The head of a major anti-abortion group has a strong message for the rest of the social conservative movement: It’s time to punish our enemies at the ballot box.
Even if that means taking on fellow Republicans.
The need for payback explains why Susan B. Anthony List took the unprecedented step Wednesday of endorsing the male opponent of Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers, said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the group. SBAL is dedicated to electing GOP women who oppose abortion rights, and has never endorsed a man over a pro-life woman in a Republican primary.
But last year, Ellmers infuriated some anti-abortion activists when she helped stall a House bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks. Now, Dannenfelser’s group is bending its own rules to exact revenge.
“You’re not really an effective political organization if you can’t respond to the derailment of your number one priority,” Dannenfelser said.
The anti-abortion leader wants her group’s action to resonate among all social conservative leaders, who she believes aren’t focused enough on punishing – and rewarding – lawmakers in their elections.
That lack of electoral involvement was evident across the GOP primary map this year, where social conservative groups failed to seriously challenge Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman after he announced his support for same-sex marriage . Or in Tennessee, where the primary opponent to Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais has yet to earn the support of social conservative groups despite the incumbent congressman’s checkered personal history .
Social conservative groups had avoided challenging Ellmers, too, before federal courts ordered a redrawn congressional map in North Carolina. But Dannenfelser said Ellmers' new opponent in the 2nd Congressional District, Rep. George Holding, made the opportunity to oppose her more enticing.
Example to Follow
It’s an example, she said, more social conservative groups need to follow. Otherwise, they will continue to lose major legislative battles on Capitol Hill.
“There is no short and swift reaction to bad votes, and there is no short and swift reaction to people who need our help,” Dannenfelser said. “Without that political arm, without that discipline, we will continue to lose.”
Dannenfelser said social conservative groups don’t weigh in more on electoral politics because many of them are focused on talking to voters about issues, not on which candidate to support or oppose. Groups are so used to that approach – which includes raising money through nonprofit organizations – that it’s difficult to adjust.
"There’s a ton of education, a ton of legal work, a lot of people who really believe, but where is the outward political expression of that?" she asked. "It’s simply not there."
Ellmers faces a difficult re-election fight in her state’s 2nd District, where she is running against Holding and obstetrician Greg Brannon. The support of Susan B. Anthony List could prove important in a tight race, especially given its focus on an issue of visceral importance to the conservative base.
Dannenfelser said SBAL will target 12,000 pro-life voters with phone calls and personal visits from hundreds of canvassers.
Anti-abortion activists are angry with Ellmers because of her role in stalling a bill in January of 2015 that would have banned abortions at 20-weeks, except in cases of rape, incest, and if the life of the mother were in danger. Ellmers reportedly objected to provision in the legislation that would require rape victims to report the crime within 48 hours of its occurrence.
Ellmers, who says she opposes abortion rights, has a perfect voting record this congressional session, according to a scorecard from the National Right to Life .
An official with her campaign defended the congresswoman's abortion rights record, pointing out that she voted for the 20-week ban when it came up for a vote in May of 2015. Even if she objected to provisions in the original legislation in January, she hardly had the authority to single-handily prevent it from being voted on, said Patrick Sebastian, senior adviser for the campaign.
"She never once voted against a pro-life bill," Sebastian said. "It's absurd, honestly."
He criticized the leaders of Susan B. Anthony List for having misplaced priorities and unfairly maligning a loyal supporter of the anti-abortion movement.
"Are they really for the pro-life movement, or are they about personal vendettas?" Sebastian asked. "It's really sad that these so-called self-proclaimed leaders would attack somebody with a 100 percent pro-life record. Do they want to bring people into the pro-life movement, or do they want to chase them away?"