Have Missouri Republicans Lost the Upper Hand on Abortion?

Dec 4, 2019 at 6:00 am
Governor Mike Parson and others in the GOP seem to have forgotten the lessons of Reagan when it comes to abortion.
Governor Mike Parson and others in the GOP seem to have forgotten the lessons of Reagan when it comes to abortion. STATE OF MISSOURI

Is it possible that Missouri Republicans might have jumped the shark, even a little bit, on the issue of abortion?

That unlikely prospect was raised in polling numbers reported last week by the Missouri Times, which scored a nice scoop by publishing an internal memo it obtained from the Democratic Governors Association (DGA). The memo, addressed to "Interested Parties," cited some eye-popping numbers from a November 14-15 survey of 921 likely voters in Missouri.

If the DGA numbers are to be believed, "a shocking 89 percent of voters say they've heard at least a little about the news" that Missouri enacted a law last session banning abortion even in cases of rape and incest. The DGA polling found that 50 percent of voters said it would make them less likely to vote for Governor Mike Parson — who pushed for and signed the law — including 60 percent of independents and 20 percent of Republican and Trump voters.

The memo stated that "Parson's actions have put him at odds with voters and plaster him with the extremist label. This could dramatically alter the environment next year in the race for governor."

The last line provided the headline for the conservative-leaning Times' coverage, with good reason. The very idea that Democrats are even contemplating running on the abortion issue in Missouri is a news item in itself.

That doesn't mean the poll numbers will prove prescient: They fall squarely in the "I'll believe it when I see it" compartment of state politics. Polling, especially that commissioned for a political party, must always be taken with a grain of salt.

But on the spectrum of spin, this memo fell somewhere between a press release and secrets stolen from the DGA server by the Russians and leaked to the media as disinformation. These don't appear to be Democratic talking points as much as an internal discovery that the party might want to scrap its customary avoidance of reproductive freedom as a pro-active statewide issue.

The top-line takeaway of the polling was that Democratic State Auditor Nicole Galloway trailed Parson by only a nine-point deficit (45 to 36 percent), a shaky starting point for an incumbent governor if true. But the memo concludes by circling back to the abortion issue numbers, claiming "we start the race in a competitive position and are well-positioned to go on offense in 2020."

You really have to return to the last century and the late Gov. Mel Carnahan to find a Missouri Democratic gubernatorial candidate who wanted to talk much about abortion outside of private fundraisers. And while there's no telling whether Galloway will decide to make abortion rights a front-and-center issue against Parson — a strategy implied by the memo — here's one pro-choice voter who thinks she should.

There is no denying that Republicans have hammered Democrats in Missouri over abortion for the past two decades. They've had great success here, as in other red states, with warped messaging promoting an obscenely false choice: "Are you pro-life or are you OK with killing unborn babies?"

The real question is this: Do you want Big Brother government — at the state, federal level or both — to mandate childbirth for all pregnant women in America, regardless of their age or circumstance, regardless of whether they were raped, regardless of whether their religious or spiritual beliefs align with those of certain churches as to the origin of life and regardless of the fact that the law of the land is that a woman's privacy — including control over her own body — is her constitutional right?

Conservatives praise themselves as guardians of limited government, but they make a convenient exception when it comes to women's most private and sensitive health care decisions. They also talk a good game about religious liberty while advocating that it not be available — with regard to abortion rights — for the 90 percent of Unitarians, 83 percent of Jews, 82 percent of Buddhists, 79 percent of Episcopalians, 72 percent of UCC members, 68 percent of Hindus, 65 percent of Presbyterians and, yes, 48 percent of Catholics who say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Not to mention the 87 percent of unmentionables identifying with no organized faith. (Source: 2018 polling by the Pew Research Center).

None of that is new, of course, so why should it matter now?

Well, there are two problems for the anti-choice side in Missouri that it didn't face until this moment: One, the symbolism of Missouri becoming the first state without a single abortion provider; and two, the ban on abortion even in cases of rape and incest which, while tied up in court, brought home the issue to people who identify as pro-life but could not begin to stomach the notion that if their daughter or granddaughter or sister or wife or niece were raped, the state of Missouri would demand that she be further victimized by enduring an unwanted pregnancy to birth the rapist's spawn.

That doesn't play so well, anywhere.

Missouri will remain a solidly red state for the foreseeable future, and one that broadly regards itself as "pro-life." But the same could be said for Kentucky and Louisiana, which recently elected Democratic governors, in no small part because that guy whose lawyer is in jail for laundering hush-money payments to a porn star on his behalf isn't playing so well in the suburbs these days.

Politically, though, the Missouri Republicans should be most worried about having violated an unstated commandment of President Ronald Reagan, whose political genius was this: One runs on the politics of outlawing abortion, but one does not govern upon it.

In both the 1980 and 1984 presidential campaigns, Reagan firmly advocated a constitutional amendment banning abortion in the United States. He used the issue effectively in a bitter primary against a fellow named George H.W. Bush, who would then become his vice president. He slammed pro-choice Senator Walter Mondale with it in 1984, winning a historic 525-13 electoral vote, 18 percentage point, 17 million vote victory.

But despite his mandate, Reagan not only declined to use his legendary skill as the Great Communicator to advance a constitutional amendment, his administration didn't advance a single word of legislation to outlaw abortion at the federal level. You run on abortion. You don't govern on it.

Missouri Republicans have decided to test that proposition in 2020. It remains to be seen whether that will help the vulnerable Parson — who isn't shy about owning the no-rape-and-incest-exception law — in his race against Galloway, a far more charismatic opponent who is proudly pro-choice.

Maybe it won't matter. But if the Democratic Party can show enough spine to back up the excited rhetoric of the DGA memo — if they can actually force Republican opponents to answer the question "What would you do?" with regard to the fate of a daughter or granddaughter or sister or wife or niece who was a rape victim, there's no telling what might happen. To borrow a favorite phrase from the Predator-In-Chief:

We'll see.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann and Jay Kanzler from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).