Pro-Choice Republicans Stake Claim to Their Party


"I love this fight!" said MSNBC host Chris Matthews on Hardball on January 10, after hosting a segment in which Club for Growth president Matthew Toomey and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins discussed, unenthusiastically at best, the slate of Republican presidential candidates. Though neither guest issued a frank endorsement, at the conclusion of the show -- after banter about why former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee were both inappropriate candidates for the Republican Party, for, of course, opposite reasons, Matthews wrapped it up: "I love the fact that you have X'd out Rudy and X'd out Huckabee, leaving us with McCain and Romney." Toomey quickly corrected: "I don't X out Giuliani." To that, Perkins immediately retorted, "Then I take back Huckabee."

The strain between the primary commitment to fiscal conservatism and limited government in the Republican Party and the political expediency of a socially conservative voting bloc willing to show up on election day may not be a new one, but the fissures are showing publicly in this presidential election as never before. When the identical Perkins-Toomey match-up occurred on Hardball in June 2006, Tony Perkins said, "Most of the social conservatives are both fiscally and socially conservative. So, they are just as concerned about the fiscal policies as well." It was easy to say so back then. Now that Republican candidates present clear primary affiliations -- social conservatism (Huckabee), or strong defense and low taxes (Giuliani), for instance -- merely waving encouragingly at the legs of the Republican Party platform for which candidates feel little ardor themselves will not be enough. From the early embrace of Huckabee to the resurgence of John McCain, this year's campaign offers a menu of ever-resorting options embodying the range of Republican political commitments, and it's unclear which will prevail. Writing in the New York Times about the lack of a clear "G.O.P. anchor," Adam Nagourney said, "This is a party that is adrift, deeply divided and unsure of how to counter an energized Democratic Party."

For Kellie Ferguson, president of the Republican Majority for Choice (RMC), a group that organizes pro-choice Republicans to advocate for a wide spectrum of reproductive health issues, this is progress. "You're not automatically going to win the Republican nomination by saying you're the pro-life candidate anymore," says Ferguson. "I think the old strategy of, okay, it doesn't really matter where I personally stand but I say I'm pro-life and will do everything I can to overturn [Roe] and I automatically get that twenty percent of the party -- that's not happening."

What Ferguson disparages most is the claiming and renouncing of the pro-life mantle simply for political gain. In that same article on the missing G.O.P. anchor, Nagourney claimed that it was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney who has tried most "assiduously … to stitch the ideological fabric of his party back together. He shifted positions on some social issues -- including abortion rights, stem cell research and gay rights -- with an eye to winning the allegiance of social conservatives." And this is what infuriates the Republican Majority for Choice. Rather than seeing Romney's flip-flopping as an indication of some sympathy, however disposable, to a woman's right to choose, RMC sees Romney as the worst offender of the bunch on choice issues.

The Associated Press reports that in 2002, when Romney was running for governor of Massachusetts, he filled out a survey issued by the Republican Majority for Choice, in which he checked off "yes" to the question "Do you support a woman's constitutional right to a safe and legal abortion without government interference, as defined by Roe v. Wade?", and also indicated his support for Medicaid funding for abortions for poor women and the removal of "anti-choice language form the National Republican platform." But given the inconsistent track record Romney has racked up since then, RMC feels, as Jennifer Stockman, the group's national co-chair, puts it, "betrayed."

So Republican Majority for Choice spent $100,000 to air a well-publicized 30-second television spot attacking Romney's record on choice in Iowa and New Hampshire and ran full-page ads opposing Romney in the Des Moines Register, the Concord Monitor, and the New Hampshire Union-Leader. Describing the motivation for the ads, Ferguson says, "We felt an obligation to let voting population know that you can't use important issues like this as a political football and get away with it anymore. His own strategy has proven to be his Achilles heel. The one thing that the polls show again and again is that people don't trust him. And I think our ad was a catalyst for that." In response to the ad, Romney spokesman Kevin Madden claimed that the group is "trying to destroy the Republican Party's position on the issue of protecting life."

