Republicans are distancing themselves from Sen. Lindsey Graham’s new proposal to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, as Democrats hold up the bill as proof the GOP seeks to restrict abortion nationwide if it wins control of Congress in the November midterm elections.
In Graham’s proposal, Democrats see another chance to leverage an issue that has appeared to boost their chances of holding at least one chamber of Congress.
The South Carolina Republican introduced the legislation less than three months after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, overturning decades-old federal abortion protections — and positioning abortion as a top issue in the midterms.
Graham’s announcement on Tuesday drove a fresh wave of headlines about abortion, as Democrats lined up to condemn the bill that would sharply narrow access to the procedure in blue states. It siphoned attention away from another major headline of the day, a worse-than-expected inflation report that sent stocks plunging and was seen as a blow to the Biden administration’s claims of a recovering economy.
Graham’s approach also contradicted a strategy taken by some Republicans, including those in high-profile races, after the high court’s abortion ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Many in the GOP have argued states, rather than the federal government, should set abortion law.
In Pennsylvania, one of a handful of battleground states that will determine which party wins the Senate, the new bill spurred Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz to say that he would keep the federal government from interfering with state-level abortion rules if elected. But Herschel Walker, the Republican vying for incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock’s Georgia seat in another critical race, said he would back Graham’s legislation.
In both states, the Democratic candidates used the issue to bash their GOP rivals.
“Oz needs to tell us — yes or no, would you support this bill?” Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the state’s Democratic Senate nominee, said in a statement Thursday morning. “I’ll go first: I’m a HELL NO.”
Graham’s move baffled even some Republican political experts. Some media outlets panned it as an unforced error at a pivotal moment when the fight over the House and Senate appears to have tightened.
“I don’t know why he did it,” said Georgia-based GOP strategist Jay Williams. He suggested that Republicans’ midterm pitch should focus mostly on the economy, where President Joe Biden has scored low approval marks.
“If you’re winning the game, you don’t switch strategies,” Williams said. “If we’re talking about anything else, I think it’s a bad idea.”
Seth Weathers, a former Trump campaign aide in Georgia and political strategist, said he is “a little fearful that the way it’s going to be sold to the public could hurt Republicans in the midterms.”
Julianne Thompson, a political strategist and self-described pro-life Republican, said the economy “is the issue that is winning for Republicans right now and the issue they need to be focused on.”
National GOP groups have hardly leapt to back Graham this week.
Facebook and Twitter pages for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican National Committee have not mentioned or promoted Graham’s bill since it was announced. None of those groups’ Facebook pages have launched ads related to the bill, according to the Meta Ad Library.
A Twitter account managed by the RNC tweeted about abortion without mentioning Graham on Wednesday, when it accused a pair of Democrats, Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, of refusing to recognize any limits to the procedure. The NRSC on Wednesday did the same, tweeting a criticism of the abortion stance of Democratic Rep. Val Demings, who is challenging GOP Sen. Marco Rubio for his seat in Florida.
Graham attempted to frame his legislation as a response to Democrat-led proposals to codify abortion protections at the federal level. One such bill, put forward in May in reaction to a draft of the court’s ruling on Roe, failed in the Senate.
“They chose a bill that would not put us in the mainstream of the world but put us in a group of seven nations that allow abortion on demand pretty much up to the point of birth,” Graham said at a press conference Tuesday.
Graham said his bill, which bans the procedure at 15 weeks’ gestation and includes exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother, would set America’s abortion policy at a level that is “fairly consistent with the rest of the world.”
“And that should be where America’s at,” the senator said.
The plan would leave in place stricter state abortion laws. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., has put forward a companion bill for the House.
While the title of Graham’s bill suggests it would bar only “late-term” abortions, it would restrict the procedure nationwide after less than four months of pregnancy, a threshold that falls within the second trimester. Abortions are typically considered “late term” at 21 weeks of pregnancy or later, according to the health-policy nonprofit KFF. But the organization notes that phrase is not an official medical term, and that abortions at that stage are rarely sought and difficult to obtain.
Graham’s bill has virtually no chance of passing the current Congress, where Democrats hold slim majorities in the House and Senate. Republicans hope to take over both chambers in the midterms, when the incumbent president’s party has historically underperformed.
