The head of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, was grilled on Capitol Hill for five hours Tuesday. Republicans in Congress are making a renewed push to defund the group — which provides health screenings, contraception and performs abortions — after controversial sting videos were released earlier this summer alleging it sells fetal tissue for profit.
For many Republican presidential hopefuls, the call to defund Planned Parenthood has become a rallying cry on the campaign trail.
"If it's about women's health, then why isn't the liberal Democrat Party willing to say that pregnancy centers such as this should also be funded by taxpayers?" Carly Fiorina asked at the Carolina Pregnancy Center, an anti-abortion crisis-pregnancy center. "Why shouldn't taxpayers be paying for pregnancy centers in communities all across this nation, to give women an opportunity to understand their choices?"
Debates over abortion reliably fire up both the Republican and Democratic bases, but both parties risk overplaying the issue in the 2016 campaign. Republicans saw an opening after the videos were released in July, but polling has shown that views of Planned Parenthood haven't budged since then. And for Democrats, running campaigns that overemphasize the issue have backfired in the past.
The challenge for Republicans
The Carolina Pregnancy Center offers women pregnancy tests and baby supplies, but not health services or contraception. Those are things Planned Parenthood provides at a reduced cost for lower-income women.
Pollster Tresa Undem said that's why so many women go there — more than some might think.
"It's a very important place for young people to go," Undem said. "I mean everybody knows somebody who's been to Planned Parenthood for healthcare."
Undem's firm has done polling for Planned Parenthood, among other groups, in the past. She points to recent surveys that show most Americans support maintaining federal funding for the organization.
What's more, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out this week found almost half (47 percent) of Americans had a positive opinion of Planned Parenthood, while fewer than a third (31 percent) had a negative one. That's higher than either political party, or anyone currently running for President. It's also unchanged since July, when the first sting video targeting Planned Parenthood was released.
Undem said that matches what she's hearing from focus groups.
"People are seeing it sort of as a political attempt," she said. "It's a political stunt. It's not something they're sinking their teeth into. They're not changing their minds about Planned Parenthood."
They're also not changing their minds much about abortion. Since Roe v. Wade was settled in 1973 – more than 40 years ago — opinions about abortion have barely budged, as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has reported. Most people say they're somewhere in the middle. A majority told the Pew Research Center they think it should be legal in certain circumstances.
Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, said even though most Americans see abortion as a settled issue, it still motivates each party's base.
"At the primary stage, when you have the activists in both parties really engaged more in the process," she noted, "it tends to be a more important issue not only on the Republican side for those who are pro-life but also on the Democratic side for those who are pro-choice."
Republican pollster Christine Matthews says Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, remains a strong brand – except among conservative Republicans.
"Conservative Republicans see this brand very differently than other people," she said. "[They] primarily associate Planned Parenthood with abortion. But if you're an Independent or a Democrat, you primarily think that Planned Parenthood is providing health services."
Conservative Republicans also make up the core of the GOP primary. Matthews said that explains the anti-Planned Parenthood push now, but it could cause problems for Republicans in a general election.
"That concerns me a little bit," Matthews said Tuesday. "I think especially with the testimony we're seeing today, with the image of a male Congressman sort of taking to task the President of Planned Parenthood."
Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, charged that her GOP colleagues were "beating up on a woman, on our witness today, for making a good salary."
Tennessee Republican Rep. John Duncan told Richards in response, "I've seen many male witnesses treated much tougher than you've been treated here today. ... Surely you don't expect us to be easier on you because you're a woman?"
Richards replied, "Absolutely not. That's not how my mama raised me."
Her "mama" is the late former Democratic Texas firebrand Gov. Ann Richards.
Risk for Democrats, too
While Democrats might take some solace in the polling numbers that views of Planned Parenthood and abortion, for that matter, have remained relatively stable.
But, just as there are dangers for Republicans in overplaying the issue (beyond mobilization and fundraising) there are risks for Democrats, too.
And one does not have to look far for an example of that.
Take the Colorado Senate race in 2014. Democrat Mark Udall's campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee seemed to have a singular focus – women's reproductive rights.
"Because this really matters, it's important you hear this directly from me. My opponent, Congressman Gardner, led a crusade that would make birth control illegal. He sponsored a bill to make abortion a felony – even in cases of rape and incest. His record is beyond troubling – it's wrong. We're talking about your rights – as women, as families, as Coloradans."
In another, Udall says, "No one can blame you for checking a calendar to remind yourself, 'Yep, it really is 2014. So how is it we're still debating a woman's access to abortion or birth control. For most of us, those debates got settled by the last generation."
You get the picture.
And it worked.
Udall won a greater percentage of women than Barack Obama did in 2012 in Colorado. But Obama won Colorado in his reelection bid. Udall lost.
Why? Because, while Obama won men, too, 51 to 46 percent, Udall lost them by a whopping 17 points. (See the chart above.)
Yes, it was a midterm – with the lowest turnout in 70 years and key Democratic voting groups did not turn out. But it's a cautionary tale in overemphasizing any particular issues, especially one as polarizing as abortion rights.