Abortion vote puts Tillis and McCrory in tough political spot

jfrank@newsobserver.comJuly 3, 2013 

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House Speaker Thom Tillis, left, and Senate leader Phil Berger applaud during Gov. Pat McCrory's State of the State address Feb. 16 in the House chambers at the state Legislature Building in Raleigh.

TRAVIS LONG — 2013 News & Observer file photo Buy Photo

— Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis now hold a political landmine – and they have their Republican colleagues in the Senate to thank.

Led by social conservatives, Senate Republicans rushed to approve a bill restricting abortions and in the process galvanized an increasingly vocal opposition movement in North Carolina, spurring 600 protesters to rally at the Legislative Building on only hours’ notice.

The political implications of the move are as far-reaching as the legislation. Not only does the issue of abortion split voters, it divides the state’s most prominent GOP leaders.

“This is an interesting move for Republicans in the Senate because it puts two other Republicans in a bind,” said David McLennan, a William Peace University political expert.

For Tillis, it complicates his bid for the U.S. Senate in 2014. The Cornelius lawmaker is the most prominent Republican candidate in the race, but he has a reputation for focusing on business-friendly initiatives rather than social issues.

If he supports the bill, or tacitly consents by putting it to a vote, Tillis risks alienating female voters who hold the key to victory in his bid against Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan. And if he quashes the measure, he may alienate his own party and encourage a more conservative primary challenger that could cripple his campaign.

“I think the base of the Republican Party is watching how the speaker performs in this session,” said Marc Rotterman, a Raleigh-based Republican media strategist.

Democratic strategist Thomas Mills was more blunt. “They have Thom Tillis over a barrel,” he said. If he supports it, “he’s going to lose so many women and become a target. But if he doesn’t, it could be toxic to him.”

It’s unclear where Tillis stands on the legislation. He was not available for comment, and a spokesman did not respond to questions.

‘Lightning rod race’

But Hagan didn’t waste time entering the debate. Through her office, she issued a statement about the legislation, saying “these are not the values we hold in North Carolina.”

“Instead of attacking women’s health care, the General Assembly needs to turn their focus to the No. 1 concern of North Carolinians – jobs and the economy,” she added.

McLennan said Hagan needs to get roughly 65 percent of the women’s vote in 2014 while the Republican candidate needs about 50 percent to win. “This issue can turn a race of national prominence into a lightning rod race,” he said.

McCrory’s tough choice

McCrory faces an equally complicated calculus. In his campaign, the governor pledged not to sign any legislation that restricts access to abortions. He could allow the bill to become law without his signature, but it may make him look irrelevant and won’t completely insulate him.

“I don’t think they are doing the governor any favors,” said Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat. “I think the governor is in an odd situation because at the end of the day, he owns the Republican Party. ... Its policies are a reflection of him. Hopefully, he is an honest broker and keeps his word and brings some moderation back to the state of North Carolina.”

The governor issued a statement Wednesday criticizing the process by which the bill won approval, but he did not address the issue.

Conservative confidence

The pressure from anti-abortion organizations is mounting. Rev. Mark Creech, the Christian Action League’s executive director, said Republicans who support House Bill 695 are fulfilling their campaign promises. “This is something Republicans said they were for,” he said. “Today, they demonstrated they were for it. I think you are going to see them keep that commitment on the House side as well.”

Likewise, Creech said he is confident the governor will support the measure. “I think when he’s put to the test, and he recognizes how important this bill is to protecting women’s health ... you’ll see that he comes for this bill.”

Whether the abortion legislation carries broader political ramifications remains unknown.

Will voters pay attention?

Senate Democratic leader Martin Nesbitt suggested it may be the tipping point to make voters pay attention to the Republican legislative agenda. “I was convinced that you were going to have to poke them in the eye with a stick to make them aware of what’s going on here, and you did,” the Asheville lawmaker said. “And I thank you for it.”

But his Republican counterpart, Sen. Harry Brown of Jacksonville said he didn’t think the measure would repel voters. “If I was a woman, I would want the bill because it gives me more protections if I make that choice,” he said.

Janet Colm, the Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina president, said the political weight of the legislation is apparent. “All you have to do is look at this,” she said, pointing to the hundreds of protesters outside the Legislative Building.

Heidi Baird, a 60-year-old from Cary, stood nearby holding a bright pink sign. “I think they are going to pay for it,” she said.

Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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