Political Hay

The Life of California’s Party

California Republicans will not avoid an abortion fight as they try to pin down Carly Fiorina and Chuck DeVore on the issue.

By 12.15.09

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In 1992, California Republicans held a blistering primary fight between conservative Bruce Herschensohn and moderate Tom Campbell to determine who would be their candidate in one of the state's two Senate races that fall. The biggest issue separating them was abortion: Herschensohn was pro-life, Campbell pro-choice (Republicans nominated pro-choice John Seymour for the other seat). When Herschensohn went down to defeat at the hands of liberal Democrat Barbara Boxer, it was supposed to be a wake-up call for Republicans.

The argument usually ran thus: The California GOP's conservative primary electorate needs to recognize that they live in a pro-choice state and cease their stubborn insistence on nominating pro-life candidates for public office. This had at least a superficial ring of truth, since polls confirmed the state's pro-choice tilt and Democrats won most elections. Yet ostentatiously pro-choice Republicans like Seymour and Campbell also lost when they got their chance, suggesting that perhaps Californians simply did not like Republicans. Since 1998, only three have won statewide -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is pro-choice, Bill Jones, who is pro-life, and Steve Poizner, who is somewhere in between.

Abortion still divides the state party -- Poizner is already trying to get to primary opponent Meg Whitman's right on the issue -- but it does not divide the two Republicans running for the right to take on Barbara Boxer this time around. Both businesswoman Carly Fiorina and Assemblyman Chuck DeVore describe themselves as pro-life and dismiss the idea that the issue could doom them in 2010.

But don't expect comity in the culture wars just yet. While Fiorina embraces the pro-life label, not everyone believes her: the San Jose Mercury quoted unnamed "Republican insiders" describing her as "moderate and pro-choice." In her role as a surrogate for John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign, Fiorina raised pro-life eyebrows for erroneously saying McCain had "never signed on to efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade." She was later quoted as saying, "For those women who are a single-issue voter on the subject of abortion, John McCain won't get their vote, and I accept that."

Such statements can be exaggerated or taken out of context. In the very same interview where she gave that last quote, Fiorina also clearly said, "I personally happen to be pro-life. John McCain has a very long pro-life record and he won't walk away from that record." But for pro-life activists, the devil is in the details.

"I believe that life begins at conception and I am personally pro-life, except, of course, in the case of rape or incest or health of the mother," Fiorina said at the start of her Senate run. "In terms of government policy, I believe we need to do what we can to reduce the number of abortions and I think we need to provide alternatives to women to abortion, such as, for example, making adoption more accessible." She has also "absolutely" said, "I oppose the use of federal funding for abortion."

Discerning pro-lifers will ask: Why "personally"? How narrowly or broadly does she define the health exception? What will her abortion-reduction strategy entail in a climate where many policies opposed by pro-lifers are pursued in the name of that goal? Fiorina may find that navigating the code and buzzwords associated with the abortion debate is more troublesome than simply adopting the pro-life or pro-choice moniker.

Expect Chuck DeVore to seize on these doubts about Fiorina's pro-life bona fides as he seeks to challenge her from the right in the Republican primary. While Fiorina is relatively new to politics, DeVore as a legislator has had a chance to vote repeatedly on abortion-related issues and has compiled a pro-life record. But once again, the devil is in the details.

DeVore voted to approve the California state budget in 2005 and 2008. Both budgets contained funding for Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program. Medi-Cal uses state money to subsidize abortion (the use of federal funds for elective abortion within Medicaid is barred under the Hyde Amendment). Both times DeVore voted yes the budgets passed easily, but with non-trivial numbers of GOP no votes. Both times, efforts to separate out the abortion funding from the budgets had already been defeated when the final vote took place. Consequently, the budgets as passed contained abortion funding.

As of 2004, Medi-Cal funded nearly 40 percent of all abortions performed in California. According to the Women's Health Rights Coalition, that amounts to "an estimated 90,946 induced abortions out of the total 236,000 performed." Roughly $33 million is spent funding abortions. Wynette Sills of the Coalition to Eliminate Abortion Funding told a pro-life website that 25 percent of the money goes to Planned Parenthood, despite the abortion provider's reported $1 billion in revenues. At the national level, the health care debate illustrates the importance of having a precise understanding of how legislation could result in taxpayer funding of abortion.

The DeVore campaign rejects the budget votes as an issue. "The bottom line is this: Chuck DeVore is a pro-life leader in California politics, and vastly stronger on the issue than his primary opponent, Carly Fiorina," DeVore communications director Joshua Trevino told TAS. "The fact is that no meaningful California pro-life group considers a budget vote to be a litmus test -- which is why the staunchly pro-life CA Republican Assembly and the Capitol Resource Institute have given DeVore successive 100% ratings year after year."

"Given his actual record, and given the repeated imprimatur of pro-life activist groups, any critique of Chuck DeVore as somehow insufficiently pro-life is weak indeed," Trevino continued, contrasting this with a primary opponent he says was "AWOL from every single pro-life fight in California, from parental notification to the very budget debates you mention."

With Carly Fiorina and Chuck DeVore both running as pro-life candidates, this isn't the Herschensohn-Campbell battle of seventeen years ago. But expect California Republicans to have an abortion fight during this primary race nevertheless.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.