of the congresswoman.
A veteran campaign operative in Fort Worth, unaffiliated with either campaign, told me Granger doesn’t come from an ideologically conservative background, another similarity to our reality star president. “She’s not an intellectual, she’s always just focused on getting things done. But now, for the first time a challenger is questioning her ideological credentials on abortion,” the person said. “Like Trump, she has a mixed record on the issue. But she also has something her challenger doesn’t — Trump’s endorsement. The question in this race could come down to: does abortion Trump Donald, or does Donald Trump abortion?”
It’s difficult to prove what exactly gave Granger an edge over her more “Trumpy” opponent, but it’s fair to say her “mixed record” on the issue, just like Trump’s, did not wipe out all her support when she promised to hold a strong pro-life stance going forward. As both parties move further apart on the issue, Trump’s willingness to go to the mattresses for the pro-life movement is an approach that not only aids him politically, but other candidates whose “hearts and minds have changed on life.”