Lindsey Graham thinks his GOP critics don't get the politics of abortion

WASHINGTON — The shaky video shows a woman walking down a street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and into the district office of Nicole Malliotakis, the lone Republican representative from New York City in Washington.

As the staffers look up from their desks, the woman presents a sheaf of papers she has been holding. “I saw the other day that Congresswoman Malliotakis was unable to comment on Lindsey Graham’s national abortion ban bill. She needed a copy, so I am bringing her a copy,” the woman says.

“When would she be able to give us her position on it?”

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., speaks during a news conference.
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., at a news conference at the Capitol on Sept. 14. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

In less than two months, voters in Malliotakis’s district will decide whether to back her reelection bid against Max Rose, a Democrat who formerly held the seat. Like many other Republicans across the country, Malliotakis would have almost certainly preferred to talk about crime and inflation instead of revisiting a contentious social issue on which polls show Democrats more closely aligned with voters.

That has become impossible since last Tuesday, when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced a bill that would ban abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy in almost all cases, while also allowing states to implement more restrictive bans. “Graham’s stunt is a godsend and helps us remind voters Republicans want to ban abortion everywhere,” one Democrat told Politico.

Graham’s legislation shattered the tenuous consensus Republicans had struggled to maintain since May, when the leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion in a case known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health indicated that the abortion access afforded nationwide by the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade was about to end. Defenders of the Dobbs ruling maintained that Democratic states could keep abortion fully legal while states controlled by Republicans could outlaw the procedure entirely. If it was an uneasy consensus, it was the kind of consensus the proponents of states’ rights praised as a natural consequence of federalism.

Graham essentially called his own party’s bluff. If the GOP really was the “party of life,” how could it countenance the persistence of abortion in so much of the country? How could it see Dobbs as anything but a minor victory? Because while the ruling did make abortion harder to access in states with few reproductive freedoms to begin with, the decision also prompted states like New York and California to expand abortion access, including for women coming from elsewhere.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as a new abortion bill is announced on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as a new abortion bill is announced on Capitol Hill on Sept. 13. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A person familiar with Graham’s thinking said that the senator was unwilling to put “the rights of the states over the rights of the unborn.” But however deeply held Graham’s views may be, they could jeopardize his party’s chances in November’s midterms.

“For the Democrats, they’ve been wanting all summer to say that the GOP supports an abortion ban at the federal level. Now they can,” Republican strategist Colin Reed told Yahoo News in an email. “It’s confusing to voters who have been hearing candidates say that this should be a state issue. Regardless of the number of weeks, this is either an issue that should be settled at the federal level or state by state. It’s hard to be both.”

For his part, Rose — whose campaign engineered the stunt at Malliotakis’s district office — seized on Graham’s proposal as soon as it was issued on Tuesday, eclipsing news about persistent inflation, which sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average into a free fall.

Instead, coverage of Graham’s bill dominated the news cycle as Democrats battered Republicans in swing districts with questions about where they stood on a proposal many of them only just learned about. It made no difference that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has no evident enthusiasm for Graham’s proposed ban. “I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level,” an especially glum McConnell said Tuesday. His office declined to discuss the matter further with Yahoo News.

Perhaps most confounding of all to Republicans is that after June’s decision in Dobbs, Graham appeared to be, like most Republicans, in the camp of allowing states to set their own abortion rules.

Abortion rights activists chant during a rally in front of the Supreme Court in June.
Abortion rights activists at a rally in front of the Supreme Court on June 23. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

“I’ve been consistent — I think states should decide the issue of marriage, and states should decide the issue of abortion,” Graham said in an Aug. 7 interview on CNN, a quote that swept anew across Twitter in the hours after Graham announced his proposed ban on Tuesday.

President Biden couldn’t help noting the abrupt shift. “When a lawmaker goes from touting states’ rights to touting a nationwide ban,” he tweeted in obvious reference to Graham, “it becomes clear that they’re not concerned with the Constitution.”

In the weeks after that CNN interview, Graham would seemingly come to change his mind, in a development that could prove deeply consequential for Republicans’ electoral prospects.

During a Fox News interview on Sunday about his proposal, Graham described last Tuesday’s proposal as the culmination of a decades-long effort to ban abortion during the second and third trimesters. “I’m not inconsistent,” he added while touting his past legislative efforts. “To suggest that I’m new to the game opposing late-term abortion is ridiculous.”

(A controversial term, “late-term abortion” generally refers to a pregnancy terminated after the 21st week, a rare step undertaken almost always for grave medical reasons. The overwhelming majority of abortions take place near the end of the first trimester.)

