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GOP senators who backed national abortion ban now want to leave it to the states

Republican senators who voted to ban abortion nationwide have changed their tune as their positions on the issue threaten their midterm election prospects.

By Emily Singer - September 19, 2022
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Mitch McConnell
Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader, listens to speakers during the weekly Senate Republican Leadership press conference, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, September 13, 2022.

A number of Republican senators who just two years ago voted to ban abortion nationwide are now trying to distance themselves from that position as polling shows their anti-abortion stance could sink their chances in the November midterm election.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and GOP Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, John Thune of South Dakota, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin all voted for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act when it was introduced in the Senate in 2020 and 2018. That bill, introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), made it a crime to perform an abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation.

But after Graham on Sept. 13 introduced S.4840, listed officially as “A bill to amend title 18, United States Code, to protect pain-capable unborn children, and for other purposes,” which would criminalize abortion after 15 weeks’ gestation, those same Republicans now say regulation of abortion should be left to the states.

Asked whether Republicans would put the bill to a vote if they regained a majority in the Senate, McConnell said, “I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level.”

But in 2018, when McConnell was Senate majority leader, he put a nationwide 20-week abortion ban on the floor for a vote.

“There is no reason why this should be a partisan issue,” McConnell said on the Senate floor on Jan. 29, 2018. “I hope that my Democratic colleagues will not obstruct the Senate from taking up this bill.”

Cornyn has also reversed his position on a nationwide abortion ban.

According to Politico, Cornyn said of Graham’s bill: “There’s obviously a split of opinion in terms of whether abortion law should be decided by the states … and those who want to set some sort of minimum standard. I would keep an open mind on this but my preference would be for those decisions to be made on a state-by-state basis.”

But in January 2018, Cornyn supported Graham’s 20-week ban and lamented the fact that it didn’t pass, tweeting: “Who among us thinks it’s appropriate to have an elective abortion after five months when a child can feel pain? I’m disappointed in my colleagues who voted to block the pain-capable legislation today.”

Polling has shown that public opinion about abortion is dramatically different from that of Republican lawmakers since the Supreme Court ruling in June in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that affirmed the right nationwide to abortion before fetal viability, which takes place around 24 weeks’ gestation.

Surveys show that large majorities of voters want abortion to remain legal in all or most cases, and that they do not support bans.

A poll of registered voters conducted by the Wall Street Journal in late August found that 60% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a 5-point jump since March.

Graham introduced his bill after some Republican operatives had been lamenting that the party hadn’t presented a unified message about their position on abortion after the Dobbs decision.

“Not having pro-life battleground candidates stake out a clear, unified position on something like a 15-week ban on the day that Dobbs was announced seems like a strategic blunder,” GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini tweeted on Sept. 8.

However, the ban contained in Graham’s bill is also overwhelmingly unpopular: The Wall Street Journal poll found 57% of voters oppose a ban on abortion at 15 weeks.

Prior to Roe‘s reversal, Republicans had a 2-point average lead on the generic congressional ballot, a measure of which party voters want to see gain control in Congress. Now that lead has evaporated, with Democrats now holding a 1.4-point average lead over Republicans, according to FiveThirtyEight’s tracker.

Before the Roe reversal, Republicans were the favorite to capture control in the Senate. However, FiveThirtyEight now gives Democrats a 71%  chance at keeping the Senate majority.

Democrats, for their part, have been hammering Republicans on the abortion issue, with ad after ad calling the GOP’s push to ban the procedure extreme and dangerous.

“Republicans got what they wanted (overturning Roe v. Wade and passing bans in a variety of states) and assumed that voters would be fine with it. They’re not, and now Republicans are scrambling to try to stick with their agenda and still appeal to voters,” Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications for the pro-abortion rights PAC EMILY’s List, tweeted on Sept. 13. “Good luck with that…”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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