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What Do Joni Ernst’s Senate Win and Support for Embryo “Personhood” Really Tell Us?

Stop saying Joni Ernst won because she ran from her personhood stance.

State Sen. Joni Ernst and US Sen. Rand Paul speaking at a campaign rally outside Gilmore Hall at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo: Gage Skidmore; Edited: LW / TO)

Stop saying Joni Ernst won because she ran from her personhood stance. We can’t afford to learn the wrong lesson from the midterms as the campaign for 2016 gets underway.

Humans search for meaning in everything. This impulse can be hazardous when done in the immediate wake of defeat. And so it has been with the analysis of Election 2014, a day that has confused the masses and put political pundits in the tough position of telling the citizenry what it all means.

The Grand Old Party captured Congress – winning in districts where ballot measures to raise the minimum wage and end marijuana prohibition were overwhelmingly approved. A glance at the national returns left many with frustration migraines and an immediate impulse to learn lessons with the power to inform activism, party politics and strategies for the already underway 2016 elections.

Except, very little about the basic numbers and results should surprise anyone. Six in 10 Americans are frustrated with the economy and presidents haven’t historically hung onto Congress for the final legislative session of their administrations. Results that should have prompted simply a disappointed shrug for the loss of the Senate and a relieved sigh for the defeat of the two personhood ballot measures, have been repeatedly picked apart and declared meaningful for pro-choice proponents over the past week.

One race in particular seems to be teaching people the wrong lesson. Joni Ernst edged out Bruce Braley in Iowa for the open US Senate seat left vacant by Tom Harkin’s retirement. Much early ado was made about her pig castration ad (she knows how to reduce pork in Washington thanks to her farming roots!), but the campaign was quickly depicted nationally as a battle over her extremist legislative record in the Iowa State Senate.

Ernst was a co-sponsor of a personhood amendment to the Iowa Constitution, which would have codified the start of legal life at conception – not only outlawing abortion in all cases, but also any form of birth control that doesn’t prevent ovulation. Personhood is overwhelmingly unpopular, having been voted down every time it has appeared on a ballot around the country, including this year in North Dakota and Colorado (its third straight loss).

In a pragmatic purple state like Iowa, support for personhood might get you elected in a conservative pocket, but it’ll keep you from attaining national office. Or, at least, so states conventional wisdom. Ernst followed such wisdom, maintaining her firm pro-life stance while minimizing the possible effects of the personhood amendment she managed to tap-dance her way around never completely denouncing.

“I promote a culture of life. I promote life. That’s the person I am,” Ernst told CNN. When pushed on the possibility of personhood outlawing birth control, Ernst laughed it off. “I am someone who supports a woman’s right to birth control, absolutely, so to say that is absolutely false and misleading . . . [I]f women would like to talk to me about those items, I am happy to talk it over. Birth control yes, and promoting a culture of life, yes.”

Done and done, apparently.

Despite Braley’s continual attempts to remind voters of Ernst’s disingenuous assertion that the “amendment is simply a statement that I support life,” abortion and contraception were never at the forefront for most Iowans. More than three-fourths of voters said they were worried about the national economy. Over 40 percent ranked the economy above health care, foreign policy and immigration in exit polls. Abortion, reproductive health care, contraception, personhood – none of these are even on that list. Also, half of voters said they only followed the race “somewhat or not too closely.” When you pair typical midterm apathy with the millions funneled through Iowa media markets by big money donors like the Koch brothers, it becomes a stretch to declare an Ernst victory an indicator of how voters feel about reproductive rights.

Ernst’s slight shuffle away from personhood has been called a tack to the center and, despite all the polling data, is being held up as a win of sorts for pro-choicers alongside similar supposed position shifters like Senator-elect Cory Gardner (R-Colorado). Typically cautious commentators like Robin Marty wrote in Talking Points Memo that “the most extreme of anti-abortion ballot measures are actually having a positive effect on races.” Except that Gardner won in a state with personhood on the ballot. Marty also posits that having two-thirds of voters reject personhood measures is “a clear indication that continuing to legislate on that issue puts political futures . . . in trouble.”