A person familiar with Graham’s thinking told Yahoo News that the senior South Carolina senator came to conclude that national legislation was necessary after Roe’s reversal — and that proposing such a ban would help Republican candidates in November, not hurt them.

Former Vice President Mike Pence at the Bremer County Republicans' Grill and Chill lunch on Aug. 20 in Waverly, Iowa.
Former Vice President Mike Pence last week reiterated his support for “all efforts to advance the cause of life in state capitals or in the nation’s capital.” (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“I think you will see people come on board,” the Graham associate said, asking for anonymity in order to speak frankly about the senator’s thinking. “Republicans who are smart on this, who are running for election this year, will pick this up. We’re bringing clarity to the situation.”

Some Republicans have been more receptive than McConnell. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., quickly embraced Graham’s plan. Former Vice President Mike Pence said he welcomed “any and all efforts to advance the cause of life in state capitals or in the nation’s capital.”

The person familiar with Graham’s thinking said Republicans have been wrong to run from Graham’s bill, instead arguing that they should embrace it as a middle ground between GOP states implementing abortion bans and Democratic states moving to expand abortion access.

As an example, he pointed to Pennsylvania, where Republican nominee to the Senate, Dr. Mehmet Oz, is in a tight contest. With neighboring West Virginia having just implemented a near-total abortion ban, Oz would have to answer questions about where he stood on reproductive rights whether Graham had introduced a national ban or not. As the Graham confidant argued, Democrats have nationalized every state-level development, telling their supporters that Republican restrictions in one state are bound to inform efforts in another.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz at a press conference on Sept. 6 in Philadelphia. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

“Fifteen weeks, actually, is a much better policy for Dr. Oz,” the Graham associate argued, pointing to polls — as Graham himself has done — that show Americans do support limits on when abortions can be performed, except if the mother’s life is in danger. But the Oz campaign has not regarded Graham’s move as having been especially helpful. His campaign said that, as a sitting senator, “he’d want to make sure that the federal government is not involved in interfering with the state’s decisions on the topic.”

Other Republican candidates were more blunt. “If Washington, D.C., were half as interested in addressing inflation, reducing the debt and securing the border as they are waging partisan fights over abortion, the American people would be better off,” said Joe O’Dea, a Senate nominee in Colorado.

“It’s an absolute disaster,” one Republican political consultant lamented to the Washington Post.

Democrats have seen Graham’s proposal as a political gift, though also as a realization of their fears. Since May, they had been hoping that fallout from the Supreme Court’s abortion decision would temper the headwinds (inflation, crime, the pandemic, Biden’s own enduring unpopularity) facing their candidates in the midterms. Last month’s thorough defeat of an anti-abortion-rights referendum in Kansas only bolstered their optimism.

“The split screen between President Biden’s singular focus on fighting for American families versus Republican officials bent on setting the nation backwards with arcane policies shows exactly who is prioritizing the American people,” White House assistant press secretary Kevin Munoz told Yahoo News.

President Biden.
In a tweet last week, President Biden said, “When a lawmaker goes from touting states’ rights to touting a nationwide ban, it becomes clear that they’re not concerned with the Constitution.” (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Republicans had been using the economy as their primary cudgel against Biden, but Graham criticized that approach on Sunday, calling once more on his party to embrace the abortion debate instead of fleeing from it. “When you’re asked about abortion, the answer can’t be, ‘I’d like to lower inflation.’ Give a logical answer,” he said on Fox News.

But so far, Democrats have been far more eager to talk about Graham’s proposal than Republicans. Much as Rose has done in his campaign against Malliotakis in New York City, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., seized on Graham’s bill to argue that her opponent, Yesli Vega — who has questioned the biological feasibility of impregnation by rape — was “deeply out of touch” with the district suburban voters.

Vega, for her part, hammered Spanberger for being “tone deaf” on inflation.

Many other Republican candidates quickly distanced themselves from a national ban, hoping that they wouldn’t be asked about it again. “The Supreme Court has made abortion a state issue, and Oregonians have already decided that abortion should be legal,” Alek Skarlatos, the Republican candidate for a House seat representing the Eugene area, told Yahoo News, adding that he would vote against Graham’s bill if elected to the House.

Despite the tumult he has caused, Graham remains unapologetic about the bill. On Wednesday, he was confronted by Fox News host Jesse Watters, who criticized Graham for “terrible timing” and “terrible tactics.” Graham remained unapologetic. And he continued to defend his plan on Sunday morning, when elected officials often try to set the upcoming week’s agenda on morning talk shows. “I’m pro-life even in an election year,” Graham said.

“I won’t sit on the sidelines,” he added.