It looked so simple back in 1973.
Less than three months earlier, Nixon had tarred McGovern as the candidate of abortion. He won 49 states. Referendums in Michigan and North Dakota rejected plans to liberalize the life-of-mother-only abortion laws in those states. In both referendums, the pro-life vote actually ran ahead of the vote for Nixon. Massachusetts, the one state which went for McGovern, was in the process of amending their Constitution to make unborn life even more legally secure. Even in New York, the legislature was now attempting to repeal its 1970 abortion-on-demand law. In December, 1972, National Review even ran a brief editorial lauding the apparent death of the “feticide” movement in America.
Then in January came Roe v. Wade, which was more radical than both New York’s law, and McGovern’s position in the recent election. Surely this decision would be overturned quickly by Constitutional amendment. And if not, surely voters would elect pro-life Congressmen at the earliest possible opportunity to pass such an amendment.
Well, not exactly.
Abortion did make a difference in one of the first post-Roe races. In early 1974, a special election was held in a Republican leaning district in Ohio. Tom Luken, the Democrat, pledged to back a right to life amendment. William Keating, the Republican, hedged. Luken won, but the victory was short-lived; when the election for a full term came around in November, Keating triumphed in the rematch.
A few states over in Kansas, Bob Dole narrowly edged out William Roy in a Senate election. For years afterward, Roy blamed his loss on the abortion issue. And yet the Dole-Roy contest was the exception. Everywhere else, the legally sanctioned execution of babies was essentially a non-issue. More important in the minds of most voters, apparently, was a trivial hotel break-in more than two years earlier.
We come now, to the great trophy of pro-life political activism: the Iowa Senate race of 1978. For more than 30 years, this race has been cited as proof of a pro-life voting bloc’s potential power. Democrat Dick Clark won an upset victory in 1972, and proceeded to become a loyal pro-choice vote for the ensuing six years. Republicans ran Roger Jepsen, a minimally talented candidate with little to recommend him other than a solid commitment to the right to life movement. Indeed, Jepsen’s campaign against Clark consisted of almost nothing else. He targeted heavily Democratic regions of the state with pro-life advertising, and in the end, enough Democrats crossed party lines to put Jepsen over the top.
For the next several weeks, the national media engaged in extensive concern trolling about the horrors of single-issue voting. How heartbreaking that such a hardworking Senator was thrown out because voters disagreed with him on one issue! Thankfully, Iowa paid no heed, and repeated the same performance two years later, ousting pro-choice Senator John Culver in favor of pro-life challenger Chuck Grassley.
But then, sometime in the early ’80s, Iowans finally did embrace the media’s advice, and got sick of making every election about abortion. In 1984, when Roger Jepsen ran for re-election, the issue played virtually no role in his loss to the virulently pro-choice Tom Harkin.
Single-issue voting returned with a vengeance in 1990, when Harkin ran for re-election. In contrast to the indomitably liberal Harkin, Republican candidate Tom Tauke was a moderate on virtually every issue. Except for abortion, that is. Like Roger Jepsen in 1978, Tom Harkin centered his campaign around abortion, but this time it was Tauke’s pro-life stance which was supposed to offend the majority of Iowa voters. Harkin’s gamble paid off, and Tauke went down to defeat. In twelve years, Iowa had undergone a complete 180.
With each passing year, the luster of Jepsen’s 1978 triumph dims a bit more. For whatever reason, voters will not throw out a Congressman just because he or she is pro-choice. Probably the saddest example of this general rule was former Texas Representative Chet Edwards. Edwards supported partial-birth abortion, and yet his lopsidedly conservative district sent him back to Congress time after time. It took the wave election of 2010 for Edwards to finally go down.
These days, it seems the only elections swung by the abortion issue are swung in favor of the pro-choice candidate. Akin. Mourdock. I need say nothing else. Voters will not send supporters of partial-birth abortion packing, but they will deny support to opponents of rape and incest exceptions.
Pro-choice candidates for president have now taken the majority of the popular vote in 5 out the last 6 elections. What’s that? Polls say that 50% call themselves “pro-life” and only 41% call themselves “pro-choice”? Well, you can keep your polls. I prefer to let the American electorate’s actions at the ballot box speak for themselves. Whatever the polls say, fellow travelers, I can tell you only this: we’re not in 1978 Iowa any more.