Why Nikki Haley Nailed Her Answer About Abortion at the Republican Primary Debate

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

Republicans suffered big losses in the 2023 election due in no small part to abortion continuing to be an issue that drives turnout – even in red states like Kentucky and Ohio – in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.

During the third GOP primary debate hosted by NBC in Miami on Wednesday, the topic took centerstage when the candidates were asked about the amendment enshrining the right to abortion in the Ohio state constitution that passed by a double-digit margin. Each candidate got a chance to answer, but it was former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley’s response that was deemed by many to be one of the best moments of the night.

On Thursday’s show, Megyn was joined by National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke to discuss Haley’s answer and why it could resonate with voters who are otherwise turned off by the GOP position on abortion.

2024 GOP Candidates on Abortion

Ohio is a Republican-led state that former President Donald Trump won handily in 2016 and 2020, but voters across party lines approved the passage of Issue 1 on Tuesday. According to exit polls, some one in five Republicans in Ohio voted for the measure despite the fact that it essentially legalizes late-term abortion. 

But it wasn’t just the Buckeye State. Megyn was also critical of Republicans in Kentucky and Virginia who failed to overcome the messaging gap on abortion created by Democrats. All of this will undoubtedly carry over to the 2024 election, which is why it came up on the debate stage in Miami. 

Haley offered, in part, the following response to moderator Kristen Welker’s question:

“I think you have to be honest with the American people. This is a personal issue for every woman and every man… Let’s find consensus. Let’s agree on how we can ban late-term abortions. Let’s make sure we encourage adoptions and good quality adoptions. Let’s make sure we make contraception accessible. Let’s make sure that none of these state laws put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty for getting an abortion. Let’s focus on how to save as many babies as we can and support as many moms as we can. And stop the judgment. We don’t need to divide America over this issue anymore.”

– Nikki Haley, November 8, 2023

For his part, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the GOP has “got to do a better job on these referenda.” South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott called for a “15-week federal ban” on abortion. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie emphasized that it should be left to the states to decide. An Ohio native, Vivek Ramaswamy said Republicans got the messaging wrong in the state.

Why Nikki Haley Excelled

In Cooke’s view, Haley’s answer about abortion was not only her best moment of the debate but also the best moment of the night. “I don’t think you could improve on that as an answer if you’re running for president of the United States and trying to convince people that you would be a good custodian of the whole country on this issue,” he said.

While his personal view is that “the federal government has no constitutional authority to regulate abortion in either direction,” he said Haley got a lot right in her response. “The first one she did was to acknowledge that people do feel really strongly on both sides of this issue,” he explained. “She then set the issue in its proper legal context, noting that it had been sent back to the states, that this… shouldn’t be decided by unelected judges.”

But she didn’t stop there. “In a self-interested way – which is fine, she’s running for president – she essentially said to the audience and to the broader country: ‘Don’t look at me, see the words pro-life, and make assumptions that are divisive. Listen to what I’m actually saying,’” Cooke recalled. “I think it was remarkably effective, and I think it does show that she would be really strong as a candidate on this issue.”

While Megyn noted that bringing up the death penalty was a straw man argument, Cooke believes it was an effective one in this case. “It is a straw man, but I actually think that it’s quite a clever straw man,” he said. “If you ever debated abortion or discussed abortion… people bring a lot of straw men to the table. Republicans are going to have an issue with this.”

Ultimately, he thinks it sets Haley up well for a general election debate. “I think just laying that out there preemptively and saying ‘of course that’s not the sort of thing that I’m interested in’ is actually important,” he concluded. “Whenever you get involved in politics – especially on an issue such as this one – people make all sorts of claims that aren’t true.”

You can check out Megyn’s full interview with Cooke by tuning in to episode 666 on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. And don’t forget that you can catch The Megyn Kelly Show live on SiriusXM’s Triumph (channel 111) weekdays from 12pm to 2pm ET.