Anti-abortion activists celebrated when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks would be brought to the floor for a vote next week.
With a slim Republican majority, the bill isn’t expected to pass — but that’s not the point.
Activists think the 20-week abortion ban is a potent election issue for 2018, particularly against Democrats hailing from red-leaning states who are expected to vote against the bill.
“There will be consequences for senators in vulnerable Senate seats in 2018 when the grass roots lets itself be heard at the ballot box,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion advocacy group in Washington.
“I can promise you, in those states — we’re especially looking at Missouri and North Dakota and the women that represent them — we will absolutely be on the ground.”
The group is already active in Florida, Ohio and Missouri, knocking on doors and telling them to watch how their senators vote.
“Attention in battleground states among the right voters can provide winning margins every time, and we intend to do it this time,” Dannenfelser said.
The activists hope their efforts will lead to the defeat of vulnerable Democrats such as Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), who both voted against the 20-week bill in 2015. McCaskill’s office said she plans to do so again, while Heitkamp’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
While anti-abortion groups had high hopes for Congress under a Republican president, the Senate has proved to be a stumbling block for their priorities. Republicans there have been unable to defund Planned Parenthood or pass other abortion bills, many of which need 60 votes to pass.
Most of the big wins for the anti-abortion movement have come in the House, where Republicans have already passed the 20-week abortion ban and Planned Parenthood defunding, and in the Trump administration, which recently rolled back ObamaCare’s contraception mandate.
So the 2018 midterms are critical for anti-abortion groups and Republicans looking to pass more bills through Congress, including the ban.
“It’s just a matter of time until we get 60 votes,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the sponsor of the Senate bill.
“We’re going to get the country where it needs to be on this issue.”
Seventeen states already ban abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Dannenfelser says their polling, completed by The Polling Company, which was founded by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, shows the majority of Americans in battleground states support limiting abortions after 20 weeks.
In Missouri and North Dakota, 60 percent and 56 percent support such bans, respectively, according to the poll.
Trump carried both states by large margins in 2016, and he made the 20-week abortion ban a part of his campaign.
He recently urged the Senate to pass the 20-week bill while addressing the March for Life, an annual gathering of abortion opponents in Washington. Trump declared that he is with the anti-abortion movement “all the way.”
“He’s been very supportive of it, and if a Missouri politician votes against the bill, they’re clearly going against the will of the people. The same would go for North Dakota, where there’s a Democratic senator who’s vulnerable,” said David O’Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, a nonprofit with affiliates in all 50 states that also lobbies Congress on the issue of abortion.
“If Democrats decide to toe the line, the official Democratic line, which seems to be any abortion at any time for any reason, paid for by tax dollars, then I think there’s a political risk to them.”
“This tactic has been proven ineffective,” said a Democratic aide involved in Senate races.
“It’s a line of messaging that voters are not receptive towards.”
A poll done before the 2016 presidential election showed 45 percent considered the issue of abortion to be “very important” to their vote, compared with 84 percent who said the economy was their top priority.
Democrats argue that attempts to ban abortion after 20 weeks are “extreme” attacks on a woman’s right to make decisions about her health care.
Still, at least three Democrats will vote for the bill next week: Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.), who are all up for reelection in states won by Trump.
The three senators also voted for the bill in 2015.
Anti-abortion groups are also watching the vote of newly sworn-in Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who said during his campaign that he supports access to abortion, even though the majority of those who voted in the state’s special election said the procedure should be illegal.
His office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
While the bill isn’t expected to pass this year, it’s important to get elected officials on the record and continue to push forward, said Deanna Wallace, staff counsel for Americans United for Life.
“People deserve to know who they’re electing. … I think it’s not just a good political idea to force them to vote on the record, but it’s good for our democracy.”