Will North Carolina's Abortion Restrictions Backfire on the GOP?

Jenny Warburg

In the days since North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a restrictive new abortion bill into law, directing state officials to regulate abortion clinics like surgical centers, the first-term Republican has gotten a sharp taste of abortion-rights advocates’ wrath. Only one clinic in the state currently meets the new regulations; the rest will have to undergo expensive renovations or face closure. On Monday, dozens of protesters held a 12-hour vigil outside the governor’s mansion as they waited to hear whether McCrory would sign the law. Returning the next day, after they learned that McCrory had approved the measure, the protesters wore Mad Men-style shirtdresses and old-fashioned lace gloves to emphasize the law’s regressiveness. They waved signs and chanted slogans, encouraging passing motorists to honk in support of their cause. In a nod to the motorcycle safety bill that contained the restrictions, motorcyclists circled the mansion. (No one crashed.)

On Tuesday, McCrory finally emerged, flanked by four bodyguards, and presented a demonstrator with a plate of cookies before making a hasty retreat. Stunned, the protesters slipped the cookies back under the gate to the governor’s mansion, with a note reading: “We want women’s health care, not cookies.”

“I love this state, I've lived here 22 years, and it's horrifying,” says Susan Eder, a Raleigh resident who attended the protests. “[The law] is a betrayal of the women of North Carolina. McCrory’s disrespect for women is so blatant. But it’s not just him – this is a government that thrives on ignorance.”

North Carolinians’ displeasure with the legislative term that ended last Friday should not be news to McCrory or to Republican lawmakers. In a six-month session, the state’s first Republican supermajority since Reconstruction ended federal unemployment benefits for tens of thousands of workers, rejected Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, discarded the earned income tax credit for low-income families, slashed funding for public schools, and passed one of the most far-reaching voter identification laws in the country—all in addition to the restrictive abortion law. As Abby Rapoport recently reported, the barrage of extreme legislation sparked a groundswell of protest among the residents of what has traditionally been the South’s most moderate state. A Public Policy Polling survey released on July 16 revealed that the governor’s approval rating had plummeted 15 points since June.  In the same poll, nearly half of voters said that the General Assembly was causing North Carolina national embarrassment.

Anger over the abortion bill strengthened voters’ discontent. Only 34 percent approved of the legislation, while 47 percent were opposed. Nearly half (48 percent) said McCrory should veto the law. Regardless of their convictions on abortion, North Carolinians seemed especially outraged by the tactics used to pass the restrictions. Eighty percent say it was inappropriate for the General Assembly to combine abortion laws with a bill about motorcycle safety. It also didn’t help that for McCrory, signing the abortion bill into law was a brazen violation of a campaign-trail promise. In a debate just two weeks before Election Day last fall, a reporter asked then-candidate McCrory if he would, as governor, sign further abortion restrictions into law. McCrory answered, “None.”

The blowback in North Carolina should be a lesson for Republican lawmakers in moderate states who are taking far-reaching steps to limit abortion. Public-opinion data makes it abundantly clear that Americans oppose efforts to limit abortion access, especially in the first trimester. A poll conducted for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal and released last week shows that when it comes to pushing a partisan agenda on issues like abortion and gay rights, Americans are more mistrustful of Republicans than they are of Democrats. An ABC News/Washington Post poll, also from last week, shows that a majority of Americans oppose state-level legislation that makes it more difficult for abortion clinics to operate. Perhaps most tellingly, nearly two-thirds say that instead of having each state construct its own abortion laws, abortion policy should be decided for all states on the basis of the U.S. Constitution.

Now that McCrory has signed the bill, pro-choice advocates say they will turn their attention from protesting to voter registration and engagement. Their goal is to ensure that North Carolina voters stay troubled by the restrictions imposed by the new law—and that they will head to the ballot box in legislative elections 2014 and for the gubernatorial election in 2016 to voice their displeasure. They hope to prove to Republicans—in North Carolina and beyond—that they cannot pass such unpopular laws and remain in office.

“When McCrory was running for governor, most people gave him the benefit of the doubt,” says Paige Johnson, Vice President of External Affairs for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Central North Carolina. “But now, people are opening up their eyes and saying wow, who did we elect? There are a lot of independent women who voted for McCrory who are deeply disappointed in his actions. We’ve got to gear up for the next election.”

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