On Thursday, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham introduced a bill that would outlaw abortion at 20 weeks, a companion to a measure that passed the House of Representatives this June and an echo of laws that have already passed in more than a dozen conservative states. Anti-abortion activists have been looking for a sponsor the legislation since it passed the lower chamber, and Graham has pro-life bona fides tracing back to his introduction of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act in 1999. And though President Barack Obama has vowed to veto the bill if, by some fluke, it passes the Senate, its appearance in the capital still seems a natural way for the national party to channel the rabid vitality of its state-level cousins. Only one thing seems strange: Wasn’t this bill supposed to be Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s pet project?
Flash back to the Fourth of July weekend this summer, when conservative newspaper The Weekly Standard reported that Rubio had “agreed to be the lead sponsor” of the 20-week ban (which, as I’ve written before, is based on bogus science and expressly designed to appeal to moderate voters and the self-professed moderate swing vote of the Supreme Court, Anthony Kennedy). Rubio’s office quickly backtracked: “The pro-life groups have asked him to introduce the bill in the Senate,” an aide told The Washington Post. “He had not made a final decision before leaving on a family vacation this week. I expect an announcement when he gets back to D.C. next week.” I, and others, hypothesized that Rubio was in a tough spot, between a hard-right base that would punish him for backing away from the bill and, perhaps, presidential ambitions that could be damaged by it.
For over a week, he waffled, his spokespeople saying he was “very supportive” of the abortion restriction but refusing to clarify whether he would be its lead sponsor—but then Rubio seemed to succumb to the wishes of his Tea Party fans. In late July, the New York Times reported that he was leading backroom meetings with Senators Ted Cruz and Rob Portman where they strategized about how to bring the bill to the floor. The Times wrote that the cohort was “eager to bring to the floor of the Senate the same impassioned debate over abortion that has been taking place in state legislatures around the country,” a.k.a. to fire up the base, and that Rubio in particular seemed to be using it “to raise his national profile” after the hits he took for supporting immigration reform. And then, suddenly, the project stalled. As Politico reported on July 24, “Rubio and 27 other Republican senators signed onto a bill from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in 2011 that would require lawmakers to point to which piece of the Constitution allows government expansion—and he said adherence to that idea is causing the slowdown, not cold feet.” Right, of course, not “cold feet” at all.
And then all was quiet on the Senate abortion ban front for over two months—until Graham introduced the bill on Thursday. Now, anti-abortion groups that had courted Rubio, such as the Susan B. Anthony List, are calling Graham “the ideal guy” for the job. When a reporter for the pro-abortion rights site RH Reality Check asked the National Right to Life Committee’s Carol Tobias why it was Graham instead of Rubio, she answered: “There were several senators that were considering introducing this bill, and they were looking at a lot of different options and they all came together and Lindsey Graham stepped forward and said, ‘I’d be happy to co-sponsor this,’ and the others said, ‘Great. We’re with you.’ So, it was Senate deliberations. He was one of several that was considering it."
What magnetic poles of the Republicans’ paradoxical philosophy pushed Rubio away from the abortion issue as they pulled Graham in? Graham is facing three challengers from his right flank in the upcoming race for his Senate seat, and his conservative credentials can use all the bolstering they can get. As The Daily Kos joked Thursday, “Lindsey is calling [the bill] the 'Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act' but given that he faces a primary challenge, it's probably better to think of it as the 'Pain-Capable Scared Incumbent Republican Senator Protection Act.'” And, as I reported this summer, if Rubio really is thinking about a presidential run, becoming the abortion bill’s paladin means
alienating the moderates he will need if we wants to prevail in 2016—and whom he went out on a limb to court during the immigration debate. (Among independents, 55 percent said in a recent Pew poll that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and even among Republicans, only 58 percent think it should always or almost always be illegal.) Raul Reyes, a commentator at NBC Latino, wrote that Rubio could even alienate the Hispanic vote his party has been desperately wooing, since “74 percent of Latino voters said that women should have the right to make their own private decisions about abortion without political interference” and “68 percent of Latino voters were willing to disagree with church leaders on this issue.”
Though Rubio put distance between himself and the bill long before Terry McAuliffe won the Virginia governor’s mansion, that race, and women voter’s key role in edging out the anti-abortion Cuccinelli, may have felt like a vindication.
This post has been updated.