By Elise Viebeck - 08/20/14 06:00 AM EDT
Republicans are working to strike a blow against abortion rights and the Senate incumbents who support them by emphasizing late-term abortion on the campaign trail.
With the political map favoring the GOP, opponents of abortion are rallying their supporters for a coordinated ground game meant to counterbalance Democratic attacks over birth control and personhood.
The most prominent group is Women Speak Out PAC, which is targeting Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), none of whom support the Graham bill.
"It's a great time to be pro-life," said Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), a former congresswoman, and the vice president for government affairs with the Susan B. Anthony List, the PAC's partner.
"It's a good time to be an organization that's going after senators who are out of touch with their pro-life states. We have an opportunity to highlight how out of touch they are with their constituents,” Musgrave said.
The party only needs six additional Senate seats to gain control of the chamber, and beating Landrieu, Pryor and Hagan would be a big step toward that goal.
"These senators are doing everything they can to block a vote in the Senate" on Graham's bill, Musgrave said. "But we're working very hard to get the message out to people who are going to show up at the polls and vote against a senator that is pro-abortion."
At the same time, abortion opponent groups are facing organized and powerful opposition from the Democratic side.
Some vulnerable incumbents are getting help from well-funded abortion rights groups like Planned Parenthood and EMILY's List, which are are working hard to paint GOP candidates as out-of-touch on issues like birth control.
A spokeswoman for Hagan declined to comment on the abortion issue but blasted her GOP challenger as extreme on issues of birth control.
"Kay believes the decision to use birth control should be between a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss," Sadie Weiner wrote in an email, "but Speaker [Thom] Tillis cheered the Supreme Court decision that said private for-profit companies could deny coverage of birth control. Those are the wrong priorities for women's health."
A Pryor campaign official said the senator “is personally opposed to abortion, but he thinks women should have the right to decide in cases like rape, incest and when the mother's life is in danger. ... His stance is in line with a lot of Arkansans who are opposed to abortion for personal reasons but want there to be a choice in specific cases."
And a spokesman for Landrieu said his boss believes "life is precious and a gift from God, but ... the government should not be involved in forcing decisions that are very personal and essentially family — and private — matters."
Between the two sides, it's a competition for eyes and ears on the ground in key states.
A Louisiana official with the National Right to Life Victory Fund said his group plans to spend $250,000 on billboards, direct mail and radio ads against Landrieu.
In addition to some paid advertising, the Women Speak Out PAC said it is focused on going door to door to motivate conservative voters who might not otherwise turn out in November.
The group has established 13 field offices in its target states and said it will hit more than 100,000 homes by the end of the week with its message on the 20-week ban and against ObamaCare and taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood. It plans to spend between $8 million and $10 million this election cycle.
But the numbers reveal an enormous cash advantage for Democratic outside groups.
Planned Parenthood's political arm plans to spend $3 million in North Carolina alone as part of its largest campaign offensive ever.
The group's national investment in 2014 is expected to approach $20 million, a number that comes in addition to spending by other groups such as EMILY's List.
A former Democratic campaign official argued that such recent news events as the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision strengthens incumbents' hand.
The ruling made it possible for some for-profit corporations to refuse to cover birth control on religious grounds and has been supported by GOP candidates.
"Polling repeatedly shows that access to birth control doesn't just turn out Democratic voters, but it also brings independents and moderate Republicans into the fold," the former official said.
"Access to birth control is the kind of mainstream issue that draws into stark relief how extreme many of these Republican candidates are."
These charges are part of Republicans' calculus in moving to shake up debates over women's healthcare on the campaign trail.
Some Republican Senate candidates have embraced making birth control available over the counter to mitigate attacks from other abortion opponent groups.
Neither Women Speak Out PAC nor its peers have taken up the issue on candidates' behalf so far, choosing instead to focus on Democrats' abortion positions.
But Musgrave acknowledged that the financial disparity between her side and the Democrats poses a significant challenge.
"At times, the funding that they have is daunting," she said. "I readily admit that because they have a lot of money to do what they want. But the fact of the matter is, they are on the wrong side of these issues, and if we do our work, they're going to lose."
This cycle presents a test for conservative activists trying to use late-term abortion to strengthen Republicans' position.
Abortion opponent groups point to the record surge of new abortion restrictions at the state level to argue that women are open to limits they argue protect women's health.
Several national polls have also shown that women voters back the GOP's 20-week abortion ban, including a 2013 Washington Post-ABC News survey that pegged their level of support at 60 percent.
But liberal activists point to separate surveys that find support for late-term abortion in critical circumstances, such as to protect the woman's life and health or in cases of severe fetal abnormality.
A new national poll by NARAL Pro-Choice America reported that nearly 7 in 10 oppose government limits on abortion.
Democrats argue Republicans will never be able to make late-term abortion as effective a bludgeon as birth control access is for Democrats.
But the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), in its own statement, said Democratic candidates should not be able to "hide" behind birth control as a way of deflecting attention from their abortion views.
"The left is abandoning both [the phrases] 'war on women' and 'pro-choice' in favor of 'women's health' and 'women's issues,'" said NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen, who has spearheaded abortion messaging against Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).
"If they are talking about abortion, they should not be allowed to hide behind 'women's health,' which to most women is far more likely to mean cardiovascular disease and breast cancer, not abortion and contraception. … It's ridiculous and it's basically an effort to fool women."