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Why Republicans are talking about abortion now

How a jailhouse campaign commercial explains today's Senate theatrics.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) listens at a hearing in Washington, DC. on April 8, 2014.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) listens at a hearing in Washington, DC. on April 8, 2014.

It’s not your typical campaign commercial. For one thing, it takes place in jail. And the candidate, Richard Cash, who is one of six Republicans challenging South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, is bragging about how he landed there 10 times for blocking access to abortion clinics. 

Cash’s support was at 3% in the last poll, and none of his fellow challengers from the right have even broken 10%. Still, his commercial helps explain why, on Tuesday, Graham is expected to take to the Senate floor to hold forth on the issue. He and Senator Kelly Ayotte, among other GOP senators, are demanding a floor vote on a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, a plea no one expects Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to grant.

Graham needs 50% of the primary votes on June 10 to avoid a runoff, and is clearly leaving nothing up to chance -- including anti-abortion bona-fides. His campaign manager Scott Farmer has cited Graham's predecessor, Strom Thurmond, on this front: "'You always run like you're behind and take nothing for granted.'" 

Graham denied being motivated by politics back when the bill was first introduced in November: “Did I wake up one day because I got a primary and say, ‘Hey, let’s be pro-life?’ No.” 

Graham has sponsored anti-abortion bills in the past. While in the House, he introduced the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. It wasn't explicitly an abortion bill but was supported by anti-abortion groups. He also cosponsored the Partial Birth Abortion Ban in 2003. Both became law. Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham, noted that Graham has cosponsored eight abortion-related bills during this Congressional session.  

"Republicans will continue to lose elections if we can’t even stand for protecting the most vulnerable lives among us; or for keeping sacred five thousand plus years of natural human sexuality."'

Officially, the occasion is the first anniversary of the conviction of Kermit Gosnell, a rogue abortion provider, on three counts of first-degree murder of newborn infants. Gosnell’s name has repeatedly been invoked by politicians to justify additional restrictions on abortion. Pro-choice organizations were already trying to preempt that message on Monday, with the hashtag #NoMoreGosnells and the argument that making abortion harder to access through restrictions only makes women more vulnerable to unsafe providers.

The Republican National Committee passed a resolution Friday in support of 20-week bans, which are unconstitutional under current Supreme Court precedent, which holds that women have the right to terminate a pregnancy until the fetus is viable – several weeks later. Fourteen states have passed such bans, and both Arizona’s and Idaho’s laws were challenged in federal court and found unconstitutional. The laws, based on the scientifically-disputed notion that a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks, are a preferred anti-abortion vehicle to chip away at Roe v. Wade.

There was one small dissenting voice among Republicans on the issue. Nevada's state Republican party recently decided to remove its opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage from its platform. They were pilloried for it at the same meeting last week by an Oklahoma Republican party committeewoman. Carolyn McLarty wrote in a widely-circulated email, "Republicans will continue to lose elections if we can’t even stand for protecting the most vulnerable lives among us; or for keeping sacred five thousand plus years of natural human sexuality. Both are direct attacks on God and the family.” Nevada's decisions were "symptoms of the infiltration of the Republican Party by those who really want to destroy it,” McLarty wrote. 

Nevada's junior Senator, Dean Heller, was one of the few Republican senators not to sign on to co-sponsor the 20-week ban. A spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, said he has not explicitly said how he would vote. Other rare Republican holdouts include Lisa Murkowski, who has a mixed record on abortion and has also not announced her position, and Senators Mark Kirk and Susan Collins, both Republican senators who are considered moderate and who would likely vote against the bill. The current party polarization around abortion -- a relatively recent phenomenon, driven in part by Republicans seizing on the intense motivation of conservative abortion opponents -- seems unlikely to shift anytime soon.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Graham had not co-sponsored any abortion legislation in the Senate until this election cycle. The story has been revised and corrected to note that Graham has in fact co-sponsored such legislation in the past.