On abortion, GOP is the dog that caught the car

by Al Cross, Kentucky Lantern

Two months ago, I began gathering string to write about abortion and Attorney General Daniel Cameron, after he seemed to have a problem dealing with the issue. Now he’s having bigger problems.

The day before the annual Fancy Farm Picnic, the Republican nominee for governor spoke to about 25 people at a hilltop park that is home to the huge memorial cross at Wickliffe, where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi.

After Cameron finished his standard campaign pitch, the event’s organizer asked him to talk about “one of my favorite subjects, which is abortion, to do away with abortion.” She mentioned that she’s one of 11 children, and said “Your fight against abortion means a lot.”

Cameron still uttered not a word about abortion, simply saying, “God bless you all. Thank you all. Thank you so much.”

It appears now that Cameron and his campaign team were still trying to figure out how to deal with the issue, and he’s still fumbling the ball. Here’s the background:

Abortion stopped being an easy issue for Republicans over a year ago. That’s when their dog caught the car and the U.S. Supreme Court said there was no federal constitutional right to abortion, striking down the 49-year-old Roe v. Wade decision.

That threw the issue to the states, and anti-abortion activists pressed statehouse Republicans for tough restrictions. The politicians caved, fearing any weakness on the issue would open them up to primary challenges, many in districts so gerrymandered that primaries are decisive.

Kentucky Republicans had already passed a “trigger law” to take effect if and when Roe was overturned. It bans abortion unless there is a threat to the woman’s life, with no additional exceptions for cases of rape or incest. All those exceptions were once the mainstream Republican position.

But in the new world of abortion politics, Republicans fear giving primary foes any openings on the issue. That appeared to be Cameron’s thinking when he told Northern Kentucky Right to Life, the state’s most zealous anti-abortion group, that he supported the trigger law as it stands.

That was in the primary. Now, Cameron is running uphill against Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who generally supports abortion rights but is making an issue of Cameron’s opposition to rape and incest exceptions. The fact that a Democrat is running on an abortion issue shows how the Supreme Court moved the ball to the other side of the field and put Republicans on the defensive.

Cameron needs turnout from both the anti-abortion base and moderates, especially women. The latter requires showing that he’s not a zealot. So, on Sept. 18, he said on WHAS Radio that he would sign a bill adding rape and incest exceptions to the law.

“No question about it,” he said. But there was one, left unasked. Would he seek such a bill? He finally had to answer that question Sept. 27 when a woman in London expressed disappointment with his Sept. 18 statement. He said what he really meant was that he would support the exceptions only “if the courts made us change that law. . . . It wouldn’t be me, proactively.”

Such a court ruling is inconceivable, and Cameron knows it. One wonders if he knew he was being recorded by the woman, apparently a liberal activist masquerading as an abortion opponent. Cameron could have been accused of masquerading as a lawyer.

Regardless of how it happened, the encounter revealed Cameron as a candidate who obfuscates and misleads on an issue many voters care deeply about. 

Turning the tables, Cameron’s campaign said his opponent should tell voters “on what week (in a pregnancy) would Andy Beshear protect the unborn.” Beshear’s campaign said he “has always supported reasonable restrictions, especially on late-term procedures.”

Don’t look for Beshear to answer Cameron’s question about weeks, though he should.

Last year, before Roe was overturned, he vetoed a bill that had a ban after the 15th week, saying it was probably unconstitutional for other reasons, while highlighting its lack of a rape-and-incest exception. The legislature overrode his veto, and this year sat on a bill that would have added the exception.

Both candidates want to have it both ways. Cameron shows some sympathy for the exception in order to attract moderates, but not so much that he turns off voters like the woman at Wickliffe. Beshear stays vague on a big issue while rightly depicting Cameron as a would-be governor who won’t advance the position held by most voters.

Ironically, Cameron is in this tight spot due to the Supreme Court, which has the members it does and makes the rulings it does in large measure because it was refashioned by Cameron’s political mentor, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. In this case, the law of unintended consequences works in Beshear’s favor.

This column is republished from the Northern Kentucky Tribune, a nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism.

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