WASHINGTON — If the rumors are true, Marco Rubio is about to become the latest guinea pig in an experiment that has thus far resulted in disaster for the GOP: Can Republican men talk about abortion without it blowing up in their face?
Many women in the GOP are not holding their breath.
Rubio is reportedly considering becoming the public face of a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, something many Republicans think is both the morally and politically correct thing to do. But it's been a long time since an abortion debate hasn't included a cringe-worthy gaffe that has diverted the focus away from the issue to a perceived GOP blindspot when it comes to communicating with the female electorate.
Women who serve the Republican cause in consultant, strategist, and staff roles grumble about what they see as an utter failure by their party's male leadership to talk about topics related to women without making them embarrassed to mention where they work in polite company.
"It is a white hot issue, the messenger has to be very skillful. But why is it always a man? It doesn't make it any easier," said former Rep. Mary Bono Mack, a pro-abortion rights moderate from California. "First and foremost, if this is the charge, they would be wise to have a woman leading the effort. But most women are focused on the economy and jobs and national security and a whole host of other issues that are right now on the forefront of people's minds."
Likewise, anti-abortion female Republican lawmakers say an abortion ban shouldn't be the GOP's top legislative priority at the moment.
"You have to remember to some people it's the most important issue," said Rep. Kay Granger, a Texas Republican and supporter of her home state's 20-week abortion ban currently being debated. "I'm not there. I think the economy is the most important issue, and our national security. But when bills come up I am supportive of them."
In the trenches of Capitol Hill, Republican women are wary of another abortion debate.
"Even if you agree with the issue, and you personally are pro-life, whenever these bills come up you basically live in fear your boss will say something stupid and offensive," said one female staffer for a very conservative member of Congress. "We keep putting ourselves in this position and it never turns out well for us."
One only has to look at the recent House debate over a 20-week abortion ban to see what these women are worried about. Republicans repeatedly point to polling showing that (by a narrow margin) more Americans support a similar ban than oppose it, including women. They believe the ban is a political winner, one that lets them cast the Democrats as pro-abortion extremists, and that the party will soon find itself in a political corner by rejecting any restrictions on abortions. Democrats counter that the past election cycle proves that they're ready to have a debate about abortion rights whenever the GOP wants one.
In the House, the push for the bill was led by Rep. Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican who is a big name in the anti-abortion cause. Franks quickly led his own bill into a Democratic buzz saw when he brushed off talk of an exception for rape and incest in his ban by saying, "The incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low." Franks clarified his statement, saying he meant abortions by victims of rape or incest at six months are very rare, rather than pregnancy itself, but the damage was done. Democrats went on the attack, and their case was bolstered when Rep. Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican, said he could prove that fetus feel pleasure (and conversely pain) because he's heard of male fetuses masturbating in the womb, a claim with mimimal scientific support and maximum late night comedy routine appeal.
Republicans quickly tried to change the story, taking the bill away from Franks and putting Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn in charge of it. The bill passed the Republican-controlled House, but not without giving Democrats another chance to say the GOP was out of touch with women.
This brings us back to Rubio, who observers say is considering quarterbacking the abortion bill in the Senate to rebuild his standing among conservatives who are no longer feeling the love after he became the public face of immigration reform. With no less than his presidential ambitions on the line, Rubio will have to tread very carefully to avoid Franks/Burgess-esque rhetoric which could alienate him with party establishment not interested in bankrolling a political punching bag. But if Rubio isn't seen as working hard enough to sell an abortion ban, he could further enrage critical early presidential primary state activists.
Liz Mair, a Republican strategist who has worked for prominent moderate and conservative campaigns, suggested he might be better off avoiding the whole issue entirely. Mair said the anti-abortion movement might be better off, too, despite the conventional wisdom that Rubio's name would bring a heft to the Senate debate.
"There are, in fact, pro-life female senators, and it would be smart to ensure they take a public-facing role on this. In addition, it would be smart to ensure pro-life, female Senate candidates also are seen to be speaking out on this issue, publicly," she said. "Contrary to what the hardcore, abortion-right-up-to-delivery crowd would have us believe, pro-lifers are not universally male (and pro-choicers are not universally female). In fact some data suggests that more women are pro-life than pro-choice. So it's important both for accuracy and politics that this not look like something only men support, unless this is just an effort to rev up the donor and volunteer bases as opposed to getting a ban passed."
Mair says the best move for the GOP would be to think outside the box on abortion, and tie their opposition to the procedure to a support for increased availability for contraception.
"I'd urge them to think strongly about whether there is companion legislation they might introduce to ensure greater access to actual contraception, such legislation optimally being free-market friendly, such as proposing lifting or easing regulations restricting the sale of the Pill without a prescription, or streamlining or simplifying the FDA approval process which could potentially help bring new and better contraceptives to market, potentially at much lower cost," Mair said. "There are parts of the base that will not like those kinds of policies, either, but frankly, it's a lot easier to avoid unplanned pregnancies and abortions—the ultimate thing that the pro-life community wants to put a stop to—if people just don't get pregnant when they don't intend to."
Mair went as far as to suggest compromise legislation that tied free, subsidized contraception to a 20-week abortion ban with an exception for the life of the mother, an idea that even she said she wasn't "completely sold on," and one that the anti-abortion activist base would probably find hard to swallow.
Not all Republican women are nervous about another male-led anti-abortion push on Capitol Hill, however. Pro-life leaders are for the most part welcoming the news that Rubio could be their guy in the Senate soon.
"He's one of the most articulate folks and has been active on this issue for a long time," SBA List spokesperson Mallory Quigley told MSNBC.
Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., didn't seem concerned that Rubio — or another anti-abortion male — could stick his foot in his mouth in the Senate in the coming weeks. But she did say it might be better if a woman took the lead.
"There aren't very many [Republican] women over there in the Senate so I guess for him it's one of those deals where he feels very passionately about it," she said. "I haven't spoken to him but I think it is better if a female can talk about these issues. Just because we are the ones who carry that child, however, there is a lot of passion around this."