A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Abortion Distortion in Mississippi Primary


The Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Mississippi has what the Mississippi Right to Life calls “two really good pro-life candidates.” Yet, the candidates are engaged in a spirited — and deceptive — fight over abortion:

  • Sen. Thad Cochran’s latest TV ad says he is the “only” candidate with a “100 percent pro-life voting record from National Right to Life.” Not so. He has voted against the NRLC five times since 1997 — notably on stem cell research — for a 92 percent score, not 100 percent. The claim is also misleading, because Cochran is the incumbent in the race, so of course he is the “only one” included in the NRLC congressional scorecard.
  • Chris McDaniel’s campaign responded to the ad by claiming Cochran has supported “taxpayer funding for abortions.” That’s a stretch. Cochran has a long record — reflected in the NRLC scorecard and elsewhere — of opposing taxpayer-funded abortions. The McDaniel campaign rests its case on three votes in the 1980s, and there’s more to those votes than meets the eye.

Not the ‘Only One’

The Mississippi Senate primary has attracted national attention as a test of the tea party and its ability to challenge the Republican establishment. Cochran, a six-term senator, has the support of the state’s top party leaders — including Gov. Phil Bryant, Sen. Roger Wicker and former Gov. Haley Barbour. Barbour was chairman of the Republican National Committee and is now helping to raise money for a political action committee, Mississippi Conservatives PAC, formed to help Cochran. McDaniel, a state senator since 2008, has endorsements from Sarah Palin, Club for Growth, Tea Party Patriots Citizen Fund and FreedomWorks.

Cochran’s campaign went on the air April 2 with a 30-second TV spot called “Only One.” The ad stresses Cochran’s conservative voting record on three issues: guns, abortion and the Affordable Care Act.

The ad says “only one candidate has a 100 percent pro-life voting record from National Right to Life. That conservative candidate is Thad Cochran.” On the screen, voters see these words, “100% Pro-Life Voting Record,” with the URL for the National Right to Life homepage in small print.

Cochran does have a 100 percent score in the current Congress — and the two prior congressional sessions that ended in 2012 and 2010 — but that has not always been the case. The ad does not provide a time frame, so a viewer may come away with the mistaken impression that Cochran voted with the NRLC on every issue. Jordan Russell, a spokesman for the Cochran campaign, said the ad was referring to the current Congress. But, for example, the senator also scored 33 percent in the 107th Congress, 75 percent in the 109th Congress and 85 percent in the 110th — so the campaign does some cherry-picking with the record.

Overall, Cochran has voted 59 times with the NRLC and five times against it since 1997, according to the NRLC website cited by the TV ad. (That’s as far back as the website goes, even though Cochran has been in the Senate for 36 years and served almost six years in the House before that.) That’s a 92 percent score during the last 17 years, from 1997 to 2013 — which indicates strong support of the organization’s legislative agenda, but not 100 percent. He has voted multiple times for a ban on so-called partial-birth abortions, including in 2003. He has voted against repealing a ban on abortions at military facilities, and he has voted to cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood.

His votes against the National Right to Life have come on stem cell research and campaign finance legislation. Cochran voted for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007 and the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, and he voted against an amendment offered by Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana in 1997 that would have banned federal funding for research that uses embryonic tissue, cells or organs from induced abortions. Cochran was also one of 14 Republicans who signed a letter to President Bush in 2004, urging him to expand embryonic stem cell research.

As the National Journal put it in 2012: “As former head of the GOP caucus, Cochran is usually a reliable Republican vote, but he has crossed party lines, such as when he opposed restrictions on stem cell research.”

In two other votes against the National Right to Life, Cochran voted in 2001 and 2002 to give final approval to campaign finance bills that the NRLC said would restrict the group’s freedom of speech.

In a spirited exchange with a Cochran critic on its Facebook webpage, the Mississippi Right to Life defends Cochran and refers to his votes against the NRLC as “in the far distant past.”

“We have two really good pro-life candidates here whose candidate questionnaires and records we will be publishing as we get closer to election time but we will NOT allow this page to be used by either side to spread hate and discontent,” the Mississippi Right to Life says.

That leads us to our second point: Both candidates are anti-abortion, but Cochran is the “only one” scored by the National Right to Life, because it is a congressional scorecard based on votes in Congress. The ad omits that.

