No House Republican did more to anger anti-abortion groups last year than Rep. Renee Ellmers, the North Carolina lawmaker who last January scuttled legislation to ban abortions after 20 weeks. At the time, anti-abortion leaders vowed that they and their members would remember Ellmers’ betrayal during her next primary.
Apparently, they forgot.
Nearly every one of the country’s most prominent anti-abortion groups have stayed out of Ellmers’ primary, not even offering so much as an endorsement to her opponents – much less the financial and grassroots support vital to defeating an incumbent member of Congress. In fact, a review of independent expenditure documents filed with the Federal Election Commission showed that none of these groups has spent money against Ellmers this year, an eye-opening revelation given the anger that still simmers over the congresswoman’s actions and the importance of abortion to many core GOP voters.
Indeed, a consortium of influential groups -- such as Susan B. Anthony List, Americans United for Life, Concerned Women for America, and the Family Research Council -- has actually spent less on the North Carolina race than the American College of Radiology Association PAC. The little-known political action committee has spent about $35,000 backing Ellmers, $35,000 more than the combined efforts of anti-abortion groups.
Anti-abortion groups have more time to organize against Ellmers if they want it – a court’s decision in February to throw out the existing congressional map in North Carolina has pushed back House primaries there from March 15 to June 7. But interviews with leaders of the movement suggest more time won’t change anything because rather than an anomaly, the Ellmers race is a symptom of a broader anti-abortion problem within not just the anti-abortion movement but social conservativism writ large.
Their assessment is blunt: Leading social conservative organizations are either too cozy with congressional leadership or simply don’t understand the importance of, when necessary, playing rough with lawmakers who vote against them. The consequence is a tangible feeling, on Capitol Hill and beyond, that stepping out of line on issues such as abortion rights and gay marriage carries less of an electoral penalty than defiance on issues such as taxes. That's because the latter will earn the ire of such well-funded groups as the fiscally focused Club for Growth, which has a well-known history of defeating Republican incumbents.
The Club, incidentally, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars earlier this year targeting Ellmers over perceived moderation on economic issues.
“Social-issue groups across the board need to recognize that if there are no consequences to people disagreeing with you, you’re not going to get taken seriously,” said Frank Cannon, a leader within the anti-abortion movement and president of the American Principles Project, a social conservative group. “We spend virtually nothing in directly engaging in elections. And the absence on that is one of the big dramatic flaws ... for the social conservative movement.”
In two other Republican primaries this year, featuring Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, social conservative groups have also failed to mount a serious effort against incumbents who defied them on key issues. Portman came out in favor of same-sex marriage in 2013, a decision that earned him vows of retribution from gay marriage opponents, while DesJarlais – among a long list of transgressions -- has acknowledged having twice urged his wife to have an abortion.
In both races, national social conservative groups have been almost entirely absent. DesJarlais’ Republican opponent has yet to pick up the endorsement of a single anti-abortion rights group, while Portman is on track to coast to an easy victory in his March 15 primary.
The details of each contest are different – Portman’s apostasy was not about abortion, for instance, and DesJarlais already survived a difficult primary in 2014 because of the revelations about his personal life. But many within the movement see a connective thread among all three.
“Pro-life groups want to get along with leadership,” said one social conservative leader, who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject. “They have board members who want to get along with leadership. They have donors who want to get along with leadership. So they make decision not to get cross-ways with leadership.”
It’s difficult to know exactly why some of these groups have stayed out of Republican primaries because, with few exceptions, their representatives declined repeated interview requests with Roll Call. By Friday afternoon, National Right to Life, including its chapters in Tennessee and North Carolina, National Organization for Marriage, Concerned Women for America, and Americans United for Life didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony List, which helps elect women who oppose abortion rights, declined to comment; Cannon, who is a former member of the group’s board, also declined to comment about SBAL’s absence from the DesJarlais and Ellmers races, though he agreed to speak broadly about why social conservative groups are reluctant to engage in GOP primaries.
