Friday, July 12, 2024

These GOP women begged the party to abandon abortion. Then came backlash.

These GOP women begged the party to abandon abortion. Then came backlash.

Gilda Bayegan did not have the time or the patience to choose her words carefully. She felt the party of Lincoln was in peril — and she had to speak her mind.

“Every time we talk about abortion, we are putting gas in the tank of the Democrats. That’s their one winning issue,” the 70-year-old state delegate told her fellow Texas Republicans at the party’s convention in late May, a gathering of 10,000 delegates from across the state. Her party had already made abortion illegal, she said, and now some were seeking to go even further.

“What are we going to do,” she said from the podium, “ … stone women next?”

Gilda Bygone’s remarks spark abortion policy debate at Texas 2024 RPT Convention. (Video: Republican Party of Texas)

As she spoke, Bayegan stood not far from her sisters-in-arms, a small group of mostly retired Houston-area women who attended the meeting in suffragist-style sashes and foam Lady Liberty crowns. Drawing inspiration from both Ronald Reagan and Gloria Steinem, they’d left their tree-lined neighborhoods for the fluorescent lights of a San Antonio convention center, all in pursuit of the same goal: Convince the Texas Republican Party to stop talking about abortion.

Republican leaders have struggled with how to address abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago, faced with dueling political realities: While outlawing abortion has been an animating moral cause for the party for generations, new abortion restrictions are deeply unpopular. After appointing three conservative justices who helped topple Roe, former president Donald Trump has sought to distance himself from the issue, saying as little as possible and ultimately punting the question to the states.

But many on the right are resisting these efforts to leave the abortion issue behind. Christian conservatives, a key part of the party’s base, have continued to pressure Trump and other Republicans to crack down, arguing that fighting abortion is a core tenet of the Republican platform — and that the battle should continue until abortion is eradicated nationwide.

“I don’t want to stand before God and say, ‘Listen, we had to deny these biblical principles so we could win the election,’” said James Buntrock, a pastor and Republican Senate district leader in Harris County, Tex., where Bayegan lives. “We have to stand for what’s right. I don’t care what it costs.”

Those tensions will be on display at the Republican National Convention next week. Members of the RNC platform committee voted Monday to replace the party’s current abortion platform, which calls for national restrictions, with one that reflects Trump’s leave-it-to-the-states approach. Those changes, widely expected to be ratified by the national party in Milwaukee, would offer a new road map to Republicans running in competitive congressional races, granting them permission to deprioritize an issue that has long had a place at the heart of the party.

Bayegan’s plea in San Antonio offered a preview of the national debate. She asked the state party’s Legislative Priorities Committee not to name abortion one of the party’s top eight agenda items, as it had been for almost a decade.

“I’m up here begging you not to make it one of our priorities,” Bayegan said, wearing a giant homemade button that read “Win or Else!” The vast majority of voters wanted the party to prioritize increased border security and cracking down on crime, she added — not stricter abortion laws.

The committee members did not seem interested.

“Do you believe that a child in the womb is a human being?” asked one.

“Do you believe it matters what God believes, … or do you think it just matters to win elections?” asked another.

Bayegan knew she shouldn’t roll her eyes, but she found these high-and-mighty scripture-citers so exasperating, she later said: Did they really want a Democrat in the White House for four more years?

When the state’s thousands of delegates voted on the platform later that weekend, Bayegan had to believe they would see things differently.

Surely, she thought, most Texans had more sense.

The campaign to stop talking about abortion went public two months earlier at a conference center in Houston’s Senate District 15 — when another Republican state delegate from Harris County, Michelle Bouchard, realized her neighbors may choose to support even stricter abortion laws if she didn’t stand up and say something.

“Woah, hold up. What world are we in?” Bouchard, 62, recalled asking, stunned that her colleagues wanted to submit a resolution for the state convention that would push the party to further restrict abortion pills. They should be focused on helping “the children who are already here,” she said to a group of nearly 200 Republicans. “I move to strike this plank in its entirety.”

When Bouchard sat down, another woman stood up to make the same argument — ultimately convincing the majority of their district’s delegates to vote down the measure.

