How Abortion Politics is Helping Democrats

The debate has morphed into one over women’s health and access to contraception – and that has hurt Republicans.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) comes out from the weekly policy luncheon October 4, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Senate Republicans' attempt to bring President Obama's Jobs Bill to the Senate floor has been rejected by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

When Republicans looked at this cycle’s Senate map, North Carolina represented an attractive target: a Southern state whose voters went narrowly to Barack Obama in 2008, then changed their minds and went red again in 2012.

That made the state’s Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, a ripe target this fall—and possibly a critical one for Republicans hoping to retake the Senate. North Carolina’s GOP establishment successfully maneuvered to get its preferred nominee, state House speaker Thom Tillis.

But Tillis hasn’t been getting the job done. He’s consistently trailed Hagan in most recent polls. A new Marist survey shows why: Hagan is crushing him among women, especially single women. In a race Hagan leads 44 percent to 40 percent, women favor her over Tillis by 19 points.

One reason Tillis is struggling is because of a change in the politics of abortion and how it’s being framed this cycle. Americans remain nearly evenly split over abortion, as they have been for years (although, as Sasha Issenberg reports, Democrats are trying to change that). A recent Gallup survey found 47 percent pro-choice, and 46 percent pro-life. But in the past, the issue has tended to hurt Democrats, especially in the South. When framed in the context of late-term or “partial-birth” abortion, it’s still politically treacherous for Democrats, as these recent survey findings from Gallup show:


Partial Birth chart


But in North Carolina and elsewhere, the debate over abortion has morphed into one over women’s health and access to contraception – and that has hurt Tillis and other Republicans. The shift in framing is partially a result of anti-abortion “personhood” bills pushed by conservatives that would grant legal rights to fertilized eggs. Pro-choice groups such as Planned Parenthood have seized on these bills to point out that they could outlaw many common forms of birth control, such as the pill. The fact that Tillis has said previously that states have the right to ban contraceptives has only helped Democrats to reframe the issue on more favorable terrain. But Democrats have been aided by a succession of Republicans who've said wacky or offensive things that reinforce the preferred liberal perception -- people such as a Republican megadonor Foster Friess, who claimed that aspirin was the only suitable form of birth control: "The gals put it between their knees." 

In Colorado, the Republican Senate candidate, Rep. Cory Gardner, has run into the same problem as Tillis. A Sept. 7 Marist poll found him trailing his Democratic opponent by 29 points among single women. Gardner co-sponsors a federal personhood bill and has twice supported Colorado personhood initiatives, although he opposes the initiative on the ballot next month.

A new poll out today from Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund and Stanley Greenberg of Democracy Corps highlights Gardner’s difficulty winning over pro-choice women. Colorado women were told: “Cory Gardner led a crusade to make birth control illegal, and sponsored a bill to make any abortion illegal, even in cases of rape or incest.” Among respondents, 64 percent had “serious” or “very serious” qualms about Gardner; that number grew to 74 percent when respondents were single women.

Republicans have responded to such numbers with a novel counter-message to mitigate the damage: Tillis, Gardner, and at least two other swing-state GOP Senate candidates (Ed Gillespie in Virginia and Mike McFadden in Minnesota) have endorsed the idea that birth-control pills should be sold over the counter without a prescription. Here’s Gardner’s ad proposing the idea:

What’s notable about such ads is that they implicitly accept the Democratic framework that the issue of abortion extends to birth control—and that birth control should be made readily available, rather than restricted by the states (despite the professed claims of not a few prominent Republicans). The theory is that this will assuage enough women who are inclined to support a Republican but uncomfortable with what they perceive to be the party's retrograde views about birth control. If it works, it's something we’re sure to see more of in future races. 

But there’s a potential hitch. “We’ve polled pretty extensively about whether people are persuaded by these ads, and Gardner has a problem,” one Democratic operative in Colorado told me. “The problem is that 40 percent of women don’t believe him.”

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