WASHINGTON — As part of his re-election pitch, Donald Trump has repeatedly touted his record of appointing conservative judges and, by extension, his role in helping overturn Roe v. Wade.
But the GOP front-runner is facing mounting pressure from his right flank, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tries to make the case that he’d pick even more conservative justices. Asked last week by radio host Hugh Hewitt if he would pledge to Republican primary voters that his judges would be like the three conservatives that Trump nominated to the Supreme Court, DeSantis responded: “Well, actually, I would say we’ll do better than that.”
“I respect the three appointees [Trump] did,” the Florida governor said. “But none of those three are at the same level of Justice [Clarence] Thomas and Justice [Samuel] Alito,” calling them “the gold standard” of conservative values on the courts and the kinds of justices he’d seek to place on the high court, if elected.
DeSantis again talked about his push on judges Friday here at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference.
“Florida now has the most conservative Supreme Court anywhere in these United States,” he said. “And we got more work to do. As President, I will nominate and appoint justices to the Supreme Court in the mold of justices Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito.”
Trump’s three nominees — Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — delivered a 6-3 conservative majority at the Supreme Court that has enabled a number of conservative legal victories, including overturning Roe v. Wade — which protected a constitutional right to abortion — as well as expanding gun rights.
But at times, some of those justices have helped the liberal bloc with some wins.
Gorsuch, widely regarded as a solid conservative, has nevertheless at times spoken up about injustices toward Native Americans and detainees at Guantanamo Bay in a way that seems to echo “woke” historians.
Kavanaugh recently helped Democrats with a surprise win in reaffirming the Voting Rights Act, joining with the liberal justices and Chief Justice John Roberts in striking down Republican-drawn congressional districts in Alabama that civil rights activists say discriminated against Black voters.
"Ron DeSantis must have either lost his damn mind or been convinced by his swampy consultants to attack President Trump’s justices that overturned Roe v Wade," Trump spokesman Steve Cheung said. "This is what happens when a flailing candidate is dropping like a rock in the polls and is desperate to stay relevant."
DeSantis’ message on choosing “better” judges is dividing some of the Christian conservatives here at this year’s Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, which is a rite of passage for GOP hopefuls.
Conference attendee Mark Hubbard, a Baptist Christian who lives in Marietta, Georgia, said DeSantis was among the candidates he was considering voting for next year, but he had not made up his mind. While he said DeSantis had not “resonated fully” with him yet, Hubbard thought the Florida governor would pick more conservative Supreme Court justices than Trump.
“I think he’s done a great job for the state of Florida,” Hubbard said.
Still, other religious voters are skeptical that anyone can top Trump when it comes to picking sufficiently conservative judges.
“I think the record is clear for a pastor such as myself that President Trump could not have done a better job,” said Marc Little, the executive director of CURE America Action, a group that advocates for conservative principles "based on Christianity, Capitalism, and the Constitution." "With President Trump, I liked where the ball landed. I didn’t necessarily like the way he swung the club."
Timothy Head, the executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the candidates are now trying to differentiate themselves.
“It’s the nature of primaries that there are shades of gray,” he said. “To find a slightly lighter and slightly darker shade of that gray.”
Michael Demastus — an influential pastor at the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ — sees it as a two-man race, for a while at least, between Trump and DeSantis.
“Without the evangelical vote, it doesn’t happen, period,” Demastus said in an earlier interview in Iowa. “The evangelical vote is the path.”
Pointing to DeSantis’ ongoing feud with Disney — after the entertainment giant opposed Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, which critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law — Demastus said the Florida governor “is framing the issue for evangelicals the right way. We don’t see this as a battle between DeSantis and Disney. It’s a battle for children. It’s a battle for protecting children from an ideology.”
And though Trump can boast (and has) that the Supreme Court justices he nominated are responsible for the fall of Roe, some on the right were rankled by the former president calling the six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed in Florida “too harsh.” Politically, Trump may have been reading the polls — which show the GOP as out of step with the majority of Americans on the issue of abortion access — and some Republican strategists admit the issue could be a losing one in the general election. But with the primary up first, it’s a comment DeSantis himself seized on, too.
Asked recently by the Christian Broadcasting Network whether he thought Trump had gone “soft” on abortion, DeSantis responded: “I think so.”
“Donald Trump has — as of late — been a little confusing for some evangelical voters, myself included,” said Demastus, who has yet to endorse this cycle. “He was the most pro-life president in the history of America. Why doesn’t he wear the cape?”