If Republicans keep ignoring abortion, they'll lose in the midterm elections
The health-care debate has come down to a fight over abortion. And the face of that fight is Bart Stupak, a nine-term congressman from Michigan who supports the reform effort but has said he won't vote for a bill without a strong prohibition on federal funding for abortions -- even if it means no reform at all. "They know I won't fold," Stupak told me late Thursday.
One other notable thing about Stupak's stand: He's a Democrat.
Republicans oppose President Obama's health-care reform for many reasons: It will cost too much, it's "socialist," it's big government at its worst. But they are letting Stupak and his fellow antiabortion Democrats lead on that issue. And the more the GOP ignores abortion and focuses on economic populism -- taking up the "tea party" cause -- the more the Republicans risk leaving crucial votes behind in November.
The year-long debate over health-care reform has taught both parties about the power of abortion rights to drive the argument. Democratic leaders underestimate this issue at great cost, because antiabortion Democrats are a growing breed. But antiabortion Republican voters haven't gone anywhere. So here's a warning for congressional Republicans: Bury our issues at your own risk.
President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress promised to keep abortion funding out of their health-care proposals. In a speech to a joint session of Congress last September, the president pledged that "under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place."
If that were true, the health-care overhaul would most likely be law today. But it isn't, and it has led to massive opposition from the grass-roots antiabortion movement and self-labeled pro-life members in Congress. Since August, the number of people who have contacted an officeholder through my organization, the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that supports pro-life women in politics, has doubled to 250,000. Yet, in the seven hours of discussion at Obama's bipartisan health-care summit late last month, a good 30 seconds was devoted to abortion. This approach ignores the powerful engine the antiabortion movement can be for the party that provides leadership.
Republicans too often treat the abortion issue like an eccentric aunt at Thanksgiving dinner -- if they ignore it, maybe it will go away. And lately, Republican heads have been turned by a new, flashy guest at the table -- the tea party movement, which has been attracting big crowds, high-profile speakers and money with its message of lower taxes and less government spending. Some party leaders sound as if they are counting on this new energy to deliver victory in November all by itself.
That's a risky bet. There is no doubt that the tea party movement has invigorated GOP leaders and given them hope of retaking Congress after the crushing defeat of 2008. However, the movement hasn't been tested nationally at the ballot box; its power to elect or defeat candidates is still largely theoretical. But year in and year out, pro-life voters consistently help carry Republican candidates into office.
For those candidates who do embrace antiabortion issues in 2010, there is a newly energized and highly motivated group of activists willing and able to propel them to victory. The president and the Democratic leadership -- without meaning to, of course -- have spurred a springtime of antiabortion activism. Last June, Obama spoke of "common ground" on the issue at his Notre Dame commencement address. But he continues to press for the least popular of all grounds: public funds for abortion coverage. In one of his first acts as president, on Jan. 23, 2009, he repealed by executive order the Mexico City Policy, put in place by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, which prohibits U.S. funding for abortions in foreign nations. According to a USA Today/Gallup poll, it was the most unpopular move the president made in his early months in office.
The GOP have largely ignored this opportunity. Party leaders are focused instead on economic issues, cap-and-trade climate legislation, immigration and foreign policy. But while Republican leaders have remained relatively silent, the voters have not. The Susan B. Anthony List polled this month in 11 districts represented by Democrats who oppose federal funding for abortion. We found that at least two-thirds of the voters in each district are against using tax dollars to pay for abortions; a majority of voters said they were more likely to reject a candidate who "votes for health-care legislation that includes federal government funding of abortion."
These results track with those in a national poll, released by Quinnipiac University in December, which found that 72 percent of Americans oppose funding abortion through a federally funded health plan. At the Susan B. Anthony List we've seen letters, e-mails, faxes and phone calls to Congress from activists with our group jump five-fold -- to 1.5 million in just one year.
This grass-roots response shows the real electoral risk of staying mute. Pro-life improves the GOP brand -- and is often the strongest part of the brand. It goes far beyond party, too. A Gallup poll last May showed that the majority of the nation, crossing all demographics, labels itself "pro-life." Fifty-one percent of Americans prefer the "pro-life" label over "pro-choice." Meanwhile, only 27 percent of voters identify as Republican, according to a February Washington Post-ABC News poll. Pro-lifers provide the swing votes that are so crucial to winning elections.
Republican candidates usually can count on the antiabortion vote. In 2008, more than three-quarters of voters who said abortion was a top issue voted for GOP congressional candidates. But they won't be taken for granted. We know from past experience that lukewarm candidates who refuse to talk about abortion won't get voters to the polls.
We also know that the reinvigorated pro-life base is focused on the midterm elections. Requests for our lists of endorsed candidates come in weekly from every level of donor, even though the primary season has barely begun. Voters and donors sense opportunity and are looking for leaders. A perfect example is Jane Norton, running in the GOP Senate primary in Colorado to oppose Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. A strongly antiabortion woman who as Colorado's top health official took on and defunded Planned Parenthood, Norton promises vocal leadership on the issue if she is elected.
Because of the movement's growth in numbers and power, antiabortion voters are likely to provide a much more sizable winning margin on Election Day than they have in previous years. But they can do this only if they know where candidates -- and party leaders -- stand.
Now is the time to tell them. Voters in Stupak's district know his position against federal funding of abortion. He even has a dark-horse primary opponent running on the issue. His electoral reward for standing strong on principle will be a national pro-life movement there to help him.
The next few months of candidate recruitment and messaging will decide whether 2010 is a 1994 moment. The Republican Party seems to have a political advantage today; the February Washington Post-ABC News poll showed striking gains for the GOP in earning the public's trust over the past year. But it's not yet clear whether that advantage can translate into electoral success in November. The social-conservative, antiabortion engine combined with an electrified smaller-government, low-tax movement has the momentum. It's Republicans' chance to grab it.
They just need to remind people that theirs is still the pro-life party. If, in fact, it is.
Marjorie Dannenfelser is the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a national organization dedicated to advancing and representing pro-life women in politics. She will be online to chat with readers on Monday, March 15, at 10 a.m. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.