The confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court largely hinges on the votes of two moderate Republican senators who have said they support reproductive rights and want to uphold Roe v. Wade.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump made clear where he stands: He said he would choose only justices who would get rid of the landmark ruling on abortion. And Kavanaugh made clear his opposition to the decision in a 2017 speech at the American Enterprise Institute.
Yet some Republicans are now trying to sound more moderate in an attempt to get Kavanaugh through, denying that they want to overturn Roe v. Wade ― despite a long record of saying the opposite.
Leah Vukmir, a Republican Senate candidate in Wisconsin, deflected a question on whether Roe is unconstitutional in an interview with HuffPost last week. “I look for somebody who’s going to uphold the Constitution. That’s what’s important to me,” she said. “Right now, the left is trying to politicize this by bringing up this case, that case … I’m not going to comment on those particular cases right now.”
But she eagerly weighed in on the case in January in an open letter to Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), calling Roe “disastrous” and praising anti-abortion activists who marched on the Supreme Court. “Abortion is murder and should be prevented at all costs because it is against our country’s founding principle of life,” Vukmir wrote.
Democrats are jumping at the opportunity to bring abortion back to the forefront of the debate in 2018.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, who is running to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) in November, also said Kavanaugh’s position on Roe is irrelevant.
“I think the president has done the right thing here by not asking a Supreme Court nominee whether or not they’re going to overturn Roe,” he said in a Fox News Radio interview last week. “That is not the right focus. I think when you interview and you nominate these justices, you’ve got to choose a justice based on her or his philosophy, her understanding of the Constitution as a whole.”
Hawley, who has called himself “100 percent pro-life” and was endorsed by Missouri’s Right to Life PAC, took a firmer stand when running for attorney general in 2016. “I do not believe Roe ‘settles’ the issue” of abortion, he said, “and neither do the thousands marching in defense of life today. Roe v. Wade must be overturned, and I intend to lead that fight as Missouri’s attorney general.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), a vehement opponent of abortion who’s up for re-election this year, joined the Senate candidates in downplaying his hopes that Kavanaugh will overturn Roe. “I think it’s a pretty giant leap to assume that a guy who clerked for a Supreme Court justice is going to be dramatically different from him in terms of interpreting the Constitution,” Walker said, referring to the fact that Kavanaugh clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was often the decisive vote to uphold abortion rights in cases before the high court.
“Clerks at any level — court of appeals, Supreme Court — have a pretty significant influence on the people they work for and vice versa,” Walker said. “So I don’t foresee major changes. We’ll have to watch and see.”
Polls consistently show that at least two-thirds of Americans oppose the idea of revoking legal abortion, and Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) ― the two Republicans targeted as possible votes against Kavanaugh ― are supporters of abortion rights.
“Anti-choice politicians recognize that their only resort is attempt to lie about, be wishy-washy and fudge what this is really about ― ending Roe ― because that position is universally unpopular,” said Amanda Thayer, a spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice America.
The party may be taking cues from presidential adviser Leonard Leo, whom Trump tapped to help him replace Kennedy. Leo called the Roe issue a “scare tactic” on Sunday.
“We’ve been talking about this for 36 years, going all the way back to the nomination of Sandra O’Connor,” he said. “And after that 36-year period, we only have a single individual on the court who has expressly said he would overturn Roe. So I think it’s a bit of a scare tactic and rank speculation more than anything else.”
Making abortion the central issue in an election generally does not benefit Republican candidates, many of whom have stumbled in recent years to explain the specifics of their positions ― particularly when it comes to rape and incest exceptions. For instance, Todd Akin, when he was a Senate candidate in Missouri, lost a very winnable race when he tried to explain that abortion is not necessary for rape survivors. “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down,” he told a St. Louis TV station in 2012.
The same year, Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said during a debate that when a woman becomes pregnant from rape, “it’s something God intended.” He lost a tight race to now-Sen. Joe Donnelly (D).
Democrats are jumping at the opportunity to bring abortion back to the forefront of the debate in 2018, hoping that it helps galvanize an already angry progressive base. Progressive groups and candidates began sending out fundraising emails within hours of Trump’s Supreme Court announcement this month, and Planned Parenthood ― an increasingly powerful political force ― is especially ready to capitalize on the threat to Roe.
“Attacks on women’s rights are the No. 1 issue that is motivating folks to march, to call their elected officials and to take political action,” said Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “With women’s most fundamental right on the line, voters and our 11 million supporters around the country are going to be even more motivated to elect candidates who will protect access to reproductive health care and rights.”
Kevin Robillard contributed reporting.