A higher-than-expected inflation report was threatening to black out President Joe Biden’s big celebration Tuesday of party-line legislation designed to bring down prices. The subsequent plunge of markets seemed to ensure a painful head-meets-wall day inside the White House.
And then, Sen. Lindsey Graham offered an unexpected soft landing. The South Carolina Republican’s 15-week national abortion ban immediately diverted and divided Republicans and left Biden’s aides shocked at the political lifeline they’d just been handed.
Administration officials and presidential allies — including some anxious about appearing jubilant on a day when markets were crashing — leaned hard into the split screen: denouncing Graham’s bill in increasingly harsh terms while Graham’s Republican colleagues pronounced themselves downright vexed over his decision to offer up a plan more conservative than his previous proposals.
“I’m gonna quote Lindsey Graham from Aug. 7, 2022,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “And he said, ‘I’ve been consistent: I think states should decide the issue of marriage and states should decide the issue of abortion.’ That’s from his own mouth.”
So obvious was the apparent ill-timing of the bill’s introduction that one White House aide said a Republican lobbyist friend joked that Graham appeared to be working for the Biden administration. Other aides suggested that the comments continued a Democratic winning streak that started mid-summer and began to imagine holding onto both houses of Congress.
“Dems might need to send gift baskets and champagne to Graham and other Republicans for their selfless act of service today,” another Democratic official told POLITICO.
The immediate response to Graham’s legislation, which would not just establish a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy but also allow states to keep and pass more restrictive laws, was a microcosm of the way abortion politics has wholly upended the midterm sprint.
It’s not as if the images out of the White House were pristine. Live TV coverage of Biden’s speech was bracketed by large red arrows signifying the stock market’s downward trajectory. The more Biden talked about how the legislation would help the economy, the more the markets tumbled. By the closing bell, Wall Street had suffered its worst day since June 2020, with the Dow dropping more than 1,250 points.
But Democrats, who have been on the defensive for months over stubbornly high inflation, felt once again revitalized in trying to fend off GOP-led initiatives to restrict abortion rights. Virtually every Senate candidate quickly issued statements excoriating Graham’s bill and asking their Republican opponents whether they would sign off on it.
“What are the ‘MAGA Republicans’ doing over in the Capitol today?” Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked at the White House event for Democrats’ healthcare and climate legislation, formally dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act. “Introducing national bans on abortion,” Schumer scoffed. “Just unbelievable.”
Top operatives in the party said that they were just as surprised to see Graham’s move, which they likened to a slow, telegraphed pitch down the middle of the plate. Several confessed to first learning about the legislation Monday evening through Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, where the latest iteration was initially teased.
There was widespread anticipation that the Graham bill would quickly find its way into Democratic fundraising solicitations. Whether it would become a feature of ad campaigns was a somewhat less relevant point, those operatives added, since so much of the current messaging was geared around abortion already — an issue some GOP contenders were already clearing from their websites.
“In almost every race, there is some advertising right now hitting Republicans on abortion,” said one top Senate Democratic official.
In Colorado, Republican Senate candidate Joe O’Dea derided the “pep rally” at the White House as “arrogant,” but he conceded that the Graham bill was “as reckless and tone deaf as is Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer’s hostility to considering any compromise” on abortion. His opponent, Sen. Michael Bennet, called a national abortion ban “outrageous.”
And Democratic governors, including those up for reelection like Steve Sisolak in Nevada, pledged to ignore a ban should it pass and pursue every legal option to shield abortion rights.
“Lindsey Graham and House Republicans are reminding Americans what they’ve already told us — Republican control means they will vote for a national abortion ban,” DNC spokesperson Ammar Moussa said. “That’s their agenda.”
Schumer, one of the warmup acts for the Inflation Reduction Act celebration, relayed Graham’s plan to the thousands gathered on the White House’s South Lawn, who responded with jeers. Strutting back and forth on set with his trademark aviator sunglasses and wielding a handheld microphone, Biden didn’t mention Graham — but took square aim at some of his Republican Senate colleagues, blasting Rick Scott and Ron Johnson by name for their efforts to raise taxes on the working and middle class.
It wasn’t just Graham who Democrats believed bore gifts. It was also reported that former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who still harbors presidential ambitions, was working with abortion opponents to help Republican governors craft legislation in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned. A Democrat working on governors’ races called it “the cherry on top” of the day.
Sam Stein contributed to this report.