On Nov. 5, the day after the recent midterm elections, West Virginians for Life, an anti-abortion group, put out a news release celebrating “pro-life WV Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito’s projected election to the U.S. Senate.”
This is hardly unusual. The group also touted Republican wins in three U.S. House races and wins by its favored candidates in 10 state Senate races and 70 House of Delegates races.
The only thing that makes the group’s endorsement of Capito noteworthy is that Capito has described herself in the past as “pro-choice.”
“Senator-elect Capito has voted to ban partial birth abortions, to restrict the transportation of minors across state lines to have abortions and to ban abortions after 20 weeks as part of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” Amy Graham, a Capito spokeswoman, said in an email. “However, she would not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
Capito rarely speaks about the issue.
Vote Smart gives candidates surveys and parses their past statements and votes in an attempt to determine where they stand on issues. In 2014, when Capito did not respond to the organization’s survey, Vote Smart inferred that she was “pro-life” in regard to the question “Do you generally support pro-choice or pro-life legislation?”
However, the last time that Capito answered the organization’s survey, in 2010, she explicitly described herself as “pro-choice.”
This has put groups that advocate on abortion issues — on both sides — in a somewhat tenuous position.
“While she may not be perfect, she is coming along and for those reasons we had to reward that,” said Mary Anne Buchanan, communications director for West Virginians for Life.
The group endorsed Capito in this year’s election, although it did not endorse her in 2012.
The national abortion rights group Republican Majority for Choice — which, it’s safe to say, has different priorities than West Virginians for Life — also touted Capito’s election, calling it a “pro-choice victory.”
Margaret Chapman Pomponio, director of the abortion rights group WV Free, said Capito’s voting record on abortion-related bills has often not matched her identification as “pro-choice.”
“Roe v. Wade, practically speaking, becomes irrelevant if so many restrictions are enacted,” Chapman Pomponio said. “Over the years, we have received mixed signals from Congresswoman Capito and have constantly tried to discern her position because, while campaigning, she often has identified as pro-choice . . . but her voting record often portrays the opposite.”
So when Capito takes office in January, West Virginia will be in the unusual position of having a Republican senator who describes herself as “pro-choice” and a Democratic senator who describes himself as “pro-life.”
“I am pro-life and always have been,” Sen. Joe Manchin said in an email. “I believe this is a matter of conviction.”
The two West Virginia advocacy groups, however, are not entirely convinced by the two politicians’ self-descriptions.
While West Virginians for Life endorsed Capito, who calls herself “pro-choice,” the group is hesitant about Manchin’s “pro-life” stance.
“His record could be better, and we’re willing to work with him,” Buchanan said. “On a personal level, I would think that, because of the changeover in Congress, he would have an easier time of it now, if he’s truly pro-life, he may not have so much pressure.”
West Virginians for Life was far less diplomatic the last time Manchin was up for re-election.
“Please DO NOT vote for Senator Manchin,” the group’s political action committee wrote in 2012. “He has betrayed pro-life voters with his disappointing 75 percent pro-abortion voting record.”
On the other hand, Chapman Pomponio, of WV Free, had measured praise for the “pro-life” Manchin.
“As for Senator Manchin, let’s see. What will I say about Senator Manchin?” she said. “I think we all know that Senator Manchin can’t be easily categorized or boxed in. He has cast many votes that support women and families.”
She praised Manchin for his support of legislation that would preserve money for federal Title X grants, which fund services like breast exams and cervical cancer screenings but may not be used to fund abortions.
So West Virginia has a “pro-choice” Republican who is endorsed by the state’s anti-abortion group and a “pro-life” Democrat who gets praise from the state’s abortion rights group.
What to make of it?
“I think what we have here are two senators who, only time will tell how they’re going to vote on these issues,” Chapman Pomponio said. “They have a mixed history.”