The politics of abortion are already vexing vulnerable senators from both parties on the 2018 ballot.
Two of the most endangered senators up for reelection next year, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Nevada Republican Dean Heller, are being targeted by their opposition for stumbling over the issue recently. And there’s plenty more in store: If the Senate calls up a bill to repeal Obamacare, controversy over Planned Parenthood funding will come to the fore — ensuring the 2018 campaign won’t lack for that perennial lightning rod.
Manchin told POLITICO that he’s prepared for a politically-charged vote, and that he would continue to support federal funding for Planned Parenthood as long as the four-decade-old ban on the use of federal money for abortions remains in place.
"It’s a shame if that’s all they have,” Manchin said of Republicans trying to make an issue of his Planned Parenthood votes conflicting with his personal opposition to abortion. "These are social issues, not political issues. You are what you are — I was born and raised that way. Life is very sacred to me."
The GOP attacked Manchin after he met last week with David Daleiden, the conservative filmmaker behind undercover videos that appeared to show Planned Parenthood representatives discussing potential sales of fetal tissue. The meeting gave anti-abortion activists hope that he would vote to cut off federal funds for the organization, a position he took in 2015 soon after the Daleiden tapes emerged.
But Manchin voted in March to safeguard state funds for Planned Parenthood, cheering pro-abortion rights activists, and said in an interview that he would consider changing his vote on cutting off federal money for the group if the "horrible accusations" made by Daleiden’s tapes are proven true. Daleiden remains embroiled in an ongoing criminal probe in California related to that sting.
"Manchin has always branded himself as a pro-life politician, but as he’s getting pressure from the left — he has a primary opponent now — he’s been trying to make inroads with them," one Senate GOP aide said. "He’ll say whatever it takes to get elected."
Indeed, Republicans are lashing Manchin for taking a picture with a "We Don’t Need Planned Parenthood" sign during his meeting with anti-abortion activists — two weeks after posing alongside an "I Stand With Planned Parenthood" sign.
Heller is facing jabs of his own from Democrats after telling constituents last month that he would “protect” Planned Parenthood — only to explain later that he voted to yank its federal funds to protest its involvement in abortions. The Democratic super PAC American Bridge slammed him for trying "to pretend to support Planned Parenthood."
The influential women’s-health organization spent big in Nevada in 2016 against former GOP Rep. Joe Heck, who lost his race to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.). Planned Parenthood is already citing Nevada polling that shows 49 percent of voters in the state would be less prone to supporting candidates who vote to defunding it.
Heller has long voted to pull Planned Parenthood money, however, despite initially describing himself as an abortion-rights backer before his 2006 House election. Manchin’s shift in votes, by contrast, makes him a potentially easier mark for his political opposition.
And while Democrats vow to use Heller’s support for defunding the group against him in his reelection, Manchin is already facing trouble — in the form of challengers from the left and right in addition to deep-rooted skepticism from abortion-rights groups.
"There are personally pro-life senators" beyond Manchin in the Democratic fold who "don’t take anti-choice votes," NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said in an interview.
Citing Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), "who says he’s personally pro-life, but has a 100 percent voting record" with abortion rights groups, Hogue added: "Do I think anti-choice votes will be something Democratic senators will have to explain? I do, actually."
The group of Democrats who have identified as personally anti-abortion but have consistently supported funding for Planned Parenthood include Kaine and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey. Both Manchin and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) voted to protect the group’s funding this year but supported yanking its federal money in 2015. All four face difficult reelection fights next year.
Casey said in an interview that Manchin "has been honest" about his position and has joined a united Democratic front in support of family-planning programs designed to further drive down the number of abortions. (The nation’s abortion rate declined between 2004 and 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control.)
"If Republicans are going to attack candidates like Joe Manchin, who’s working to create and foster common ground, I think it’s a losing argument," Casey added. "I think Joe will win the argument and get reelected."
The toughest political vote for Manchin and Heller looms later this year, when Senate GOP leaders are expected to bring their own Obamacare repeal bill to the floor. The House’s repeal plan halts Medicaid money for Planned Parenthood, and one senator or another is certain to force the issue in the upper chamber as well.
If the Senate bill embraces the House position, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has said she’ll seek to strip that provision. And if the Senate’s health care bill doesn’t take aim at Planned Parenthood, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) or another conservative is likely to pursue a vote to target the group. Under the same powerful procedural rules that allow Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to repeal Obamacare with only GOP votes, the Senate bill would be open to a flurry of amendments.
Heller does not support the House Obamacare repeal bill, but he has no quarrel with its steep cuts to Planned Parenthood, spokeswoman Megan Taylor said.
"Senator Heller has worked hard to improve women’s access to health care and the quality of care they receive," Taylor said by email. "While he doesn’t have a problem with many of the health care services Planned Parenthood offers to women, he is opposed to providing federal funding to any organization that performs abortions and is supported by taxpayers’ dollars; he has a long record that reflects his position."
Mallory Quigley, spokeswoman for the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, predicted that the Senate’s initial health bill would strip Planned Parenthood money, and urged Democrats who have voted with abortion foes to return to the fold.
"We have so many pro-life allies, chief among them the Senate majority leader," Quigley said in an interview. "So I strongly believe this will be included. And it’s really important that it be bipartisan."