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Which party can win on abortion?

Lindsey Graham courts the right with an unconstitutional abortion ban, while Democrats say the issue was a boost for them in Virginia.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Lindsey Graham courts the right with an unconstitutional abortion ban, while Democrats say the issue was a boost for them in Virginia.

There are few solid political truths left for today’s Republicans, but this morning, Lindsey Graham was pretty sure he’d found one inside a woman’s uterus.

“Did I wake up one day because I got a primary and say, ‘Hey, let’s be pro-life?’ No,” said Graham at a press conference this morning to announce his introduction of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Graham grinned. “Will it wipe away all the criticism? No.”

He was talking, of course, of unrelated blowback from the right, particularly in his home state of South Carolina, where he faces three tea party challengers. That looming race explains a lot about Graham taking the lead on the bill, which would ban abortion after 20 weeks, before viability and in intentional defiance of Supreme Court precedent.

All gestures were, for the time being, purely symbolic. Senate Democrats took to the floor at the same time to declare the bill dead on arrival, and President Obama said he would veto the bill back when it passed the House. 

But, one reporter asked, hadn’t the trouncing of Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race just shown that abortion is a losing issue for Republicans? 

“Did anyone ask Terry McAuliffe, do you support a ban on late term abortions?" demanded Graham. He was channeling anger on the right that the media had allowed Cuccinelli and others before him to be defined as extreme on reproductive rights without similarly pushing the Democrat in the race. (McAuliffe supports the status quo, which is technically hard to peg as extreme.)  

“Any Democrat who is for late-term abortions,” concluded Graham, “would probably be a loser in the electorate.”

Just an hour earlier, at a panel sponsored by Planned Parenthood with McAuliffe’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, and pollster Geoff Garin, the tune was different. (Disclosure: I was the panel moderator.) The lesson, said Garin, was that Democrats won where they didn't apologize for their support of women making their own reproductive decisions.

Indeed, 20% of Virginia voters told exit pollsters this week that abortion motivated them most--and 59% of those voters went for McAuliffe. So much for the narrative that all the energy on this issue is on the right, or that Democrats needed to soft-pedal the issue to win. 

The proof was in the numbers: Republican Bob McDonnell had won women overall in 2009 by eight points in a race in which reproductive rights barely registered. (The exit polls didn't even ask about it). What followed were years of legislation on forced transvaginal ultrasounds and laws intended to shut down abortion clinics--of which Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was an enthusiastic steward. 

McAuliffe's campaign made it sure that Virginians heard incessantly about that. Messaging on access to birth control and abortion even made its way into ads put out by climate change and gun safety groups. In the end, McAuliffe won women overall by an 8-10 point margin, losing white women by a narrower margin than President Obama had--and won the race. 

Graham, meanwhile, is working from a playbook written in the 1990s, when the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban actually did net a Republican win, scaring some Democrats into voting for it. (It was vetoed by Bill Clinton and became law under George W. Bush). A bill intended to pin Democrats into a corner with graphic images of later abortions more or less did the trick.  

The hundreds of laws passed since 2010, however, go much further than that law, clearly spurring a backlash. And perhaps most importantly, attempts to limit access to contraception, Personhood amendments, transvaginal wands, and callous comments about rape have redirected the national conversation away from saving babies, and onto a desire to control and punish women and sexual behavior. 

Ultimately, Graham's posturing may work for him. But there is also, as ever, a gulf between what will play with South Carolina primary voters–-the only ones Lindsey Graham has to worry about for the time being--and what will move House races in 2014 and the presidential race in 2016. The latter, of course, ultimately depends far less on the voters who will decide whether Graham will be the GOP nominee than it does on states like Virginia. And that’s good news for Democrats.