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Semafor LogoKadia Goba
Kadia Goba
politicsNorth America

Republican Senators balked at demands from an anti-abortion group. So the advocates backed down.

Kadia is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from Buzzfeed News. Sign up for the daily Principals newsletter to get our insider’s guide to American power.

This story was originally published on Oct. 12, 2022.

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Title iconThe Scoop

On September 19, Republican Senators received a letter from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America warning them in no uncertain terms that they needed to publicly back a national ban on abortion within days – or risk taking a hit on their prized candidate scores.

Few budged. The pressure campaign angered Republicans, who are still wary of the politics around the bill, a 15-week national ban authored by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.. Within weeks, the same group had sent a follow-up letter toning down their demands and extending their deadline.

In the initial letter to lawmakers, obtained by Semafor, Senators were given a deadline of September 30 – the date bolded, underlined, italicized and highlighted for emphasis – to sign onto the bill as a co-sponsor.

At the point the letter was sent, Graham’s bill had backing from only three more Senators: Steve Daines, Marco Rubio and Kevin Cramer. That number ticked up to nine Senators after SBA’s warning, including support from Sens. John Thune and Josh Hawley.

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But Graham’s bill proved divisive within the party. Publicly, prominent Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said they prefer to leave the issue to the states. Privately, there was frustration with the outside pressure from anit-abortion groups to back a national ban just as candidates are trying to find their footing in must-win races.

"We should be able to reasonably disagree on the best pro-life legislative strategy at this exact moment,” a Republican staffer familiar with the conversation around the SBA letter told Semafor. “Threatening pro-life Senators with a reduced score unless they adopt a policy only previously discussed by SBA and Graham is divisive, and it's going to make their scorecard look silly. SBA is overplaying their hand, and offices will remember this attempt to strong-arm us."

The backlash seemed to have had an impact. In a follow-up letter on October 4, after the bill’s support had stalled, SBA made an apparent concession and told members they would “continue to add cosponsorship recognition” up to election day. They also noted they had “received questions” about how the bill would affect member scores, and that while “votes weighed most heavily” in their evaluations, they would also consider “the totality of each member’s pro-life activity.”

The group did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

undefined headshotKadia's view

Republicans have not found a consensus stance on abortion amid non-stop Democratic attacks, and the SBA letter – and it’s softer follow-up – reflects that tension.

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For their part, Graham and other anti-abortion activists have portrayed the 15-week ban as a political compromise already, since it sets the ceiling for how late abortions would be permitted significantly higher than many of the sweeping state bans now taking effect.

But while anti-abortion groups are mindful of the politics, the letters are also a signal that they’re wary of Republicans running for an exit ramp on the issue just as they finally, after 50 years of activism, have a chance to pass meaningful legislation. That could be a bigger factor in 2024 than 2022, when there’s a full cycle of GOP primaries, headlined by a potentially competitive race for the presidential nomination.

“The hope is that announcing a bill will be scored will cause the legislator to consider the ultimate political consequences and accountability for that vote,” John Stemberger, President of the Florida Family Policy Council said, noting that bad grades could “provoke a primary challenge for the legislators.”

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

Not all Republicans working on midterm elections who have talked to Semafor buy that the national 15-week ban is bad for the party’s political brand. In addition to exciting pro-life voters, some argue the bill could even boost candidates in more competitive races, since it allows them to burnish their moderate credentials by opposing it.

Title iconThe View From Italy

It’s not just Americans monitoring the political reaction to Dobbs. Italians have taken to the streets in multiple cities to defend abortion rights, many of them concerned that nationalist conservative candidates, led by incoming prime minister Georgia Meloni, would seek to roll them back. Some protestors cited the change in U.S. abortion laws to try and rally support. Meloni, who will be the first woman to lead Italy, said she plans to give women “the right to not have an abortion,” according to POLITICO. She has also said she will “fully enforce” existing laws that protect abortion access.

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