Last week, Republicans voted to defund Planned Parenthood—and doomed their chances of continuing their hold on the majority in the Senate in the process. Here's why.
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For nearly a week now, anti-abortion-movement leaders have been lauding what they refer to as an “historic” Senate vote: a freeze on federal funding going to Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
It is historic—but not for the reason they think. December 3, 2015 will live long in their memory because it the day the GOP lost the majority for 2016.
The Republicans have been targeting Planned Parenthood—a major provider of reproductive and sexual health care services to poor and uninsured Americans—since the great Tea Party wave midterm election of 2010. Countless state defunding attempts, federal legislation proposals, and myriad “sting” videos from anti-abortion activists—ranging from 2011’s claims of sex-trafficking cover-ups to 2012’s allegation of sex-selection abortions, 2013’s “born alive” controversy, and now the most recent fetal-tissue-profiting fiction—have littered the Tea Party Congress for years, all pointing to Planned Parenthood as one of the movement’s biggest boogeymen, right after Sharia law and Obama stealing your guns.
It wasn’t until 1976 that the Republican party decided to add abortion as a policy plank—although they did not take a direct stance on it right away. “The first appearance of the abortion issue represents a party very much split between business-oriented moderates and religious conservatives: Abortion ‘is undoubtedly a moral and personal issue’ on which Republicans disagree, the 1976 plank says,” reported Marc Fischer at the Washington Post in 2012. It wouldn’t take too long for the party to solidify its opinion. “Four years later, the issue has been settled: The GOP seeks a constitutional amendment protecting ‘the right to life for unborn children.’ By 1992, the platform includes a call to appoint judges who oppose abortion,” wrote Fischer. Now, Republicans who favor abortion rights are nearly extinct and even those who believe abortion should be allowed in rare circumstances are looked upon with suspicion by many in the grassroots, and can find themselves facing a primary opponent.
As the GOP plays directly to a voter base drawing them ever-further to the right—fearing that if they don’t pander to their grassroots they will lose the nomination to a far more conservative challenger—general election voters are finding themselves less likely to identify with a Republican candidate as representative of their views. For House candidates, or state legislators, this doesn’t present much of a problem. After all, that Tea Party sweep in 2010 didn’t just put more conservatives than ever in office; it also gave them the power to redraw districts that would make it even more difficult to unseat them.
It is the statewide candidates who may be starting to sweat, because they are less likely to benefit. Local candidates only need to appeal to their districts. But those running for Senate seats also need to get big numbers out of the denser and often far more moderate urban areas. They need to appeal to less conservative voters: those who don’t believe that same-sex committed partnerships harm the fabric of society, or that a person impregnated through sexual assault must give birth no matter what, or even that birth control is bad because it leads to sex without commitment. Meanwhile, their base is clamoring for these candidates to agree with each of these points publicly—or they will find someone who will.
We saw during the 2012 election what happens to candidates who become overzealous when it comes to restricting access to abortion. In Missouri, Democratic senator Claire McCaskill was supposed to be one of the most endangered politicians that cycle. But she kept her seat, primarily because her challenger, Republican Todd Akin, told an interviewer that there didn’t need to be exceptions in abortion laws for sexual-assault survivors because, “from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” In Indiana, a state that moved so far to the right that the GOP has a veto-proof majority in the state legislature, Republican Richard Mourdock lost an easy, open Senate seat to Democrat Joe Donnelly for calling a pregnancy resulting from sexual assault a “gift from God.” Rather than flipping the Senate in 2012, as the GOP looked likely to do, they squandered their opportunity, and it didn’t happen until the 2014 midterms instead.
Now, the Republicans are facing their own challenge. The 2016 election offers the Democrats a prime landscape for reversing last cycle’s losses. With just five seats needed—or four if the Democrats take the White House, too—there are myriad tight races they can focus on in order to gain back control. “Senate Republicans will have to work hard to retain their recently won majority as they face a tough 2016 electoral map,” reported the Hill in late 2014. “They have 24 seats up compared to Democrats’ ten, including seven in states President Obama carried twice. Democrats won’t have any red-state senators facing reelection and could be buoyed by a favorable presidential-year electorate.” And since then the Democrats have found some strong contenders to campaign for them. In states like New Hampshire and Wisconsin, current senators are already seen as more conservative than the majority of the state’s voters, and with the presidency on the ticket, voter turnout will be big. That’s a situation that often favors more progressive candidates.
When the election really heats up, you can be sure that this vote on freezing Planned Parenthood funding—as well eliminating parts of Obamacare— will become a major issue. While the Affordable Care Act may not be terribly popular among the general population, hundreds of thousands have received better insurance coverage through the plans, and the biggest criticism is just that the administration didn’t go far enough when it comes to regulating the industry and making healthcare more affordable. As for Planned Parenthood, despite the ongoing criticism and attacks from the right wing, approximately 60 percent of voters still want the organization to continue being funded.
The anti-abortion movement is pointing to the Planned Parenthood defunding vote as a sign of changing momentum. Alliance Defending Freedom notes in a press release that in 2011 a defunding vote failed the Senate 42 to 58, a sign of how far the right has progressed that now a defunding bill actually passed the Senate instead. But even their own voting numbers show that the momentum they claim isn’t there. In fact, there more votes against the defunding measure in December than there were in August, when the Senate previously voted against funding but could not get the 60 votes needed for its passage. This is even truer once you take into consideration that Majority Leader McConnell switched his nay vote to a yea since it wasn’t needed as a procedural move this time.
American voters support Planned Parenthood, and that support will no doubt continue even as the organization is attacked both politically and physically. Thankfully, the funding will remain intact thanks to President Obama, who will veto the bill. And when November comes around, those right-wing-pandering senators may very well see just how much the mainstream voters disagree—and likely lose their majority in the process.
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