Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) created new headaches for Republicans on Tuesday with his claim that abortion is “not a states’ rights issue,” keeping the debate in the headlines and undercutting the party’s messaging heading into November’s midterms.
Graham, speaking to “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday morning, acknowledged his bill that would ban abortions after 15 weeks goes against typical GOP thinking on the issue.
“This is not a states’ rights issue. This is a human right issue,” Graham said. “So, no matter what California or Maryland will do … I am going to advocate a national minimum standard.”
But the South Carolina Republican’s effort comes at a perilous time for the Senate GOP, which is attempting to retake control of the chamber after two years in the minority and is dealing with a barrage of ads on the issue from Democrats, who see it as a political winner.
According to an analysis by The Associated Press, Democrats have spent roughly $124 million on ads centered on abortion — more than twice what the party has invested in any other issue.
In addition, Democrats have spent 20 times what they did on the subject when they retook the House in 2018.
Senate Republicans who spoke to The Hill on Tuesday were universally supportive of leaving abortion to states, with many quick to note that the status quo created by the Supreme Court with the Dobbs decision in June is highly unlikely to change anytime soon at the national level.
“It’s not, obviously, an issue right now that — as you look at the whole array of issues — that this campaign is going to be about,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, noting that the GOP is focused on inflation, energy, immigration and crime. “But I think it’s an issue, one way or another, you’re going to respond to because Democrats are certainly going to make it an issue.
“If you have the right response and a response that kind of fits the majority of where your constituents are, you can at least turn it into an even fight,” Thune added.
The contrasts within the GOP over abortion were highlighted on Tuesday by the presence of Joe O’Dea, the party’s Senate nominee in Colorado, at the Senate Republicans’ weekly luncheon at the Capitol. O’Dea, who is looking to unseat Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), was among the most outspoken critics of Graham’s national abortion ban last week. A pro-abortion rights Republican, O’Dea supports allowing abortions up to five months.
Most Republicans, however, just want to talk about anything else with a month and a half until the elections. Graham’s announcement last week was met with particular frustration on the GOP side in part because it was released on the same day as a report showing that inflation continued going up in August.
“[The abortion issue is] as tough as any candidate wants to make it. The reality is voters who remain undecided at this point are not voting on abortion. They’re voting on the economy, crime, border,” one GOP strategist told The Hill.
“Anybody who has very strong feelings about abortion is not an undecided voter. It’s very important for Republicans to talk to the voters who are still gettable at this point, and those are the people who are struggling to buy their groceries and hoping for change.”
“Abortion is Democrats’ favorite subject and you can expect to hear little else from them,” the operative added.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Senate GOP campaign arm, dismissed the idea that Graham has caused a messaging problem for Republicans.
“I don’t think Republicans are struggling. I think Democrats are radical. … This country is not where Democrats are,” Scott told reporters. “Every state’s got a different law. I think 15 weeks is reasonable. … We have 50 different Republican senators up here. They all take different positions.”
But Democrats are smelling blood in the water on the topic. According to an NBC News poll released on Sunday, Democrats hold a 22-point advantage with voters on which party better handles the abortion issue, while Republicans hold substantial leads on the economy, crime and border security. Sixty-one percent of respondents disapproved of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, compared to only 37 percent who backed it.
“Any proposal of a ban … is just enraging to most Democrats, most independents and a whole lot of Republicans who believe folks should have the autonomy to make their own reproductive decisions,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told The Hill.
He speculated that if Graham’s bill came up for a vote, less than half of the Senate GOP would support it.
Graham's comments also are a stark departure from just over a month ago, when he said that "states should decide the issue of abortion" during a Sunday show appearance.
More than a dozen GOP senators have already signaled their opposition to his bill, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who said last week “most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level.”
Graham on Tuesday said McConnell was wrong to avoid abortion, saying he refused to stand by as some states adopted permissive abortion laws.
“Let’s talk about rampant crime. Let’s talk about out-of-control inflation. Let’s talk about failing foreign policy and withdrawal from Afghanistan,” he said. “But when you’re on the stump, people need to know who you are and where you are.”