After a draft of the Dobbs decision eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion leaked in early May, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham cheered the return of the issue to state governments’ hands.
“If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, which I believe was one of the largest power grabs in the history of the Court, it means that every state will decide if abortion is legal and on what terms,” Graham tweeted. “That, in my view, is the most constitutionally sound way of dealing with this issue and the way the United States handled the issue until 1973.”
Yeah, well, May was May.
On Tuesday, Graham, flanked by leaders of anti-abortion groups (whom he kept referring to as “these ladies”), gave a press conference announcing his new legislation to impose a federal ban on abortion at 15 weeks, with certain exceptions for rape and the life of the mother. Graham said he had changed his mind because Republicans needed a counter to Democrats’ federal abortion legislation of choice, the Women’s Health Protection Act, which protects abortion rights to the point of fetal viability, an expansion relative to the pre-Dobbs status quo.
“After [Democrats] introduced the bill to define who they are,” he said, “I thought it’d be nice to introduce a bill to define who we are.”
Quite a few Republicans, though, did not think it was “nice” for Graham introduce this bill.
Republicans have been flailing over the issue of abortion since their hounding, decades-long chase ended with them catching the car with the Dobbs decision. The ruling sparked new Democratic voter enthusiasm and donations, and it recalibrated the electoral atmosphere back to a more neutral position between the two parties heading into November’s midterm elections. Democrats will put hundreds of millions of dollars behind ads this fall warning of Republican efforts to ban abortion should they retake Congress. Graham wants to address this head-on with a position he believes is close to the median voter’s, allowing Republicans to go on offense against Democrats’ more expansive position.
The key phrase Democrats see in the term “15-week abortion ban,” however, is “abortion ban.” And they’re off and running with it.
In opening remarks at a briefing on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke about the legislative proposal as proof positive that the game all along for “MAGA Republicans” has never been leaving an issue to the states, but to impose a “nationwide abortion ban.”
“The contrast has become clear,” Schumer said. “While Democrats want to protect a woman’s freedom to choose, MAGA Republicans want to take that right away with proposals to ban abortions, to punish women and doctors for carrying out abortions, and even to push bans with no exceptions for rape or incest.”
In the House, where a group of Republicans is expected to introduce a companion 15-week ban, Speaker Nancy Pelosi hit the same notes. “The nationwide abortion ban proposal put forth today is the latest, clearest signal of extreme MAGA Republicans’ intent to criminalize women’s health freedom in all 50 states and arrest doctors for providing basic care,” she said in a statement.
It did not take long for the legislation to reach the campaign trail. Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, in a tight reelection race against Republican Adam Laxalt, issued a press release calling Laxalt “an Automatic Vote for National Abortion Ban.”
Signs of Republican squirming were evident. “I believe the issue should be decided at the state level, but I WOULD support this policy,” Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker—in a close race to oust Sen. Raphael Warnock—said, mystifyingly. In Colorado, where Republican Joe O’Dea hopes to upset Sen. Michael Bennet, the Republican distanced himself from the former, and potentially future, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “A Republican ban is as reckless and tone deaf as is Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer’s hostility to considering any compromise on late term abortion, parental notification or conscience protections for religious hospitals,” O’Dea said.
Even many of Graham’s fellow Senate Republicans not facing tough election fights—but eager to get back in the majority—rolled their eyes. “I’m not sure what he’s thinking here,” West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told Politico. “But I don’t think there will be a rallying around that concept.” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said it was an “individual senator’s decision” rather than a Senate Republican Conference position. Florida Sen. Rick Scott, chair of the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, said he’d “look at it.”
At the Senate Republicans’ weekly conference, speaker after speaker spoke about the latest report of still-bad inflation, with some stray thoughts on crime and the Southern border sprinkled in here and there. When the topic came to Graham’s abortion ban—in the very first reporter question—Minority Leader Mitch McConnell let it be known, in McConnell-ese, that he wanted nothing to do with this, had no interest in talking about it, and thought it was a bad idea.
“I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level,” McConnell said. He noted, too, that any questions about Graham’s bill should be referred to Graham.
The simplest way to define a political blunder is as a move that divides your side while uniting the other. Republicans responsible for winning majorities this cycle do have a responsibility to keep their base engaged, yes. But they also don’t want to give credence to Democrats’ single most potent message this fall, and one that many of them cry is overstated: that Republicans want to pass a federal law banning abortion. Graham released a bill to do just that, and with a cutoff that was considered the extreme, boundary-pushing position when Mississippi enacted it a few years ago.
It’s odd to see Graham playing this role. Say what you will about his transformation under Donald Trump, but he’s rarely been the guy to ignore the percentage play and instead leap for ideological glory just ahead of an election. You would expect Graham to be the guy telling the nearest TV camera that, say, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz should sit on his abortion-ban bill until the election is over.
But putting midterm politics aside and looking ahead to the medium term, Graham is merely cutting to the chase. “We’re leaving abortion to the states” is not a tenable position for Republicans in Congress. The Republican base believes abortion is murder, and they will insist House and Senate Republicans vote on legislation to ban it if they retake control of Congress. The 2024 Republican presidential primary, meanwhile, could quickly become a race to the bottom on the issue. A 15-week national ban? RINO. Let’s make it six. A six-week ban? RINO! Let’s make it zero. Exceptions? R-I-N-O.
Graham pledged at his press conference that if Republicans “take back the House and the Senate, I can assure you we’ll have a vote on our bill.” Those irritated with Graham had wanted to keep this information suppressed for a few more months.