Republicans' Contraception Puzzle

Are they warming to birth control, or do they just have selective amnesia?

In races around the country, Republican candidates are hoping to do a better job of appealing to women voters, a demographic that has strongly favored Democrats in recent election cycles. To make inroads, the party has tried out a variety of talking points. Recent calls for better access to contraceptives are not among the more convincing.

Take Colorado Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner. Starting in 2006, Gardner was outspoken in his support of antiabortion or "personhood" measures, which could lead to certain forms of birth control being banned, even campaigning in his own church for them. Since announcing his Senate bid, Gardner has declared he no longer supports the Colorado personhood measure he once touted, precisely because it could ban common forms of birth control.

It's not as simple as a change of heart: Gardner continues to cosponsor federal legislation that's very similar to the state legislation he's denounced, as highlighted in a recent interview with KDVR-TV, Denver's Fox affiliate. "It was the wrong thing to do," Gardner told KCVR's Eli Stokols of the personhood legislation he abandoned. "I believe it had unintended consequences." When Stokols followed up with a question about his nearly identical federal legislation, however, Gardner simply denied its existence. "The facts are Eli, that there is no federal personhood bill. There is no federal personhood bill." (The bill, which holds that life begins at the moment of fertilization, is online here.)

In an email Wednesday night, Gardner spokesman Alex Siciliano explained how his boss sees it. "Cory has been clear that he no longer supports personhood measures that some say could imperil methods of contraception," Siciliano wrote. "Cory believes the people of Colorado have spoken and he has listened and will not support that kind of personhood measure again. The federal proposal in question simply states that life begins at conception, as most pro-life Americans believe, with no change to contraception laws as Senator Udall falsely alleges."

While there's room for interpretation,, which recently reviewed the language in the two measures, didn't see much of a distinction. "We don't see how the Colorado initiative and the federal bill, which supporters in Congress describe as a 'personhood' measure, are different on this point," the fact-checkers wrote in a nuanced analysis.

Beyond the legalese, what's perhaps most remarkable about Gardner's statement is how clearly he signals he's listening to, and influenced by, voters on contraception—and that he feels he was wrong before. Still, it's a difficult line for him to walk: his support for making birth control available over the counter has angered both the GOP's religious right flank, where it's seen as backtracking on conservative ideals, and liberals, who view it as an undue barrier for the poor.

After Gardner contended making birth control available over the counter would make it "cheaper and easier" to obtain than going through the Affordable Care Act, PolitiFact looked into the claim. The catch here is that in this ideal world of over-the-counter contraceptive pills Gardner touts, the Affordable Care Act doesn't exist and insurance companies aren't required to offer contraceptives without a co-pay. "There is a lot of uncertainty and experts—from advocates to economists—question whether Gardner's proposal would be cheaper to most consumers or the health care system compared to the Affordable Care Act," PolitiFact wrote in its conclusion. "And Gardner's plan would only address one type of contraceptive, meaning the many people who choose other methods of birth control would see higher costs." The rating? Mostly false.

Planned Parenthood Votes sought to highlight the discrepancies in Gardner's contraception rhetoric as part of a $400,000 TV ad buy earlier this week, saying his plan would "force women to go back to the days of paying up to $600 a year."

Other candidates with seemingly contradictory campaign-trail rhetoric on contraception include Iowa's Joni Ernst. "I will always protect a woman's right to contraception," Ernst said recently, following a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids. "I believe in contraception for women. I think it's important that they have that." Yet just last year Ernst cosponsored legislation in the Iowa Senate that would allow employers to deny employees health insurance benefits, including contraception, based on the employer's religious beliefs.

Then there's New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown, who recently blanked on cosponsoring an antiabortion bill that requires a woman seeking an abortion to wait for 24 hours and listen to a government-mandated script recited by her doctor. This summer, Brown actually hid in a bathroom to avoid talking about the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, as The Guardian reported at the time.

There's good incentive for these candidates to embrace contraception from a polling perspective. A full 70 percent of Colorado voters say they are less likely to vote for a candidate who wants to restrict access to birth control, according to an NBC News poll. And nationally, 57 percent of women voters say they would be more likely to support a candidate who opposes the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision.

Republicans do truly appear to be doing something new in openly embracing certain forms of, and ways of accessing, contraception. Could it be they're open to some kind of grand bipartisan compromise? Dan Grossman, a doctor and spokesman with the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, isn't so sure. "It makes me a little suspicious," he told BuzzFeed of Republicans' latest contraception kick. "They really don't understand this issue in much depth."