Graham’s 15-week abortion bill further complicates Republican midterm message

“It certainly complicates some things,” said one Republican operative working on Senate races. “For some candidates, that’s a fight they’re ready to do… But for others, they don’t want to talk about abortion at all.”

“Lindsey is trying to be helpful. But she doesn’t always know the best way to do it,” added the agent.

That has been made clear in the narrow ways Republican Senate candidates have responded to the bill.

Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker took a two-pronged stance in his statement, saying he believes “the issue should be decided at the state level,” but that he would support such a federal law. Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz issued a standard statement about being “pro-life” with exceptions for rape, incest or maternal life, but did not take a strong position on the Graham bill. Other Republican Senate candidates did not respond to CNN’s questions, including Reps. JD Vance of Ohio and Reps. Ted Budd of North Carolina.

Several conservative media outlets have reacted with frustration to the bill’s political objection to Republican candidates. The Wall Street Journal editorial board criticized Graham this week for making a “big political gamble” that exposes GOP candidates and gives swing voters in key states a reason to vote against the party. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that 57 percent of registered voters oppose a 15-week ban with a maternal health exception.

But a source familiar with the South Carolina Republican’s thinking said Graham believes trying to sidestep the abortion issue isn’t working for Republicans while Democrats make it a central focus in nearly every key race; As much as the GOP wants to talk about other issues, like the economy, it’s unrealistic.

Members of the anti-abortion movement agree that the best approach to the issue is offense, not defense.

“They don’t want to drop the issue,” Ramesh Ponnuru, editor of the conservative magazine National Review, told CNN. “What they can do is decide if they want to influence the terms of the debate, or if they want to do it in the terms of the debate.”

Democrats, however, are happy to include Republicans in the debate. Emboldened, after voters in Kansas rejected a ballot measure that would have given the GOP-led state legislature the ability to push for an abortion ban, and after voters in New York and Alaska helped Democrats win special House elections by introducing abortion, Democrats have responded. Graham is doubling down on the bill, noting with glee the difficult position Republicans are in.

“Senate Republicans are showing one of the ugliest and most underrated parts of their agenda,” said David Bergstein, chief spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “For voters, it will be another powerful argument to vote against GOP Senate candidates in November.”

‘If not now, when? If not me, who?’

Graham was on the defensive in a typically friendly Fox News interview with host Jesse Watters about giving Democrats a “way out” on the economy. Inflation, which Republicans have hammered Democrats for most of the campaign, rose in August, according to government data released Tuesday, the same day Graham presented his proposal.

“I’m proudly pro-life, and I’m unapologetic about being pro-life, and there’s never a bad time to stand up for the unborn,” Graham said in the interview, raising his voice at one point. “I don’t think there’s a bad day to stand up for the unborn… We have to go on the offensive here.”

Graham largely didn’t engage in the tactic of making that announcement two months before Election Day, asking, “If not now, when? If not me, who?” he asked.

Analysis: I think Lindsey Graham does it with the 15-week abortion ban

Not all Republicans are running away from Graham or the 15-week limit. Despite the silence on the bill, Vance will attend a fundraiser next month with the South Carolina senator. And Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is up for re-election this year, has backed Graham’s bill, tweeting that the “extremists” on the issue are Democrats, like his opponent Rep. Val Demings, not Republicans.

Blake Masters, Arizona’s GOP Senate candidate, has come under scrutiny for recent attempts to moderate his stance on abortion since winning the primary last month. But this week, he came out in favor of restricting access to abortion.

“Of course, I support Lindsey Graham’s 15-week bill, and I hope it passes,” Masters said in a statement to CNN. “If he doesn’t, I suggest a stand-alone bill in the third quarter and I will introduce it.”

Anti-abortion activists, in addition to defending the bill on its merits, say it benefits Republicans politically.

“I’m not saying don’t talk about inflation, you have to talk about the economy, but you also have to talk about the issue of the moment,” said Mallory Carroll, spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. the political group, whose president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, has been behind Graham this week as he introduced his bill. “Graham has given a gift to those running for re-election because this bill is a politically defensible position that also advances the pro-life movement and saves lives.”