The women had no idea that, at a convention for another Senate district a few miles across town, Bayegan was staging a similar coup.

Bouchard and Bayegan met at a meeting of the Magic Circle, a Barbara-Bush-era club for Republican women — and decided to join forces, launching a formal campaign together six weeks ahead of the state convention. With a subtle side-eye to the “Right to Life” movement, Bayegan came up with the name “Right to Win.”

As they started their weekly meetings, Bayegan and Bouchard quickly realized how much they complemented each other: two “alpha females,” as they liked to call themselves, with different strengths.

Bayegan — with her well-teased Texas hair and chunky earrings purchased on French eBay — embodied the independent, freewheeling ethos of the state where she’d lived most of her life: Say what you think, and don’t apologize for it. As her rich retired friends planned cruises and cooed over grandchildren, she became a Republican precinct chair and ran her local civic association, where she penned snarky missives on how to stop your dog from pooping on your neighbor’s lawn.

“I’m not the grandmother type,” Bayegan said.

To their operation Bouchard — who would soon also become a precinct chair — brought the business sense of a longtime executive with a penchant for a good blazer. After 15 years running a nonprofit for Dr. Mehmet Oz, the TV doctor of Oprah fame who in 2022 ran unsuccessfully for Senate in Pennsylvania, she knew her way around an Excel spreadsheet and quickly urged Bayegan to think bigger: Make a logo. Reach out to reporters. Get online. In her second act as a community organizer, Bouchard earlier this year derailed a multimillion dollar sidewalk-widening effort that would have cost the city 400 trees.

While they disagreed about some things — Bayegan could have done without the suffragist sashes — on the most important issues the two women were completely in sync. They both loved their party deeply. They longed for “stability” and “order” amid the rising price of groceries and what they saw as a total disregard for U.S. borders.

They were determined to get their country back on track. And despite their strong personal distaste for the former president, who Bouchard sometimes calls a “pig with hair,” they both thought Trump was the best man for the job and planned to vote for him in November.

The women appreciated how Trump had handled the abortion issue, refusing to endorse a national abortion ban despite intense pressure from national antiabortion groups.

“I think he has his pulse on how most Americans feel about abortion,” Bouchard said. “I think he is listening to the majority of Republicans on this and not to the fringe.”

As the state convention neared, more and more women from Harris County joined the ranks of Right to Win, along with a few men. While they all agreed their party should move on from abortion, they were divided on the issue itself. Bouchard and Bayegan both support abortion rights, long believing that Republican values of personal freedom and limited government lend themselves to that position. Other members identified as fiercely “pro-life.”

The important thing, Bayegan said, was not to get bogged down in those differences.

“We cannot do this from a pro-choice point of view,” Bayegan repeatedly said to her group. “This needs to encompass every Republican out there who wants to succeed in the election,” she said — because “pro-life” Republicans wanted to win, too.

In San Antonio, six Right-to-Win members took turns addressing the key policy committee, which would make recommendations to delegates for which issues to prioritize, explaining their view that abortion should not be anywhere near the top of the list.

The backlash was harsh. When a group member spoke, audience members often fired back with a string of personal attacks, questioning their faith and values. One person told them they were going to “burn in hell,” they said. Others insinuated they weren’t real Republicans.

“These individuals are living in an alternate reality,” Matt Rinaldi, the former chairman of the Texas Republican Party, tweeted during the convention. “Principles win elections.”

Rinaldi did not respond to a request for comment.

At the convention and for months leading up to it, a powerful contingent of antiabortion leaders led by Texas Right to Life, the state’s largest antiabortion group, had been pushing for Republicans to enact even stricter abortion laws — frustrated that thousands of abortion pills were still reaching Texas women by mail.

Texas Right to Life appeared to garner significant support at the convention, said Rolando Garcia, a top Republican leader in Bouchard’s Senate district; Right to Win, he added, not so much.

“I don’t think they won over anyone,” said Garcia, a staunch antiabortion advocate.

