Can Republicans Redefine Abortion's Middle Ground?

National Journal

If you think Tuesday's elections convinced Republicans that abortion is a losing issue, think again.

Sure, anti-abortion crusader Ken Cuccinelli fell short in the Virginia governor's race while the pragmatic governor of New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie, won re-election in a landslide.

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But just two days later, anti-abortion leaders rallied around Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as he introduced a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. By tapping into widespread discomfort with late abortions, the bill aims to flip the political script and frame Democrats as outside the mainstream.

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"Any Democrat who is for late-term abortions would probably be a loser in the eyes of the electorate as a whole," Graham said Thursday on Capitol Hill.

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Added Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, "It will be very mobilizing politically and mobilizing electorally."

The abortion ban already passed the House, but it remains a longshot in the Democrat-controlled Senate. While the GOP would like to see progress on the legislative front, Republicans think the measure carries plenty of messaging power, helping them as they try to redefine the middle ground and squeeze vulnerable Democratic senators seeking re-election in 2014.

And the polling shows they could be on to something.

A United Technologies/National JournalCongressional Connection Poll in July found that a plurality, 48 percent, of Americans supported a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, except in cases of rape and incest. Surveys by Quinnipiac University and ABC News/Washington Post found even higher, majority support for cutting off abortions after 20 weeks.

"This legislation reflects the overwhelming support of the majority of Americans, both men and women," said Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life.

While Republicans navigate a chasm between their conservative grassroots demanding ideological purity and more moderate political establishment seeking to expand the GOP, opposition to abortion continues to unify the party. It's worth noting that the two Republican sponsors who announced the abortion bill have taken steps to try to moderate and expand their party: Graham has sought solutions to climate change and helped pass an immigration reform bill, while Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio was among 10 Republicans who voted Thursday to ban discrimination against gay and lesbian employees.

(Graham denied he was taking up the bill to fend off challenges to his conservative credentials in 2014. "I came into the political arena pro-life, and I will leave pro-life. Whether or not I leave next June or some other period will be up to the voters in South Carolina," he said.)

The antiabortion movement's case for the restriction on abortions is that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, but the ultimate goal is more sweeping: to push the needle toward overturning Roe v. Wade. That Supreme Court decision legalized abortions until a fetus is viable outside the womb, around 24 weeks. Only 1.3 percent of abortions occur after 21 weeks, the benchmark used by the federal government.

The Senate bill makes exceptions for victims of rape and incest and when the mother's life is in danger, but not for fetal abnormalities. Severe and even fatal defects can go undetected until a routine ultrasound at 20 weeks, right when the ban would begin. Kicking off the messaging wars, NARAL Pro-Choice America began airing a national cable spot on Thursday featuring a woman named "Dana" who described her painful decision to get abortion after discovering fetal abnormalities after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

"Once you start talking about the real-life consequences on real life people, the conversation shifts, and we can definitely defeat this legislation on these terms," said Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

Democrats view the bill as self-sabotage by a party widely seen as too conservative after an unpopular government shutdown over the health care law. After hammering Cuccinelli as an extremist who would outlaw abortion and birth control, Democrat Terry McAuliffe won by nine points among women overall and a stunning 42 points among unmarried women, according to exit polls.

"One of the big takeaways from this election was that if Republicans had half a brain, they'd stop messing with Planned Parenthood," quipped McAuliffe pollster Geoff Garin at a forum Thursday organized by the abortion-rights group, which spent $2.4 million on behalf of McAuliffe.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, described the abortion issue as a "decoder ring" that signals to voters that a candidate is on the political fringe.

Perhaps. But when it comes to late-term abortions, Republicans think they've redefined what constitutes the fringy extreme.

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