Senator Lindsey Graham may not realize he is playing in trash. The Republican from South Carolina introduced a 15-week abortion ban ahead of the midterms — and well after members of his party had begun to back away from the controversial issue. Other Republicans are more cognizant of their potential danger, as the New York Times reported on Tuesday. “You’ll have to ask him about it,” Mitch McConnell told reporters. One Republican strategist in Michigan told NBC News that “Graham’s actions are practically inexplicable politically” considering the Republican candidate for governor there 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.”
Is Graham’s bill really so hard to explain? He has unquestionably made matters more difficult for himself and for his party; the Democratic attack ads are inevitable. From the outside, he looks desperate, eager to polish his anti-abortion image while also making the best out of his party’s terrible situation. The legislation itself is sweeping and yet does not go as far as many in the anti-abortion movement would like it to. Both the bill and the party’s mixed reaction to it reflect the degree to which Republicans find themselves in a bind of their own making.
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, conservative justices did more than place millions of American women in harm’s way — they created a dilemma for their ostensible allies in the GOP. Though polls on the popularity of 15-week abortion restrictions look mixed, most Americans wanted to keep Roe intact and favor the legality of abortion in all or many cases. The average American, in other words, is far more moderate on the subject of abortion than the average anti-abortion activist; the anti-abortion movement, though well funded and powerful, belongs to an ideological fringe. With Republicans as the face of the wildly unpopular decision in Dobbs, their midterm chances may suffer. It’s unclear, of course, exactly how significant the damage will yet be, and most polls suggest that Democrats will have a difficult time retaining control of both the House and the Senate. Nevertheless, races are tightening and Republicans are backing away from abortion on the campaign trail. In one infamous example, Blake Masters, a Republican candidate for Senate in Arizona, scrubbed his support for personhood legislation from his website.
Republicans caught the proverbial garbage truck and are realizing, belatedly, that its contents stink. Except for the heedless Graham. “That should be where America is at,” he said of his 15-week ban. America isn’t there, not quite yet; it would have to be dragged to this point by the GOP. That possibility looks somewhat distant now, as elected Republicans and party candidates back away from Graham and the general subject of abortion to try to salvage their midterm prospects. Yet his legislation cuts through the noise. The bill reminds onlookers that at the party’s very core, it is extreme on abortion. Not just extreme but obsessed. Its alliance with the Christian right affords it few other options.
The right’s fixation on abortion may explain something about Graham’s thinking. It’s strange to watch such a self-interested actor alienate the rest of his party. There are perhaps only two reasons he would do so: out of genuine anti-abortion conviction or as a misguided attempt to turn out the base. The latter seems likelier than the former. There are many ways, after all, to act on conviction, and his legislation doesn’t quite go as far as some anti-abortion advocates would like. Most appear to view it as an intermediary measure. The bill is “a step forward on our way to federal heartbeat legislation,” Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life of America said in a statement.
For now, Graham’s bill is doomed. But abortion opponents have the GOP in a tight grip, and they will not allow the party to dither for long. They’ll demand action — either a bill like Graham’s or something more restrictive — if the party reclaims power in Washington. At some point, the party will have to decide if it will bow to public opinion and enrage its longtime allies by leaving abortion to the states or by choosing some other, unacceptably lax response to the demise of Roe. In some respects, this is a choice between democracy and authoritarianism. The party can decide to ignore the anti-abortion movement, heed the will of most Americans, and moderate. As an alternative, it can rely on undemocratic institutions like the Supreme Court to force an abortion ban onto the American people. Republicans are backing away from Graham now, but sooner or later, a reckoning will come due and the party won’t be able to dodge it.