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Abortion bill could be thorny issue for Rauner campaign

Gov. Bruce Rauner's
Gov. Bruce Rauner awaits a bill, which he could veto, to expand abortion coverage through Medicaid. | Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register via AP File

A thorny issue is already prickling Gov. Bruce Rauner’s side more than a year before what will likely be a contentious gubernatorial election — with some saying the Republican governor’s refusal to support a bill to remove an abortion trigger provision that also expands Medicaid coverage could cost him voters.

Rauner’s administration on April 14 said he planned to veto a House bill that eliminates a provision making abortions illegal in Illinois should Roe v. Wade be overturned and also allow women with Medicaid and state employees to use their coverage for abortions in any case. The state already pays for abortions for cases of rape, incest, to protect the mother’s health or to save her life.

That decision led to Rauner being dubbed a liar by Personal PAC. The abortion-rights group also released a 2014 candidate questionnaire in which Rauner wrote that he’d support legislation to help expand abortion coverage for low-income women.

Rauner has denied being a flip-flopper, saying he’s “always been and always will be a strong supporter and protector of women’s reproductive rights.” But, he said, the state should instead focus on a budget, proper school funding, economic growth and job creation and not take on “controversial, divisive issues.”

His administration contends he has signed two bills protecting women’s reproductive rights — one mandating private insurance coverage for birth control and a right of conscience measure.

And the state’s Department of Healthcare and Family Services claims abortions won’t be outlawed even if Roe v. Wade is overturned. The department says the pre-Roe statute that prohibited performance of abortion procedures was invalidated in a 1973 case and was repealed.

Abortion-rights advocates — and some Democratic candidates for governor — are calling Rauner a flip-flopper. But many conservative supporters say they’re still with him. While Rauner’s stance on the bill is unlikely to affect his primary — in which, for now, he has no challenger — it may strip off some votes in the general election, specifically votes from college-educated younger women and suburban female voters, according to Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Abortion is one where inconsistency hurts more. So Rauner’s challenge is to say something like there’s something specific about the bill that is a problem. That even for a pro-choicer like me, there’s some reason why. Something that would sort of persuade suburban female voters that are the ones I presume he would lose that probably make the margin for a Republican governor to win or lose in a state like this,” Gaines said. “You’re starting off with a normal vote disadvantage and you have to poach away people who sometimes vote for the other people.”

According to CNN exit polls from the 2014 election — which offers just a snapshot of a small percentage of voters after leaving a polling place — Rauner had the support of about 44 percent of women voters. Among voters who called themselves moderates, about 52 percent backed Rauner. He was even able to secure the votes of about 11 percent of Democratic women who were polled.

Other polls conducted before the election showed Rauner had strong support from suburban women who were social moderates but fiscal conservatives.

Gaines said it’s hard to predict what campaign commercials might be used against Rauner but he said “flip-floppers” are sometimes highlighted in campaign ads. He called abortion and guns key issues to one-issue voters.

“It sets him up to potentially have to explain in the fall against whomever survives,” Gaines said. “It’s an issue that when you ask people who claim they only vote on one issue, then abortion and guns are the two things that pop up. There are people who will tell you there’s nothing else that matters to them nearly as much. Nobody says that about unemployment or minimum wage or having a budget at all.”

Others say Rauner is being consistent about his views — he’s often said he cares more about fiscal issues than social ones — and the issue won’t impact his race.

Republican consultant Collin Corbett said Rauner has always presented himself as a social moderate focused on fiscal issues.

“From the political perspective, this isn’t really going to affect his primary,” Corbett said. “He’s not going to get ‘primaried’ — or, if someone does run against him, they’re not going to have the support or funding necessary to make it a real race. I don’t think he’s doing this for a nod to the primary or even necessarily to secure his base. Right now, most people I know in Illinois who are conservative understand his stance.”

Corbett said the core conservatives are focused on the fiscal crisis in the state over everything else — and they support his war with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

“Republicans are with him. We know the fight they’re having right now with Madigan and we understand that. Anyone we get from the Democratic side is going to be nowhere near on issues that are important to us,” Corbett said.

Corbett said Rauner’s supporters will back him “because they recognize that this is a battle royale between Rauner and Madigan, and his base is going to be with him in that battle no matter what.”

Corbett also called the timing of the bill — which is expected to be voted on in the Illinois House next week — intentional. “The Democrats have been in campaign mode for a long time now and from the moment he took office their goal was to keep him from being re-elected,” Corbett said. “It’s always been about the governor’s race in 2018 and so this is surely to set him up and to hurt him in the election. And I can tell you from the people we talk to in the base, we get that.”

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown called Rauner’s stance on the bill “just the latest series of actions that have been the hallmark of his three years in office.”

Brown described those actions as “his inconsistencies, his inability to persuade anybody on his ideas, his misstatements, his backtracking on things.”

Delmarie Cobb, a political consultant and former spokeswoman to Hillary Clinton, said Rauner is doing whatever is “politically expedient, not what he believes ideologically.”

“It shows he’s just like Donald Trump. It’s all about the win. It’s not about the ideology,” Cobb said. “And it goes against what he said when he ran the first time because he positioned himself as being a moderate Republican on social issues.”

Cobb urged Rauner’s Democratic challengers to use his stance on the bill against him: “A Democrat should discuss it in the primary because you want to beat up your opponent with what you have, for as long as you can, because that’s what the governor is already doing. He’s already running commercials saying what a good governor he is and already talking about casting aspersions against the Democratic base overall, tying everybody to Madigan. It should come up in the primary.”