The crux of his neighbor’s campaign was factually incorrect, he said: Abortion restrictions may not be playing well politically in other states, he said — but this was Texas. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed the first strict abortion ban to take effect anywhere in the country, won reelection by a wide margin in the midterm elections in 2022.

Bayegan and Bouchard did their best to buck up their team, reminding them their work was just the beginning. They’d be back at the next convention in 2026, their voices louder and stronger. The Republicans Bayegan called the “FFRRs” — or “far far religious rights” — couldn’t control the party forever, she said.

“We arrived with about a hundred supporters and left with over four hundred!” Bouchard wrote in an email to the group.

Two weeks later, the Texas Republican Party released its official list of the eight issues they’d be prioritizing for the next two years — the result of a convention-wide vote.

Bouchard took a sip from her chili-powder-rimmed margarita and smiled, looking out at a group of about 40 Harris County Republicans.

“Let me tell you something,” she said on a Wednesday night in mid-June, wearing a white sash with the words “Right to Win” bedazzled in red glitter. “When we went to the convention, we tried to manage expectations. We said … ‘Don’t expect we’re going to change something.’”

She flashed Bayegan the triumphant grin of a winner.

“Then those legislative priorities came out.”

With abortion officially off the priorities list, she reasoned, Republican lawmakers would no longer feel the pressure of the party platform when voting on abortion restrictions. They would be free to focus on other things.

But as Bouchard and Bayegan celebrated at their favorite Mexican restaurant, a group of antiabortion neighbors were devising a plan to keep their influence in check.

Soon after the convention, a coalition of Harris County Republicans began discussing what could be done about Right to Win, said Buntrock, the pastor, who was among those concerned.

Despite their relatively small numbers, he said, “Their voice was getting louder and louder,” he said. “The louder they got, the more people were talking about it.”

Less than 24 hours after their victory event, a Republican Party friend called Bouchard with a warning: Buntrock and others were circulating a petition to formally condemn Right to Win and any other Republican who did not prioritize a belief in “the sanctity of innocent human life.”

The friend forwarded the resolution, which Harris County’s antiabortion flank was planning to bring to a vote at a meeting of local Republican precinct chairs that Saturday.

“Those who unapologetically oppose the foundational Principles of this Party … should not be permitted to weaken those Principles and should not be welcomed into the Party leadership, whether elected or appointed, at any level,” read the document signed by 50 Republicans in the area, including Buntrock and Garcia. The resolution referred to members of Right to Win as “self-styled Republicans.”

Bouchard picked up her phone to call Bayegan, her hands shaking.

“Gilda,” she recalled saying. “They’re trying to strip us of our precinct chair titles. They want to kick us out of our party.”

Bouchard had intended to keep her cool at the precinct chair meeting that weekend. But when she saw Garcia making small talk by the doughnuts and coffee, she couldn’t stop herself from yelling.

“Who do you think you are?” she recalled saying. “Who do all of you think you are?”

“I’m a lifelong Republican,” Bouchard continued, well aware that people were staring. “I was in the second row of Reagan’s inauguration. How dare you try to kick me out of the party as a duly-elected precinct chair?”

Across the room at the University of Houston student center, Bayegan had cornered Buntrock, giving him an earful until he started quoting scripture.

“I want you to know my supporters and I are some of the hardest working precinct chairs in Harris County,” Bayegan recalled saying.

While Buntrock held firm, Garcia said he agreed that Bouchard and the others shouldn’t be stripped of their precinct chair titles — ultimately convincing his colleagues to coalesce around a watered-down version of the petition. The new resolution reaffirmed the party’s commitment to protect “innocent preborn children,” but stopped short of expelling Bouchard and Bayegan from party leadership.

Bouchard and Bayegan felt relieved their colleagues hadn’t gone further. If they hadn’t put up a fight, they said, they weren’t sure what would have happened.

“This is not about abortion,” Bouchard said to her colleagues gathered at the meeting, after the new version of the measure passed. “This is about freedom of speech.”

The Republican Party she’d proudly belonged to for almost five decades stood for speaking your mind, she reminded them — for diversity of ideas and dissent.

She believed that party had been “hijacked” — and she wanted it back.

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