But some forecasters are now favoring Democrats to keep control of the Senate, a shift that has been attributed in part to the high court’s ruling in Dobbs. Republicans are favored to take the House, though the odds have moved slightly toward Democrats after that ruling came out in late June.
Public opinion of the high court sunk after Dobbs, which overturned Roe in a 5-4 vote by a majority that includes three justices nominated by former President Donald Trump. Abortion rights, meanwhile, have spiked as a top issue among voters.
A Fox News poll conducted in September and released Wednesday found 57% of voters support legal abortion in all or most cases, a 13-point jump from May.
The same survey showed that voters’ opposition to the Dobbs decision has only grown in the months since it came out, as respondent disapproval outweighed approval by nearly a 2 to 1 margin. And the survey found that among voters who see abortion as a chief concern, 56% would back the Democrat in their House district, versus 27% who would choose the Republican.
Some Republicans, including GOP candidates in pivotal Senate races, have backed Graham’s new proposal.
“I have always been pro-life,” Rubio said when asked why he signed on to the bill. He pressed reporters to ask Democrats what abortion restrictions they would support, if any.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said he backed the bill. He told CNN that it changes the narrative that Republicans support a total abortion ban “and gives candidates a place to be for something that reflects their views and doesn’t fit the Democrats’ narrative.”
Pennsylvania-based Republican political strategist Christopher Nicholas echoed that view, telling CNBC that Graham’s bill marked “the first strategic response from our side on this issue since the Dobbs decision.”
“It could force the press to get the [Democrats] to acknowledge that the only accepted abortion position on their side is abortion on demand,” Nicholas said.
But other top Republicans either refused to back Graham’s bill or expressed a belief that individual states should set their own abortion laws.
“I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this will be dealt with at the state level,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who would set the GOP’s abortion agenda if the party wins Senate control in November, told reporters Tuesday when asked about Graham’s bill.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the NRSC, did not express support for the bill during an interview Wednesday on Fox News.
“Well, if you go around the country, what people are focused on is the economy, their kids’ education, public safety,” Scott said when asked about the legislation. “With regard to abortion, Democrats are clearly focused on abortion,” he added.
Asked for comment on the reactions to the bill, Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop noted that Rubio “has come on board.”
Republicans have long opposed abortion, and numerous red states imposed blanket bans on the procedure immediately after Roe’s reversal. But as polls show the majority of Americans disapprove of the court’s ruling — and as women reportedly outpace men in voter registrations in key states — many in the GOP have struggled to counter Democrats, who have made abortion a major piece of their message.
“Although abortion is not going to decide the midterms, it has been an issue that Democrats have been fundraising on and using to get more women registered to vote,” said Thompson, the Republican strategist.
“I am very cognizant of the fact that my party needs better messaging on this issue,” along with more women leaders speaking about abortion and related issues, she said.
The RNC earlier this week advised campaigns to seek “common ground” on exceptions to abortion bans, and to press Democrats on their own views, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. The national party also encouraged candidates to focus on topics such as crime and the economy, the Post reported.
“The polls must be teaching them something, because I’m not hearing about abortion today,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said on the House floor Wednesday. “What is their position now? America wants to know.”
Some Republican candidates who previously touted hardline positions on abortion during GOP primaries have softened or muted their views as they compete in general elections. As Graham’s bill brought a renewed focus to the issue, Democrats pounced.
“Herschel Walker thinks it’s a problem our country doesn’t have a national abortion ban,” Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., said of his Republican rival in a tweet Tuesday, before posting a video of Walker saying as much.
In Pennsylvania, Fetterman scheduled a press conference with OB/GYNs at Philadelphia city hall to criticize the proposed 15-week abortion ban. He pushed his opponent, Oz, to answer questions about his stance on the bill.
Oz, the Trump-backed celebrity doctor who is trailing Fetterman in the polls, “is pro-life with three exceptions: life of the mother, rape and incest,” his spokeswoman Brittany Yanick said in a statement.
“And as a senator, he’d want to make sure that the federal government is not involved in interfering with the state’s decisions on the topic,” she said.