SBA List seizing its moment

SBA List seizing its moment
© Greg Nash

After eight years of essentially being locked out of the White House, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, has high hopes for the Trump administration — and the 2018 midterms.

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“Things have certainly started turning in our favor,” Dannenfelser told The Hill in an interview at the anti-abortion rights group’s downtown office last month. 

“Walking into the White House the night of the [Justice Neil] Gorsuch announcement was quite a feeling. It was as if the whole pro-life movement was walking in after having been barred for eight years, and now we’re coming back in after a lot of work to start making this a pro-life country again.” 

SBA didn’t initially support Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE for president. It sent out mailers before the Iowa caucuses urging voters to pick literally any other Republican candidate, all of whom have been stronger on anti-abortion causes than Trump, who once said he was “pro-choice.” 

“On the issue of defending unborn children and protecting women from the violence of abortion, Mr. Trump cannot be trusted and there is, thankfully, an abundance of alternative candidates with proven records of pro-life leadership whom pro-life voters can support,” reads a letter from SBA sent to Iowan voters last January. 

But then, like the rest of the country, Dannenfelser and SBA found themselves in the position of picking between Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE

“She had been the paradox; she had been the quintessential ‘other side.’ She was just the worst-case scenario for us,” Dannenfelser said. 

“And we knew that he had made very strong commitments to the pro-life movement. And so we could have made it a character vote, which would have been a tough call, in my opinion. Or you could make the decision based on policy commitments, and that made it very easy.” 

SBA got Trump to sign a letter committing to four promises: nominating “pro-life” justices to the Supreme Court, signing a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks nationwide, defunding Planned Parenthood and making permanent the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of taxpayer funds for abortions. 

Dannenfelser then became the chairwoman of the Trump campaign’s anti-abortion coalition, working to mobilize state and national anti-abortion leaders to work to win the presidential election. 

Those decisions became easier when Trump picked Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence allies worried he'll be called to answer questions from Mueller: report Trump thought it was ‘low class’ for Pence to bring pets to VP residence: report Pence told RNC he could replace Trump on ticket after 'Access Hollywood' tape came out: report MORE to be his running mate. Pence has been a staunch opponent of abortion throughout his political career and helped fight to defund Planned Parenthood during his time in Congress.

And now, SBA says the gamble has paid off. The first five months of the Trump presidency has seen the confirmation of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and the signing of a law that would allow states to withhold federal family planning grants from Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide abortions. 

“When it comes down to actually getting concrete policy done, you couldn’t ask for a better White House,” Dannenfelser said. “It’s far more solidly committed to the life issue than any other White House has been.” 

Still, the Republican-controlled Congress and administration are facing challenges in following through on their pledge to repeal and replace ObamaCare. Senate leaders have said they hope to have a vote on the bill before the August recess, after which it would move back to the House, which narrowly passed its own version this spring. 

But some centrist senators have balked over provisions that roll back the Medicaid expansion or endanger coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.

SBA has a big interest in seeing the American Health Care Act (AHCA) passed, because it would fulfill two goals: banning people from using healthcare subsidies on insurance plans that provide abortions and defunding Planned Parenthood by blocking its facilities from receiving Medicaid reimbursements. 

“I have complete confidence that the president and vice president are behind this, and I also know that it’s because of the nature of the healthcare bill that there are some things that are beyond our control,” Dannenfelser said. 

“I’m confident that we’re going to get the policy in the end. My only concern is will it necessitate winning more Senate seats in 2018. I’m not concerned about Trump and Pence faltering. I’m more concerned about do we have the votes in the Senate to get what we want.” 

In its first year of operation, 1993, SBA had only $5,000 in the bank and operated out of Dannenfelser’s living room. Now, it’s a loud voice in the anti-abortion rights sphere, with a big impact on federal elections. 

It increased its lobbying spending by 500 percent over the last presidential election cycle and had more than 700 canvassers on the ground. 

SBA will soon move offices because it has outgrown its current one in downtown Washington, D.C. And it’s already gearing up for the 2018 elections, re-activating its teams in Florida and Ohio last month. 

Dannenfelser says the issue of “late-term abortion,” those that take place after 20 weeks, will be big in the midterms, central to taking down some Democrats in states won by Trump in November. 

“The issue of late-term abortions, where in the past people didn’t know it was a legal possibility, is now becoming a central issue in winning elections,” she said. 

And defunding Planned Parenthood is more realistic now than it has ever been, she said. 

“It’s by far the best, the most advantageous moment to defund them because people know more now about what they do,” she said. 

“Even a few years ago, they were the teflon organization that could not be touched. … I think if you asked four years ago, five years ago of any sort of typical legislator on the state or federal level, ‘Does Planned Parenthood do abortions?’ they might not know. They simply wouldn’t know, and Planned Parenthood really benefited from that lack of knowledge.” 

While Medicaid and other taxpayer dollars legally cannot be used for abortions, conservatives argue the money is fungible and indirectly supports it. 

They’d rather fund federally qualified community health centers, which don’t provide abortions, but experts have questioned whether those centers can fill gaps left by Planned Parenthood clinics across the country. 

An analysis of the AHCA completed in March estimated that excluding Planned Parenthood from Medicaid funds for one year would most likely affect people who live in areas without other healthcare clinics that serve low-income people, leaving about 15 percent of those people “without services that help women avert pregnancy.”

But Republicans have felt emboldened in the last few years following the release of undercover videos that appeared to show officials talking about selling fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood has denied any wrongdoing, and multiple state investigations have found no evidence that it violated any laws. 

Going up against Planned Parenthood is like “David and Goliath,” Dannenfelser said, but it’s a battle they have fought hard. 

“The secret is to be very, very specific in what you want to accomplish and not overestimate what you want to accomplish,” Dannenfelser said. 

“Small victories can be leveraged into big victories. … Of course, we don’t always get it right. But we work toward what is the most strategic decision we can make now with the resources we have that will achieve the highest impact.”