The fact is that McDaniel has a strong record opposing abortion, too, and his supporters, not surprisingly, argue it is stronger. McDaniel, for example, supported the state’s failed “personhood amendment” in 2011 that would have defined “person” from the moment of fertilization. The ballot initiative was defeated, but it sparked a heated debate among opponents who believed it was unconstitutional and supporters who believed it was a moral imperative. (We could find no record of Cochran taking a position on the statewide ballot initiative, and neither could his campaign spokesman Jordan Russell. “As far as I can tell, Senator Cochran has never weighed in on a state ballot initiative,” Russell told us.)

McDaniel spoke in support of the ballot initiative — Statewide Initiative Measure No. 26 — at an event sponsored by the Center for Pregnancy Choices of South Central Mississippi, as reported by the Laurel Leader-Call.

Laurel Leader-Call, June 4, 2011: McDaniel said he favors the Personhood Amendment and anything else that promotes the pro-life message. “It’s important to discuss it so everyone can understand it,” he said.

McDaniel’s record in the Mississippi Senate also includes sponsoring legislation in 2014 to ban so-called gender-selection abortions, co-sponsoring a bill in 2013 that would require a doctor’s prescription for an “abortion inducing drug,” and sponsoring a bill in 2012 that would have prohibited abortions without “informed written consent” if the fetal heartbeat can be detected. In 2010, he co-sponsored a bill that would have outlawed all abortions in Mississippi except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

Cochran and Taxpayer-Funded Abortions

In response to the Cochran “Only One” ad, McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritsch says in an April 1 press release that Cochran has supported “taxpayer funding for abortions.” It’s a claim that the campaign has made more than once, and it’s an exaggeration.

When we asked for evidence, the McDaniel campaign cited three votes in the 1980s restricting the use of taxpayer funds for abortions through Medicaid. Cochran has a decades-long history of supporting such restrictions. Nevertheless, the McDaniel campaign cited two votes on the so-called Hyde amendment, which restricts federal funding of certain abortions through Medicaid, and a third vote on an amendment restricting the District of Columbia from spending its own money on abortions.

Let’s take the Hyde amendment votes first — starting with a little background on the amendment, Cochran’s early voting record on it, and the legislative skirmishes over exceptions to it that form the basis of McDaniel’s claim.

The Hyde amendment, named after former Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, was enacted in 1976 as an amendment to the appropriations bill that funds Medicaid and has been added to annual spending bills ever since. But from the beginning there have been fights over the wording of the amendment and whether it should allow exceptions for cases of rape, incest or endangerment of the life of the mother. On June 24, 1976, the House took two votes on the Hyde amendment. The language said, “None of the funds appropriated under this Act shall be used to pay for abortions or to promote or encourage abortions.” No exceptions. The House passed it both times that day. First it passed 207 to 167 with 57 members, including Cochran, not voting (pages 2041220413 in the Congressional Record). Later that day it passed again 199 to 165, with 67 members not voting (page 20425). Cochran voted for it the second time, and the bill went to the Senate.

The Senate insisted on exceptions to the Hyde amendment and, in a compromise, the House voted 256 to 114 on Sept. 16, 1976, (page 30901) to provide an exception “where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term.” Cochran voted for that, too, and that became the law.

A year later, there was an attempt by the Senate again to broaden the exceptions. On Dec. 7, 1977, Cochran voted (page 38728) for a motion offered by then-Rep. George Mahon of Texas to accept a Senate amendment that would expand the exceptions to include rape and incest. The motion failed, by a 171-178 tally, but that same day the House voted 181 to 167 to pass compromise language that added the new exceptions “when such rape or incest has been reported promptly to a law enforcement agency or public health service.” Cochran also voted (page 38784) for that language, which became law for fiscal year 1978.

So, over the course of two years, Cochran voted for three versions of the Hyde amendment: one without exceptions; one with only an exception for the endangerment of the mother; and one with exceptions for rape, incest and the endangerment of the mother. But in every case he voted for a ban on federal funding of abortions through Medicaid.

The McDaniel campaign cites two of Cochran’s votes during similar skirmishes in 1981 and 1989. We’ll take them in chronological order.

In 1981, then-Sen. Jesse Helms sponsored an amendment to a supplemental appropriations bill that would have dropped the rape and incest exceptions added to the Hyde amendment in fiscal 1978. Cochran voted against the Helms amendment. McDaniel’s campaign called this a vote for “taxpayer funding for abortion.” It’s not that simple.

