‘Easy to Mishandle’

Marco Rubio Weighs Supporting Abortion Ban, a Tricky Stand

Eleanor Clift on why the senator, who’s anti-abortion rights, is waffling on an abortion ban after 20 weeks.

Brett Marty/Corbis

Anti-abortion-rights groups have been courting Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) for months, trying to persuade him to sponsor legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which is spearheading the effort, tells The Daily Beast she is “cautiously optimistic” that Rubio will agree. The proposed legislation is consistent with his record—he’s always been anti–abortion rights—and it makes political sense as well, getting him back in the good graces of the right after breaking away on immigration reform.

The only surprise is what’s taking Rubio so long to make up his mind, a Hamlet-like tendency the freshman senator has displayed on other issues as well. An adviser confirms that he’s been talking to outside groups for some time, and now that he’s back in Washington after a family vacation, a decision appears imminent. On the surface, the legislation looks like a no-brainer for Rubio. It’s just the kind of messaging he needs to repair the damage he’s done with his party’s conservative base, and at this point, any legislative effort would be purely symbolic. An abortion ban won’t go anywhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, so any damage to his standing among more middle-of-the-road voters would be limited.

If the matter were just about adding his name to backers of the legislation, Rubio would not be hesitating. But the senator is the party’s star property, and anything he does has marquee value. For all the upsides this legislation has for him, it has downsides as well. “This kind of abortion ban has some support among the public, but it’s easy to mishandle,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Pitney notes that Republican candidates Todd Akin’s and Richard Mourdock’s ill-founded comments about rape and abortion made them laughingstocks during the 2012 campaign and cost the GOP two Senate seats.

“Any politician who talks about this has to do it with great sensitivity,” says Pitney. “It will be a test of [Rubio’s] political skills. If he passes that test, he will look good in 2016, and if he messes up, better to do it now than in the middle of a presidential campaign.”

Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway points out that a majority of Americans, 64 percent, support a ban on abortion once the fetus can feel pain. She calls the 20-week ban on abortion the “pain-capable bill” and says one of Rubio’s talents is his ability to distill and convey complex issues. “He has an Everyman’s touch. He’s the right man for this job,” she says. With the GOP bleeding Hispanic and Asian voters, Conway says that if Rubio were running the floor debate on pain capable legislation, “many Hispanics and Asians would be nodding their heads in agreement at no abortions after 20 weeks. I hope they will take that message into the Latino community,” she says, faulting her party for its failure to reach out. When she presents her findings to Republicans, she’s often the only woman in the room, she says: “I feel like I walked into a locker room or an Elks club meeting by accident.”

Rubio’s support of the 20-week ban is cast as “a way to buy off the right wing,” says Dannenfelser. But the Susan B. Anthony List is not involved in the immigration fight, and she says she doesn’t see one issue trading off the other. What she sees is “a great communicator ... He gets it. He doesn’t have to go off a script.” Rubio rallied anti-abortion-rights activists at the Susan B. Anthony List annual gala in Washington last year with the call that America “can never truly become what it fully was intended to be unless it deals with [abortion] squarely ... It’s that important.”

But even a great communicator has to be wary of an issue that affects women being talked about chiefly by men. Here’s where Dannenfelser says that while Rubio is “the ideal guy” to carry the Senate ban forward, the Senate has two women who are anti–abortion rights—Republicans Kelly Ayotte and Deb Fischer—“and we’re encouraging them to be part of this as well.” The anti-abortion-rights community feels the country is ready for a reevaluation of Roe v. Wade, says Conway. “It’s a 40-year-old decision considered by many people to have been overtaken by advances in medical technology, science, and medicine,” she says, and with a messenger as skillful as Rubio, the community believes it can avoid the pitfalls and the pratfalls that took down less-gifted politicians.