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Republican Senators in Tight Races Are Hiding Their Anti-Choice Priorities

Anti-choice candidates have started to recognize that their views are not in sync with voters and are hiding them.

Part of the Series

Polling has shown increasing support not just for abortion to remain legal, but for it to be publicly funded. Perhaps this is why Republican senators in tight re-election races are downplaying their “pro-life” legislative priorities.

New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin are four of the 11 battleground states polled this summer on repealing the Hyde Amendment, the 40-year-old policy prohibiting federal funding from covering abortion care. An overwhelming majority of voters — 76 percent overall, 66 percent of Republicans, and 89 percent of Democrats — agree with the statement: “However we feel about abortion, politicians should not be allowed to deny a woman’s health coverage for it just because she’s poor.” Despite the wishes of their constituents, Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire), Joseph Heck (R-Nevada), Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) and others have introduced and cosponsored dozens of abortion restrictions under the radar during the past six years — a fact they’re minimizing on their official websites and social media feeds.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

Planned Parenthood has called Burr “one of the most prolific anti-abortion politicians in Congress.” The 55 anti-choice bills that he has cosponsored since being elected to Congress in 1995, however, are conspicuously absent from his website. It’s understandable that the focal point of his official website is assistance for those affected by Hurricane Matthew, but one would think that the “Issues” section would make some mention of the anti-choice legislation which, according to his ideology, he must be proud of; what more noble thing to brag about? Instead, he lists (in order): Jobs and Opportunity, Education and Child Care, Veterans and Military Families, Fiscal Responsibility, Health Care, Fighting Crime And Protecting Victims, Government Accountability, and Conservation.

Burr doesn’t even embed pro-life language in his Health Care or Fiscal Responsibility subsections; both are primarily used to demonize the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka “Obamacare.” The closest he has come to a pro-life movement reference in his Twitter feed over the past few months is an innocuous photo of him meeting on the Capitol steps with students from a Christian school. He even penned an op-ed in The Hill last month directed at his democratic colleagues titled “Enough bickering, time to stay focused on important issues,” focusing on Zika legislation and education as priorities. Burr went on to discuss his participation in the passage of Achieving a Better Life Experience Act for families of children with disabilities; his push to “strengthen” the National Sex Offender Registry; and his advocacy for cybersecurity legislation. He included no mention of reproductive health or abortion access.

The independent site lists 365 bills cosponsored by Burr during his time in the House and Senate — a list that includes legislation that would significantly alter federal law as well as bills, such as S.Con.Res. 44: “A concurrent resolution recognizing the sunflower as the flower for military caregivers.” Given the number of routine and honorary-type bills in the list, it is rather significant that a full 15 percent of his legislative track record focuses on abortion. Its absence from his public campaigning and priority lists is, at best, misleading.

As the Southern Funds Coordinator at the National Network of Abortion Funds and a helpline volunteer with the Carolina Abortion Fund, Durham-based Anise Simon is familiar with the hidden agenda of Burr and his colleagues.

“Richard Burr and many other legislators in North Carolina have been working behind the scenes to restrict access to reproductive health care, including abortion,” Simon told Truthout. “Unfortunately, it makes sense that Burr — one of the most anti-choice politicians in our state — isn’t being upfront with voters when it comes to limiting access to abortion. Many voters in North Carolina who wouldn’t have an abortion themselves don’t want to restrict access for people who do make that decision.”

Indeed, many people consider themselves personally pro-life, but politically pro-choice. This is why polls that ask, “Which are you: pro-life or pro-choice?” have always painted an inaccurate picture of the electorate. The shift in public opinion over the past few years shows in the polls — the pro-choice label is leading at Gallup by six points. Still, support might be even broader if more precise questions were asked. The Gallup poll doesn’t inquire as to whether voters would ever want to see abortion re-criminalized and whether those who do would list that as a priority. And it doesn’t educate those being polled about who is affected by the policy aligned with either label, or how abortion access intersects with poverty or race.