But many Republican leaders don’t see it that way.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appears distant from Graham’s desire to pursue the abortion issue, telling CNN’s Manu Raju that “most members of my conference prefer to deal with this at the state level” and have declined to offer public guidance to the candidates. the subject

“I think every Republican senator running in these contested races this year has an answer to how they feel about the issue, and it might be different in different states,” the Kentucky Republican said Tuesday. “So I leave it up to our candidates who are able to handle this issue to determine what their response is.”

And when asked Wednesday if the future Republican House majority would hold a vote on the Graham bill, GOP Whip Steve Scalise declined and instead tried to focus on what Democrats saw as extreme.

“Well, first we have to see what our majority looks like,” the Louisiana Republican said. “But I think if you have seen, we are a party that defends life, we support life.”

That reluctance to lead has left Republican candidates largely on their own, following the advice of party campaign committees after the court’s decision to try to focus on Democrats’ abortion policy, making some candidates’ reluctance especially clear. what, if any, limitations do they support in the procedure.

The poll, conducted for the Republican National Committee and released Tuesday, encouraged the candidates to “put your opponent on the defensive and force an extreme position to answer.”

And he advises them to stick to the message that “your opponent is an extremist” and “your compassionate person is a reasonable person” in his introduction to the Republican National Senatorial Committee candidates.

“BUT, don’t let the campaign become about abortion — get back to where the voters are — inflation, gas prices, energy, crime, border security, etc.,” reads the final slide of the presentation.

While securing the most politically salable anti-abortion restrictions remains important to anti-abortion advocates, Republican operatives believe the goal conflicts with their mission: to win big at the ballot box.

“The party is more interested in making sure it’s a big Republican wave than a Republican Republican,” Ponnuru said. “There is just a divergence of priorities.”

Democrats double down on abortion

As Graham’s plan unfolded, campaign after campaign Democrat used it to galvanize opponents, emphasizing how Democrats are united on the issue while Republicans need to talk about it. Graham’s law also gave Democrats a chance to cry hypocrisy, as many Republican candidates said the issue was better left to the states, not a federal bill.

New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan focused on abortion in her first general election ad after winning the Republican Senate nomination from Don Bolduc in the state primary on Tuesday.

“Don Bolduc and the anti-choice Republicans are taking away your personal liberties,” says the ad’s narrator.

Democratic candidate Cheri Beasley of North Carolina accused Budd of being “so eager to come between a woman and her doctor that he would ban abortion even in cases of rape, incest and threats to a woman’s life.” Budd called cases of rape or incest a “tragedy” in an interview on CBS earlier this year, but added, “Let’s realize there’s a second life out there” and “why would you want to take a second life for something that’s already damaged.” .”

And Pennsylvania Governor John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate candidate, took advantage of Oz Graham’s lack of a firm answer on the bill: “Would you vote for Senator Graham’s bill to ban abortions after 15 weeks?”.

“Dr. Oz and his team need to stop spinning and stop the bull****,” Fetterman said in a statement. “This is a bill that really should be voted on. Oz needs to tell us — yes or no, would you support this bill?”

CNN reached out to multiple Oz aides to find out how he would vote on Graham’s bill. No one has answered.

The fire’s quick reaction highlights how Democrats see the issue as a winner after effectively mobilizing it in the contests this summer.

Laphonza Butler, president of Emily’s List, an organization dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, said Republicans “try to mislead voters about their agenda and hide their true records,” but the Graham bill makes their goal clear. or” end abortion.”

“The way to stop them and protect our freedom is also clear: we must maintain and expand our majorities in Congress,” he said.

The most obvious way Democrats are getting into the abortion debate is the money they’re spending. According to AdImpact data as of early September, campaigns and groups in both parties have spent more than $84 million on more than 350 special ads about abortion since the court’s decision, with nearly $66 million on more than 250 ads coming from Democratic campaigns. or groups

Republicans, on the other hand, are putting little money behind the issue. According to AdImpact, the party’s campaigns and committees have spent less than $11 million running 81 ads about abortion.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Fox News’ Jesse Watters’ last name.

CNN’s David Wright, Dana Bash and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.