Republicans back off abortion issue

It would seem an ideal time for Kansas politicians opposed to abortion to push that agenda, hard. The state’s two biggest clinics are under criminal indictment, and two grand juries will convene soon to consider additional charges.

But as the political season revs up, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party has issued a stern warning to his fellow conservatives: Abortion is not a winning issue.

“This is not something that the Kansas GOP is going to go out and lead on,” Christian Morgan said.

Morgan said that he and his party remain firmly opposed to abortion. Most Republican voters in Kansas feel the same, he said. But Morgan also believes that those voters are fed up with years of fruitless political and legal maneuvering aimed at driving abortion clinics out of business.

They would much prefer to see an all-out focus on curbing illegal immigration or cutting taxes.

In an e-mail rebuffing an antiabortion activist who asked for more GOP support, Morgan explained: “My job is to win elections. … Your agenda does not fit my agenda.”

The hands-off stance frustrates Cheryl Sullenger, a leader of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue. “They’re turning their back on the grass roots,” she said. “All you’re going to see from this is defeat.”

Abortion dominated the political debate in Kansas last year, especially the race for attorney general.

The incumbent, Republican Phill Kline, was hailed as a hero by abortion foes for issuing a subpoena for patient medical records in an attempt to build a criminal case against abortion clinics.

He was defeated soundly by Democrat Paul Morrison, who vowed to back off the clinic prosecutions.

This election cycle, “there’s a sense of ‘let’s move on,'” said Alesha Doan, a political scientist at the Kansas University.

Candidates risk a backlash, Doan said, if they’re too closely associated with the efforts to pin criminal charges on abortion doctors. “At some point, a line is crossed, and you’re no longer just expressing your opinion and trying to do God’s work. Now you’re harassing, and voters say, ‘We don’t want to be part of that,'” Doan said.

While the political rhetoric might be muted, the legal battle is intensifying.

Morrison declined to pursue the most serious charges Kline had laid out against abortion doctor George Tiller of Wichita.

But Morrison did file 19 misdemeanor counts against Tiller, alleging that he failed to get an independent second opinion before aborting viable fetuses.

Tiller, who denies wrongdoing, is one of just a few physicians in the country to take late-term patients; he has reported aborting more than 2,600 viable fetuses in the past decade. His trial is set for March 31.

Meanwhile, Kline – newly appointed district attorney of a suburban county – has pursued a criminal case against a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic near Kansas City.

On the stump in Kansas, Republican candidates largely follow Morgan’s advice to steer clear of an issue that has the potential to alienate as many voters as it inspires.

“Right now it’s halftime at the 2008 election, and what we’ve been doing isn’t working,” Morgan said. “It’s time to change it up a bit.”