“This [abortion restricting] legislation is, quite simply, racist because it impacts people of color and those receiving health insurance through Medicaid,” Simon said, adding that those who seek abortion care are not anti-child or anti-family. “Over 60 percent of callers to the Carolina Abortion Fund are already parents looking to provide for the children they already have in spite of GOP legislation limiting access to a living wage and equal pay in our state.”

Living wage and equal pay issues are on voters’ radar this election season. Pew Research Center lists these as the top five issues that are important to voters: economy (84 percent), terrorism (80 percent), foreign policy (75 percent), health care (74 percent), and gun policy (72 percent). Abortion ranked second to last out of fourteen choices. Gallup got more specific by pulling the economy out of the list and asking people about it separately from the rest of the issues over the course of this year. Abortion didn’t even rank in that survey, polling at less than 0.5 percent below 22 other non-economic categories ranging from “dissatisfaction with government,” to education, to “lack of respect for each other,” to the environment.

In any other job, spending significant time on a task not ranking on the job description’s to-do list would get a person fired.

Simon had some alternatives her “pro-life” legislator could spend his time on.

“Instead of restricting access to reproductive health care, anti-choice senators like Richard Burr could walk the ‘pro-life’ walk by voting for life-saving policies. Instead, Burr has voted eight times to block patients’ access to necessary health care — not just abortion, but also cancer screenings and contraceptive services, despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of North Carolinians believe these to be vital health care services.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) seems to be the outlier — an incumbent with anti-choice priorities in a hotly contested race who boasts of his abortion restrictions on his website. Blunt has cosponsored 61 anti-abortion bills in Congress and led the charge to allow all employers and insurance companies to refuse coverage of any health care service under the ACA due to religious belief or moral convictions. Under “Protect Life and Religious Liberty” on his website, he lists that he is an “original cosponsor of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” and has “long-supported the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.”

Even Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who competed in the Republican primary competition to be the most anti-abortion candidate, isn’t wearing his pro-life credentials like a badge of honor. He has authored and voted for legislation like the Child Interstate Abortion Act (introduced four separate times) and the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act 30 times and keynoted the “Rediscovering God in America” forum, but he doesn’t promote any of that on his website.

Johnson has one vague reference to his pro-life priorities on his Twitter feed: He praised famously anti-choice, anti-women’s rights activist Phyllis Schlafly when she died last month at the age of 92: “With Phyllis Schlafly’s passing, America has lost a great champion of freedom, the family and the unborn.” His July visit to a crisis pregnancy center (a fake, religiously funded reproductive health clinic) in River Falls and attendance at Lifest, a Christian rock festival in Oshkosh, are absent, as are any references to the 16 anti-abortion bills he cosponsored in his first Senate term.

Ayotte similarly masks her record on abortion restrictions, which includes cosponsoring 15 bills in the Senate during her first term. Instead, Ayotte is promoting her plan to make birth control available over the counter in a manner Planned Parenthood anticipates would “make more women have to pay for their birth control.” She’s tied with her challenger, well-liked pro-choice champion and New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan, so Ayotte is emphasizing her elder care and mammogram-access plans. She has put out multiple priority lists and statements — on her website and on Medium — none of which indicate an emphasis on abortion legislation.

Heck’s race with Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto is just as tight as Ayotte’s, with Cortez Masto’s lead fluctuating from less than one percent to six percent during the second half of October. Among Heck’s 10 cosponsored bills is H.R. 374, the Life at Conception Act, commonly known as the “personhood bill.” When the attempt to completely ban abortion failed, Heck cosponsored a bill to ban abortion at 20 weeks without exceptions for rape or incest.

Meanwhile, voter priorities are clear: Voters prefer an all-inclusive approach to pregnancy care. Sixty-seven percent of battleground voters agree that “In the long run, it makes good sense that health programs for low-income women cover birth control and abortion — not just childbirth — because when people can plan whether and when to have children, it’s good for them and for society as a whole.” They recognize that they “do not always know a woman’s circumstances” and “we’re not in her shoes.”

It appears that anti-choice candidates have started to recognize that their views are not in line with what voters want. Now, the question is whether they will actually shift their priorities, instead of simply hiding them.