Earlier this month, during a debate with his election opponent, long-serving Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley announced that he would oppose a national 15-week limit on abortions. The question came up after Grassley’s Republican colleague, Lindsey Graham, had proposed just such a ban and introduced legislation to that effect in Congress. In opposing Graham’s bill, Grassley joined 14 other GOP senators who have publicly announced their intention to oppose any such legislation.
Grassley’s stance, however, doesn’t mean that he — or his GOP colleagues — have suddenly seen the light when it comes to reproductive rights. To be sure, two of the Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, have long supported abortion rights — although Collins’s credibility on the issue was tarnished when she backed Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court, despite his clear desire to overturn Roe v. Wade. But the others, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have a long history of working to overturn abortion access, both at the state and federal level. All of these other senators, except for Murkowski, were effusive in their support for Kavanaugh. All also voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett, the Trump-nominated justices whose confirmation to the Supreme Court paved the way for the shredding of abortion rights.
So, no, these GOP politicians haven’t suddenly moderated on abortion. Rather, this election season, they have seen the opinion polls. By large margins, Americans supported Roe, and by even larger margins they express hostility toward the total bans on abortion, with no exceptions for rape or incest, being passed by conservative GOP state legislators now that Roe has been overturned by the Trumpified Supreme Court.
In September 2021, a poll in Grassley’s home state of Iowa found that 56 percent of voters wanted to keep abortion legal in most or all cases — up from just shy of 50 percent in 2020. In July of this year, shortly after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision ended the national right to abortion, fully 60 percent of Iowans told pollsters they wanted to keep abortion legal — and only a third wanted it to be made illegal. (Six percent weren’t sure where they stood on the issue.)
Yet, Iowa is moving in lockstep with so many other GOP-led states to make access to abortion all but impossible; prior to the Dobbs decision, legislators passed a fetal heartbeat law, essentially outlawing abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Standing in opposition, the ACLU and Planned Parenthood are leading the defense of abortion access in the state, with court hearings likely in the weeks leading up to the November election.
When it comes to his political well-being, Grassley is nothing if not an opportunist. Witness the fact that, despite having a long track record of opposing Trump’s more inflammatory statements, he welcomed the insurrection-inspiring ex-president onto the campaign trail with him last year. As CNN reported, Grassley stood next to Trump on a speaker platform and declared, “I was born at night, but not last night. So if I didn’t accept the endorsement of a person who has 91% of the Republican voters in Iowa, I wouldn’t be too smart. I’m smart enough to accept that endorsement.” In other words, principles be damned, Trump can bring home the bacon.
It’s the same with abortion. Grassley has never met an anti-abortion law that he didn’t like. Now, though, he’s trying to avoid electoral blowback as voters realize that a right they had long taken for granted has been shredded. The modus operandi? Try not to talk about abortion on the campaign trail, and, when forced to do so, cloak yourself in a mantle of moderation by “vowing to oppose” Graham’s legislation — which was never anything other than a political stunt anyway, given the guarantee that Democrats wouldn’t allow it to pass in the Senate, and that if, somehow, some did, the resulting legislation would be instantly vetoed by President Biden.
It’s probably a smart strategy — for, while most polls throughout the last several months have shown him comfortably ahead of his Democratic opponent, Mike Franken, a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll from early October put Franken only three points behind Grassley.
Grassley’s shrinking lead could be part of a pattern throughout much of the Midwest that has emerged largely under the radar in the past month, as conservative governors and state legislators enforce zero-tolerance abortion bans in the face of growing public opposition to these measures.
In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt — who signed into law one of the country’s most draconian anti-abortion bans — initially appeared to be coasting to reelection, with polls in early September giving him a 13-point lead. Today, that lead has dwindled to 1 percent. If Stitt loses, it would be one of the great upsets of this unpredictable electoral season.
Ohio, which also passed a near-total abortion ban, is another case in point. In that state’s senate race — a race once seen by Democrats as so far out of reach that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made a strategic decision not to sink large amounts of Democratic Party dollars into the contest — Republican J.D. Vance and Democrat Tim Ryan are now in a dead heat with only weeks to go until the election.
In Kansas, where anti-abortion proponents suffered a stinging electoral defeat over the summer, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly — rated by Republicans as the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent governor in the country — looks to be holding onto a slim lead in the polls.
In these final weeks of election campaigning, you can be sure that Grassley will try to talk about anything but abortion. If Mike Franken is smart, he will hammer home the issue at every opportunity he has between now and November 8. Polling shows that abortion access is an issue of critical importance for many Iowans, driving significant numbers of young residents to register to vote. And as this past summer’s referendum in Kansas shows, when abortion access is on the ballot, even in conservative states surprises can happen.
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