Russell, of the Cochran campaign, tells us the senator’s vote against the amendment was on procedural grounds, not because he opposed the amendment. Russell says Cochran, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, supported then-chairman Mark Hatfield’s position that the abortion provision should be taken up separately and not as part of the appropriations bill. Hatfield said during the debate that it was time for the abortion issue to be taken up in separate legislation because the Republicans won control of the Senate in the 1980 elections and could now move a separate bill through the Senate.

The Associated Press wrote of the disputed roll call vote: “Some Senators who supported Helms in principle voted against him on procedural grounds.”

We cannot independently confirm that Cochran cast his vote on procedural grounds, because the senator did not speak on the bill during the floor debate. But as a member of the appropriations committee he would have been likely to support the committee process and the chairman. Plus, his voting history to this point shows his support for the Hyde amendment — and the same is true for Hatfield and some others who voted against the Helms amendment.

Finally, Cochran did vote for the final bill, which included the Helms amendment and became law. The spending bill easily passed 95-0.

Similarly, the McDaniel campaign cites Cochran’s vote in the Senate on Oct. 19, 1989, for an appropriations bill that included House language that would have restored the exceptions for rape and incest that were stripped out by Helms in 1981.

Fritsch, McDaniel’s spokesman, says in an email to us that Cochran’s vote in 1989 expanded federal funding for abortion, so that justifies the campaign’s claim that Cochran voted for taxpayer-funded abortions. But in this case, there was no direct vote on the abortion language. The Senate agreed to it in a voice vote a few weeks before the final vote on the $156.7 billion appropriations bill, so we don’t know how he would have voted on the abortion language. It’s possible he would have voted for it, given his votes in 1977 to allow exceptions in cases of rape and incest. But, even though Cochran voted for exceptions to the Hyde amendment, he still supported the funding ban — which is not the action of someone who supports taxpayer-funded abortions.

It turned out to be a moot point, anyway. President George H.W. Bush vetoed the bill because of the abortion language and Congress failed to override it. The House language was removed — see page 3 of a Nov. 14, 1989, House report on the bill — and the tougher Helms language remained until 1993.

The third vote cited by the McDaniel campaign came Nov. 7, 1985, on an amendment offered by Sen. Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire to the District of Columbia Appropriation Act of 1986. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, annual spending bills for the District from fiscal 1980 to 1988 included language prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion services except in cases of rape, incest or endangerment of the mother’s life. In 1985, Humphrey offered an amendment that would have barred the District from spending federal and local funds for abortion services, except when the life of the mother is in danger.

Critics of the amendment cited home rule and claimed it would set a bad precedent by dictating how the District could spend its own money. The Washington Post, reporting on the amendment, said that “15 states use their own funds to pay for abortions.” By a 54-41 vote, the Senate voted to table the Humphrey amendment — which blocked the amendment from even coming up for a vote. Cochran and 17 other Republicans joined 36 Democrats to table the amendment.

It wasn’t until fiscal 1989 that Congress imposed a ban on the use of locally raised funds to pay for abortions, except if the mother’s life is in danger. Under the threat of a presidential veto, the Senate voted 45-44 on Sept. 30, 1988, to add abortion language to the District appropriations bill. Cochran voted for it, so his position had changed since the 1985 vote. And his vote was critical in passing the legislation. McDaniel doesn’t mention that vote. The ban on using local funds for abortion remained in place through fiscal 1993. Some type of ban — either on the use of federal funds or federal and local funds — has been in place every year since fiscal 1980, depending on party control of the White House and Congress.

Cochran’s abortion record isn’t perfect, as the NRLC scorecard shows and we noted in the section on Cochran’s TV ad. But the scorecard also shows the senator has repeatedly sided with the group on issues it considers to be federal funding of abortion:

When someone has been in office as long as Cochran has — 41 years — there will be votes that his opponents can use against him. Some establish a track record and point to legitimate differences between candidates. Cochran did, after all, repeatedly support federal funding for stem cell research, and it hurt his perfect score that he falsely touts. Other votes are cherry-picked and used to build a false narrative about the incumbent. That’s the case with McDaniel’s exaggerated claim that Cochran supports “taxpayer funding for abortions.”

We leave it to Mississippi voters to determine which candidate has the stronger voting record on abortion. The fact is that both strongly oppose abortion and both have the records to prove it.

— Eugene Kiely