The danger, of course, for RMC is that the ad cuts two ways: While it may turn committed pro-choice Republican voters off Romney, it may inflame committed anti-choice voters for the same reason. When the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus went to Iowa in December, she reported: "Huckabee is getting help delivering that message from some surprising bedfellows: A new ad by the Republican Majority for Choice details Romney's shifting positions on abortion -- and urges him to flip back, but it may have the effect of driving more voters to the staunchly anti-abortion Huckabee." But when I asked Ferguson whether the ad may have motivated anti-choice voters to see Romney as insufficiently anti-choice and thus vote for a more consistently anti-choice candidate, she responded that it's the lack of trustworthiness, not necessarily, the record, that's an anti-choice candidate's biggest problem.

"The main purpose of the ad was to bring to light the truth and let people know [Romney's record]," Ferguson said. "We can respect that there are candidates who have a differing position on this issue than we do. What we ask for is an open dialogue and a seat at the table to discuss ways with candidates who disagree with us, on Roe v. Wade for instance, to discuss things we do agree on." When candidates stop using choice ideologically and demonstrate an actual interest in sexual and reproductive health issues, Ferguson believes there is fertile ground for collaboration. "For genuine candidates and genuine elected officials who disagree with us on that, there are so many issue that we do agree on within the reproductive rights world -- we should be focusing on sex education, we should be focusing on abstinence plus, we should be focusing on emergency contraception for rape victims -- and so we feel like someone who has a heartfelt position and isn't willing to throw this issue around back and forth for political gain, we at least would have an open dialogue," she says.

In a recent interview with Amanda Marcotte on RealityCast, Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, sounded a similar theme. "I think that in this country right now, people are really tired of the divisiveness of this debate," she said. "We have to turn down the volume and find common ground on issues like preventing unintended pregnancy. So when we talk about access to birth control, the price of birth control on campuses, emergency contraception over the counter, young people being taught appropriate sex ed - all of that is being pro-choice and it's not just about being supporters of access to abortion for women in this country."

In order to work with candidates who can be allies on certain reproductive health issues, Ferguson is intent on defining and marginalizing what she calls the "super-moralist" segment of the Republican Party, and she describes a wide-scale "waking up" happening on the part of Republicans who do not want to see abortion criminalized in America.

"Frankly I think that we got this way because base got so strong because it was an easy voting bloc to go after," Ferguson says. In polls done by RMC in 1997, only 19-23 percent of Republicans surveyed were categorized as moralists; by 2007, that had increased to a solid 24 percent. In 2007, while 72 percent of those identified as moralists disagreed with the statement "The Republican Party has spent too much time focusing on moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage and should instead be focusing on economic issues such as taxes and government spending," 53 percent of Republican surveyed overall agreed. Overall, 60 percent of Republicans surveyed would be likely to vote for a candidate with whom he or she disagreed on abortion, so long as the candidate well-represented the voter's other views. Of all the voter categories in the survey, only moralists had a majority believing that abortion should be illegal under any circumstances. So now the party's over. "I think moderate Republicans are realizing that the faction of the party that is anti-choice -- we've said, well, they're going to help us get our candidates elected, but they're not going to control our issues and the platform, we see that they've increasingly gained control of the agenda, and the agenda's so far gone from what it should be and the core Republican values," she concludes.

By Ferguson's reckoning, polls that show that a majority of Republicans nationwide are pro-life do not accurately reflect the political values and beliefs of those surveyed: Someone who is personally pro-life can still believe that the government should not be involved in making that decision for other women. Her logic may explain why, in a poll conducted over the summer to assess attitudes within the Republican Party on a range of social and political issues, 72 percent of Republicans surveyed believed that abortion should be a decision made by "a woman, her family, and her doctor."

For pro-choice Republicans, the costs to speaking out against the party platform can be steep. Republican Majority for Choice has attracted the poison pen of conservative pundit Ann Coulter, who derided the group as "pro-abortion" and "evil," presumably because they ran negative ads against Romney, Coulter's chosen candidate.

The WISH List, another pro-choice Republican organization, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. On its website, the WISH List credits itself with quadrupling the number of pro-choice Republican women in the Senate and increasing by half the number of pro-choice Republican women in the House. But if pro-choice Republicans really want to see a sea change in the focus of their party, maybe it's time for them to dump their glasses of bubbly on the lawn and stage a dramatic exit -- not necessarily leaving the Party, but the party. After all, Republican voters who oppose legal abortion, as well as the methods proven to reduce the abortion rate, certainly aren't above creating a scene.

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