WASHINGTON — It took only hours Tuesday for fellow Republicans to trash Sen. Lindsey Graham's bill to ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy nationwide.
From the halls of Congress to the campaign trail, Republicans attacked the bill as a distraction that divides the GOP and reminds voters that most of them see the party as too extreme on abortion.
"Bad idea," said Chris Mottola, a GOP strategist and ad maker. "It rips open a political sore. The political environment was moving back to economic issues. It further nationalizes an issue that works against Republicans generically."
Graham, R-S.C., introduced his bill, which would ban abortion after 15 weeks in most cases, just eight weeks before the midterm elections, when some Republican candidates have been racing to distance themselves from their own past positions on abortion.
Now, Republican leaders, rank-and-file lawmakers and political strategists are distancing themselves from Graham. Although his bill stands no chance with Democrats in control of the House, the Senate and the White House, it immediately gave Democrats ammunition to argue that Republicans would ban abortion if they win power in Washington.
Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., distanced himself from the legislation.
"Most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level," McConnell told reporters Tuesday.
On the other side of the GOP spectrum, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, rejected Graham's proposal, noting her support of federal protections for abortion. Similarly, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said “a far better approach” would be her bipartisan legislation that essentially would codify Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that was struck down this year.
Collins refused to comment on the political wisdom of Graham’s filing his legislation in the foreground of the midterms.
Instead of creating a consensus point for GOP candidates, Graham's plan puts them on the spot — and on the defensive — rather than in a position to attack President Joe Biden on issues that favor them more, GOP strategists said.
"Trust me, Republicans want to be talking economy and Biden," said an adviser to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect the re-election campaign's thinking. "We don’t want this debate. It doesn’t help."
John Sellek, a top Republican strategist in Michigan, pointed out that the state’s Republican nominee for governor, Tudor Dixon, has been trying to downplay the issue of abortion, which is widely seen as benefiting Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“Considering that the GOP nominee for governor is desperately trying to change the media discussion back to inflation, education and crime and the congressional committees are running ads in multiple districts hitting Democrats on spending, Graham’s actions are practically inexplicable politically,” Sellek said.
Some Republicans were more circumspect, arguing that it remains to be seen whether Graham's bill gives more to Republicans or Democrats.
“Look, it’s a turnout steroid shot in the arm to turn out the base in November," Republican strategist John Porter said. "Question is if the juice is worth the squeeze" in terms of energized Republican voters’ offsetting the loss of ticket-splitters in swing states.
The proposal offers Republican House and Senate candidates a measure that some conservatives hope will counter a polling surge for Democrats after the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision overturned constitutional abortion protections in June.
But as McConnell's comments indicated, Graham's bill presented a fundamental messaging problem: It flew in the face of Republican talking points that states should decide the issue.
The bill, which wouldn’t affect more stringent state limits on abortion, would ban the procedure after 15 weeks, except when the life of the woman is at risk or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.
A doctor would be required to determine the gestational age of the fetus by using procedures like “medical examinations and tests as a reasonably prudent physician, knowledgeable about the case and the medical conditions involved, would consider necessary to make an accurate determination of gestational age.”
While Republicans have criticized the political timing of Graham's legislation, polling generally indicates that a 15-week limit has majority support so long as there are exceptions for rape, incest and a woman's health.
Graham cast his measure as a contrast to Democrats' support for a federal law to protect the right to an abortion.
"After Roe vs. Wade was overturned, Democrats in Congress have rallied behind pro-choice legislation which allows abortion right up until the moment of birth," Graham said in a statement. "I view the Democrat proposal as radical and one that Americans will ultimately reject. Our legislation is a responsible alternative as we provide exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and life and physical health of the mother."
But Democrats and abortion-rights groups say that Graham is misrepresenting their position and that they support abortions later in pregnancy only if a medical professional determines a woman’s health is in jeopardy. They ripped the bill, with White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre calling it “wildly out of step with what Americans believe” in a statement.
Some Republican candidates are seeking safer political ground and scrambling to erase past positions favoring an all-out ban. Republican operatives have warned the party's candidates that voters see the party as too extreme on abortion in advance of the midterms.
The data backs that up.
Voters see Republicans as more extreme than Democrats on abortion — 51% to 32% in battleground states — according to polling conducted by WPA Intelligence, a GOP political consulting firm. The survey found 41% of likely voters are more likely to vote for Democrats and 24% are more likely to vote for Republicans because of the Dobbs decision.
Republican operatives have reason to see Graham's 15-week ban bill as a compromise between factions of the GOP — one that opposes abortion in all circumstances and one that prefers fewer restrictions. Although the federal legislation is less stringent than the state laws and proposals that have alienated many voters, it's still not a popular idea.
The rapid response from Democrats and abortion-rights groups Tuesday indicated an eagerness to keep the issue at the front of voters’ minds over the next two months.
“Anti-abortion-rights congressional Republicans are showing us exactly what they plan to do if they get power: pass a national abortion ban,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which supports abortion rights. “They have seen the horrors and dangerous consequences of abortion bans playing out in states across the country and made it their national agenda. The cruelty is the point, and we should take them at their word.”
Graham seemed to take fire from all sides Tuesday, most notably from Republicans who say he has handed a gift to Democratic candidates.
"Unless our Senate candidates already have that position, it just highlights how much more extreme they are for this position," said a top Republican strategist involved in Senate campaigns. "Stupid, just stupid."
Republican senators avoided criticizing Graham directly while enunciating their preference to talk about other topics.
“I, for one, want to focus on the inflation numbers that came out today. The imminent potential strike of railroad workers is what people are talking about,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said. “People having to spend $113 versus $100 to get ready to bring their kids back to school — that’s the way we ought to be focusing on.”
Asked whether he supported Graham’s legislation, Tillis noted that Graham once supported a 20-week pregnancy limit for abortions, which he now has shaved down by five weeks.
“I’ve supported the 20-week. I haven’t looked at [the new legislation,” Tillis said.