Since when does knowledge of voter preferences and stances affect legislators’ actions on reproductive health? If that were the case, candidates would never support the personhood measures that keep popping up on ballots, and the widely publicized, much dissected NBC-Wall Street Journal poll from January 2013, which concluded that seven in 10 voters would not overturn Roe v. Wade, would have prevented the surge of anti-choice legislation of the past two years. A solid 57 percent of those polled even “feel strongly” about their position on abortion remaining legal. Those are spectacularly strong indicators.

So why are pundits sure they can read something in the election of candidates who distanced themselves from their anti-choice legislative pasts? Because we still think people vote on abortion.

Unfortunately for anyone hoping to stick their finger in the air and determine the political and cultural winds, the fabled American centrist voter doesn’t care about abortion. If you poll them directly, they’ll tell you it should remain legal – even if some of the pro-Roe 70 percent thinks there should be “reasonable” restrictions. But if you ask them about their voting habits, you won’t find abortion on the electorate’s checklist.

According to Gallup, only about 15 percent of voters require a candidate to share their position on abortion to give them their support – and that includes those self-identified as pro-choice and pro-life. Not even half of voters historically call abortion “one of many important factors.” This data makes the returns from the Hawkeye State on par with national averages.

Pro-choicers and pro-lifers would love for abortion’s legality and accessibility to be the voting issue for Americans, but it just isn’t. Which means the election of Ernst and her anti-choice congressional classmates doesn’t say much about the country’s position on reproductive health care. Election 2014 results were a mixed bag of complicated factors and we should be wary of basing strategy on November 4 returns.

Despite the pervasive convenient punditry, there were a few highlights in the post-game coverage. The brightest spot came from Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, who laid out a stellar and pragmatic grassroots roadmap for moving forward. In a piece at RH Reality Check, Hogue moved quickly past what has already happened to what should happen next. Her five recommendations for pro-choice proponents center around turning reproductive health care into the winning voting issue that polling data says it can become:

1. Ban the term “social issue” from our vocabulary
2. Hold this [legislative] class accountable
3. Force the question in more races and in legislatures
4. Run our own ballot measures
5. Courts, courts, courts

Forcing the question in the legislature during the session and running access expanding ballot measures would be a particularly effective way to turn reproductive health care into an issue more than 15 percent of the population votes on. Campaigning for increased access would give proponents the opportunity to bring economic, public health and human rights aspects into the debate, giving voters something to vote for rather than asking them to oppose initiatives with murky sounding potential outcomes. Turning people out for something positive is much easier than turning them out to oppose something negative.

The personhood extremists understand that part of human nature. That’s why their amendments and measures are always worded so that they can launch a “Yes on X” campaign to accompany their legislation. They understand something else that’s widely known in their base: Politicians like Joni Ernst who pull center during elections come on home the minute they’re elected.

The handful of Iowans who back personhood and other extreme abortion restrictions know Ernst will come through for them when it’s time to vote on the promised 20-week abortion ban in the Senate. The romanticized center won’t care about her personhood past until she fails to make good on her other domestic policy promises and they see her spending time on an issue she downplayed during the campaign.

Hogue concisely compares 2014 to 2010 when incoming Republicans made just such a pivot from their campaign promises:

[T]hey wasted no time in moving anti-choice bills that would defund Planned Parenthood or impose tax penalties on small businesses that provide comprehensive health insurance, despite running on a platform to expand job opportunities and economic security.

January 2015 is likely to be déjà vu. Sen. Mitch McConnell promised his base that, should he become the next majority leader, a national ban on abortion beyond 20-weeks – in direct opposition to Roe – would be a legislative priority. Expect Ernst to fall in line when that bill hits the floor.

Election 2014 will most certainly have consequences – even if a likely veto from President Obama means a national 20-week ban won’t become law. But a midterm election is hardly an effective lens through which to peer and declare shifts in our culture or even our voting habits. The only thing that can change culture and voting habits over the long term – an off-putting concept in punditry – is ending stigma around reproductive health care. Work on that is being done around the country by optimistic and determined activists and by brave, ordinary citizens sharing their experiences with friends and family.

Change is happening – just more gradually than one midterm election can accurately depict.

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