One social conservative leader who did talk, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, said that when it came to the Ellmers race, his group considered an endorsement. But it held off because Ellmers had multiple opponents, he said, and the group was split on which one to endorse.
The congresswoman, he added, has also tried hard to mend fences with anti-abortion rights groups -- with some success.
"She has certainly not won a lot of favor among those groups, but ever since she angered those groups, us included, she has been trying to patch that up to abate some of the anger that was out there," he said.
Perkins said he didn't know enough about the DesJarlais race to comment. As for Portman, he said trying to find a strong challenger to take on a well-funded incumbent like the Ohio Republican was a tall task.
Money is the biggest obstacle facing social conservative groups, Cannon says. They don’t have much to begin with, he explains, because rich donors are more interested in fiscal issues. And what money these groups do have is funneled to other endeavors, such as legal strategies.
There’s no doubt, he adds, that in the era of unlimited contributions to super PACs, that organizations that don’t receive million-dollar checks easily have lost influence.
“Post-Citizens United, there has been a mismatch between the strength of the grassroots operation and ability of that to move the party and the ability of donors to move the party,” Cannon said.
Cannon’s super PAC, Campaign for American Principles, raised just $216,000 last year, hardly enough to influence primaries in which millions of dollars can be spent. The Club for Growth Super PAC, by comparison, raised nearly $4 million from January 2015 through January of 2016.
Republicans notice the difference.
“Not a single incumbent member of Congress is scared of them,” said one Republican strategist, unaffiliated with any social conservative group, who was requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Money, however, isn't the only explanation. To some conservatives, the lack of involvement – particularly in the Ellmers race – is a function not of limited resources but a lack of will to take on congressional leadership. Ellmers is popular among House GOP leaders, some say, and that makes her untouchable for a group such as National Right to Life.
“National Right to Life is probably one of the most counter-intuitive organizations in the conservative movement,” said Rachel Semmel, spokeswoman for Conservative Review, a media group targeted at conservatives. “They’re an establishment backing, status-quo protecting organization that is more concerned about their pocketbooks than the pro-life movement.”
Reasons abound for why other social conservative groups have kept their powder dry. SBAL, for instance, does not endorse men, complicating efforts to take down Ellmers when her leading challenger was a man. The National Organization for Marriage has existential challenges after the Supreme Court last year legalized same-sex marriage nationwide – to even some conservatives, the fight over it is over.
Portman is expected to waltz to victory later this month, easily defeating little-known challenger Don Eckhart. Why a group such as NOM didn’t do more to fight against Portman is unclear, said Lori Viars, a longtime social conservative activist in Ohio who lives north of Cincinnati. She said the group has done little to talk with grassroots leaders in the state.
Viars, who said she’s been more focused on local races than Portman’s primary, vowed that the Republican senator could still face backlash in the fall. Voters like her, she said, will either stay home or find a conservative third-party candidate to challenge him.
“Are we busy doing other things right now? Yes,” she said. “But that anger about Portman flipping on us is still very real.”
Ellmers’s bid for reelection hasn’t gone entirely unopposed by social conservative leaders. Eagle Forum PAC, founded by famed conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, endorsed one of her opponents, Jim Duncan (quipped the group’s executive director, “We would love for more social conservative groups to jump in -- the water is fine”).
Another group, the North Carolina Values Coalition, was also about to endorse Duncan until the state’s congressional races were thrown into chaos, said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the group.
Fitzgerald said she will continue taking the fight to Ellmers regardless of what her race looks like. But it would be nice, she added, if national groups would help.
“It concerns me and it frustrates me,” she said, “because the national groups are not holding her feet to the fire.”
Contact Roarty at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Alex_Roarty
Correction 11:45 a.m. | An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Frank Cannon's relationship with the Susan B. Anthony List's board. He is a former member.
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