Politico: Planned Parenthood: '12 litmus test?

This article first appeared online at Politico on June 8, 2011.

Planned Parenthood: ’12 litmus test?
By: Sarah Kliff

The battle over Planned Parenthood’s public funding is shaping up as the key reproductive health issue in 2012 elections, with groups on both sides of abortion politics already mobilizing for a fierce battle.

Abortion rights opponents describe Planned Parenthood’s public funding as a new “litmus test” for Republican candidates — and an easy way to draw a distinction with President Barack Obama — while abortion rights supporters are eagerly eyeing the debate as an attack on contraceptives that could mobilize the Democratic base.

“We will bring it to the forefront in every way that we can,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group that has largely driven the push to defund Planned Parenthood. “This is our number one policy focus … and we’re treating it as a litmus test. If any Republican nominee can’t summon the courage to call for Planned Parenthood to be defunded, that’s a serious problem.”

The idea of Planned Parenthood’s funding as a Republican litmus test does not sit well with all of the party’s strategists, some of whom worry it will drive away the exact constituencies that the party needs to win in 2012.

“It would send a terrible message to independent voters the GOP needs in order to win,” said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to John McCain, now at Public Strategies.

And while the country has remained evenly split between identifying as “pro-life” and “pro-choice”—trending slightly toward “pro-life” in recent years — the vast majority of Americans support increased access to many of the contraceptives that Planned Parenthood provides.

“Federal policy already restricts use of Planned Parenthood funds for abortion, so if GOP candidates push this issue it would be perceived as tone deaf and intolerant to important electoral constituencies,” McKinnon said.

Planned Parenthood’s funding for family planning services, however, has become a polarizing political issue, with both sides playing hardball in their attempts to take away or defend the group’s public funding.

Planned Parenthood’s federal funding emerged as a national issue this year, when a Republican proposal to strip the group of public dollars — and Democrats’ refusal to negotiate on the provision — pushed congressional budget negotiations to the eleventh hour.

The issue hasn’t gone away. Most recently, CMS Administrator Don Berwick has threatened to strip Indiana of all Medicaid funding, which comes in at around $4.3 billion, if it moves forward with its proposal to bar contracts with abortion providers.

With the political lines starkly drawn, anti-abortion groups want to see Planned Parenthood’s public funding become a central issue in 2012, similar to the way that they positioned around the health reform law in 2010.

Susan B. Anthony List had a strong impact last year, running aggressive campaigns against anti-abortion Democrats who supported the health reform law. Both Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.) and Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) lost reelection bids in the face of sweeping SBA List campaigns.

Now, the group has begun collecting statements from Republican presidential contenders on the issue. On the congressional front, the group plans to spend $1 million into campaigns against Planned Parenthood, largely centered on Missouri, West Virginia and Nebraska. Two of those states are home to anti-abortion Democrats who voted in favor of continuing Planned Parenthood’s public support: Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.)

Planned Parenthood’s funding has already begun to make early inroads as a campaign issue. The question came up at the first Republican presidential debate, hosted in May by The Daily Caller. All participating candidates in that debate agreed that they would strip Planned Parenthood of its federal dollars.

And last week at the Faith and Freedom Conference, possible presidential contender Rep. Michele Bachmann called Planned Parenthood “corrupt” and too “disgusting” to discuss.

“Obama has made it a presidential level issue by being willing to shut down the federal government” over Planned Parenthood’s funding, Dannenfelser said. “Now, he’s willing to revoke all Medicaid funds to Indiana. He has made this a top drawer issue.”

Planned Parenthood is also preparing for its funding to become a central campaign issue. They recently wrapped up a survey of likely female voters in the New Hampshire Republican primary — and liked what they found.

The poll, provided exclusively to POLITICO, found a quarter of the female Republicans “unwilling” to support a Republican candidate who would defund Planned Parenthood. Overall, 38 percent opposed barring federal funding for Planned Parenthood health centers and 35 percent had a “favorable” opinion of “Planned Parenthood and the services it provides.”

Moreover, Planned Parenthood saw a significant increase in activism the last time its funding became a national issue. The group had 825,000 supporters sign an online petition in its support during the congressional debate, half of whom were new to Planned Parenthood’s email list. Online fundraising spiked by 500 percent.

“It’s a bad litmus test for Republicans since it is unpopular with the majority of voters, and especially unpopular with key voters, including women and young voters,” says Dawn Laguens, Executive Vice President of Public Policy and Communications at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “Opposing Planned Parenthood also poses a problem for them in the general election, since independent and swing voters support Planned Parenthood.”

But Susan B. Anthony List said its polling says otherwise. A survey they conducted in April of this year found 54 percent of Americans surveyed opposed “tax dollars for family planning services going to organizations that perform abortions.” That same poll found that 52 percent of independents and 51 percent of women opposed funding family planning services for abortion providers.

With those numbers, Dannenfelser expects to hear much more on the subject from the Republican presidential contenders.

“It’s an effective grass-roots motivator that has incredible intensity,” she said. “If you’re a member who voted the wrong way on this, you’re pretty nervous.”

This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 5:35 a.m. on June 8, 2011.

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