As someone who works in politics, I deal in pragmatics. The pragmatic reality of Tuesday night’s election is that things are likely to get worse for women and families in this country before they get better. Pro-choice Democrats not only lost control of the Senate and lost ground in the House of Representatives; anti-choice GOP politicians won most of the hotly contested governor races and flipped several state houses. As I write this, several races of pro-choice champions remain too close to call. Bright spots include Tom Wolf beating Tom Corbett for governor of Pennsylvania, a state where restrictions on abortion had led to a revival of back-alley rogue providers and the imprisonment of a mother for trying to help her daughter terminate an unwanted pregnancy. But those spots are few and far between, and they won’t stop a slew of anti-women bills at both the state and federal level.
We know from recent history that many of these elected officials will make restricting abortion and attacking reproductive freedom their number-one priority. After all, in 2011, as the new Tea Party-controlled House assembled for their inaugural week in office, they 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.
As we sift through the debris from Tuesday night, we can cue the predictable hand-wringing and existential angst about why people vote against their own “self-interests.” But a deeper dive into the data indicates—at least on questions of reproductive freedom—that the picture is more complicated.
Seven in 10 Americans support legal access to abortion. This fact remains true in red states, across demographics, and includes a majority of self-identified Republicans and Independents. Tuesday night’s results actually underscore that reality.
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2014 will go down in the books as the year that anti-choice candidates ran hard from their clear anti-choice track records in order to convince voters they could be trusted on women’s fundamental freedoms. Even they can no longer deny that running on a platform of knowing better than the women you serve about what’s best for them is an untenable political position. New Colorado senator Cory Gardner was the poster child for this approach. Rep. Gardner is still a sponsor of the federal “personhood” bill that would outright ban abortion and many forms of birth control. Yet, on the campaign trail, he denied again and again that such a bill even existed. Gardner also implied that his support for making the pill available over the counter should trump his earlier stance: making it illegal.
He wasn’t the only one. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker—with an eye toward a presidential run in 2016—recorded a straight-to-camera ad where he insisted that he supports a woman’s right to make her own decisions about pregnancy, despite all evidence to the contrary. In Iowa, state Sen. Joni Ernst claimed that her support for a “personhood” bill (again, which would ban all abortion and many common forms of birth control) was “simply a statement that I support life.”
While these faux conversions are likely to last as long as a Hershey’s bar on a chocoholic’s desk, the strategy seems to have worked. Exit polls in Iowa reported that of those who said abortion should “always be legal,” 22 percent voted for Joni Ernst, and 41 percent of those who said abortion should “mostly be legal” voted for her. In Colorado, polls showed that among voters who feel abortion should be “always legal,” 16 percent voted for Cory Gardner, and among voters who feel abortion should be “mostly legal,” 42 percent voted for him. Gardner still co-sponsors a bill that would criminalize abortion in nearly all cases, but many in the media seemed more bothered by Udall pointing this out than by Gardner shamelessly lying about it.
During MSNBC’s election night coverage, Rachel Maddow observed this trend:
Cory Gardner was a sponsor of personhood when it has come up in CO, he is still a sponsor of personhood federally … If Gardner beats Mark Udall in CO today, it will be because he ran to the left of Udall, criticizing Udall for not being able to deliver on the stuff that Cory Gardner is opposed to. That tells you that Democrats win the argument, even if they lose the race.
Ballot measures, the most accurate measure of voter sentiment, provide even clearer evidence of the rejection of the anti-choice mentality. For the third time in Colorado, voters rejected a ballot measure that resembled “personhood,” much like the federal bill that Cory Gardner continues to support. A similar ballot measure in North Dakota was soundly defeated after widely being predicted to win. Even avid backers of anti-choice measures like these admitted that they generally do poorly when put directly to the voters, saying after a defeat of a 20-week abortion ban in Albuquerque last November, “Pro-lifers have had little success changing public policy through direct democracy—even for incremental pro-life laws [that] poll well.”
Unfortunately, another restrictive amendment, this one to the Tennessee constitution, did pass Tuesday night, doing an end run around the state Supreme Court’s ability to protect constitutional rights of Tennessee women. But even there we saw this same pattern. Framers used language in the Tennessee ballot measure that obfuscated their true intent: to restrict abortion.
Laying out this case is about more than soothing our bruises after a bad night. Understanding these dynamics is critical for us as advocates to leverage this often invisible advantage. Here are five places we need to focus our energies to harness our ideological momentum and start to reverse the political tide.
1. Ban the term “social issue” from our vocabulary: I’m not sure if there’s any such thing as a social issue, but I can tell you reproductive freedom and justice do not qualify. Sovereignty over one’s body and one’s life is an issue of fundamental freedoms and human rights. And let’s aggressively state the truth the candidates are hoping to avoid: There’s no such thing as economic security for women who do not have full access to reproductive freedom, and there’s no such this as reproductive freedom without economic security. Anti-choice politicians routinely vote to restrict abortion and contraception while also working to defeat common-sense measures that support parents in this country: equal pay, parental leave, and robust anti-pregnancy discrimination laws.
2. Hold this class accountable: These folks owe their victories to promises not to undermine legal access to abortion. We need to be there every step of the way alerting voters when they go back on their word.
3. Force the question in more races and in legislatures: Anti-choice candidates and officials love it when we’re silent. They want nothing more than to fly under the radar on these issues. We need to be there all the time asking them where they stand on abortion access, why they think they know better than women and families about what’s best for us, and why they think it’s American to legislate their own morality on the rest of us. Those are tough questions to answer, which is why they would prefer not to. We need to force them to take tough votes on measures that don’t just protect our right to choose, but expand it.
4. Run our own ballot measures: When our values are put directly to the voters, we win. Yet we’ve been playing defense on ballot measures almost exclusively. If we care about not only protecting but expanding reproductive freedom in this country, let’s take our case directly to the voters, state by state, to bolster women’s reproductive freedom.
5. Courts, courts, courts: While we depend on courts to be the pathway to justice, anti-choice extremists see the courts as a pathway to power, and right now, they are winning. We’re in the midst of a wave of litigation on our issues and we need to fight and win these cases in the court of public opinion, discredit the so-called experts on whom they they rest their cases, and fight for judges who put the rule of law about their own ideology.
The stakes are high right now. Sen. Mitch McConnell will be the new majority leader when the Senate reconvenes in January. He’s promised to make a 20-week abortion ban (yes, the same one voters in New Mexico outright rejected in 2013) a top priority. We can expect to see more of the unnecessary, absurd restrictions that have closed so many women’s health centers across the country, especially in the South. And laws like mandatory ultrasound and waiting periods, which do little more than try to shame women for making our own decisions, will become more commonplace. With the new anti-choice majority in both houses of Congress, that could become the new normal. But we can’t afford for this setback to force us into defensive mode. If anti-choice candidates are claiming the mantle of protecting reproductive freedom, then now is the moment to go on offense and act.
These candidates who rode the 2014 wave to victory hid their own values from the voters, and that speaks volumes about our values. This is the difference between movements and moments. Last night was a bad moment. It will lead to more bad moments. But this movement has numbers, belief, and promise on our side. Movements always trump moments.