WASHINGTON — This week, abortion rights activists are going to use tough language and modern political tactics to make the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Friday into a political moment they say will put abortion opponents on the defensive after a year that has seen the latter score a number of political victories against legal and accessible abortion.
That means abortion rights supporters using the word “terrorism” to describe what happened in Colorado Springs. That means confronting anti-abortion Republicans and asking them about what activists call “a culture of violence” directed toward abortion providers. And that means trying to engage Democratic allies in Washington to do the same — something that prominent Democrats like Debbie Wasserman-Schultz have already done — in the hopes, particularly, of turning a byzantine Senate vote as early as this week into a political opportunity for Democrats on the abortion issue.
The modern abortion rights movement has been infused with a new kind of political skill set born in the netroots left, the activist labor movement, and the tactical innovations of the Obama campaign. Listservs and email chains lit up in the abortion rights community almost immediately, and it didn’t take long for abortion rights activists to put resources on the ground to turn the tragedy into a moment they argue could turn Americans off to some of the more ugly rhetoric among abortion opponents — and put Republican presidential candidates in a tough spot.
The effort began less than 24 hours after the Colorado Springs standoff, which left three dead and a suspect who reportedly said “no more baby parts” after the shooting in police custody.
On Saturday morning in Greenfield, Iowa, activists from NARAL Pro-Choice America confronted Ted Cruz during a campaign stop over the Texas senator’s recent endorsement from Operation Rescue, a fringe anti-abortion group long known for violent rhetoric against abortion providers. Cruz touted the endorsement in a release last week and enthusiastically praised Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue. Newman, an American, is notorious among abortion rights supporters: Last month, Australia banned Newman from entering on a visa after pro–abortion rights politicians questioned writings critics say advocate violence against abortion providers.
Within hours of the shooting, top NARAL officials in Washington were in contact with their activist network to discuss the incident and early reports of a motive connected to Planned Parenthood and abortion. It was decided that Cruz would be asked to answer for his Newman endorsement with a question that referred to the shooting the previous day, drawing a line between the deaths in Colorado and the anti-abortion rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail. Two NARAL activists — one to ask the question, one to take a video of the whole thing — approached Cruz after an event at The Corner, a small café in across from Greenfield’s Adair County Courthouse.
“The Planned Parenthood attacks in Colorado yesterday were very upsetting,” began the activist, an Iowan who a NARAL spokesperson stressed was “not a professional tracker.”
“Does it make you rethink your endorsement by Troy Newman, who advocates murdering abortion care providers?” the activist continued.
Cruz shut the attempted viral moment down quick, telling the activist, “We’ll have a chance to visit with media shortly.” The Cruz campaign referred BuzzFeed News to public statements the candidate made on Colorado in other campaign appearances, including his call for prayers for the victims.
NARAL had been readying a case against Cruz over the Newman endorsement before the shooting, using its research shop to blast out facts on the Operation Rescue president and create a clamor on liberal news sites. And NARAL has been building an infrastructure in Iowa for months, readying a grassroots organization to keep abortion rights in the political conversation ahead of the February caucuses.
The rapid reaction reflects the willingness of NARAL — and others in the abortion rights movement — to lean into politics quickly in a way that abortion rights groups didn’t just a presidential cycle ago.
NARAL is run by Ilyse Hogue, a former top advocate at MoveOn.org, who was specifically selected to restore a pillar of the abortion rights movement and prepare it for the modern political age. As her activists were confronting Cruz in Iowa, Hogue was penning a Facebook post about Newman that was shared quickly and widely among the abortion rights left.
Newman and other anti-abortion leaders quickly condemned the Colorado shooting. On Sunday, Cruz cautioned against drawing conclusions from the Planned Parenthood shooting (and floated as an example the idea that the shooter was a transgender activist). Others have been quicker to define the shooting; former Gov. Mike Huckabee called it "domestic terrorism" that stands against the principles of the anti-abortion movement.
Abortion rights advocates contend those condemnations are a cynical attempt to put distance between Colorado Springs and mainstream anti-abortion rhetoric.
Hogue wrote that Newman was “using Operation Rescue to call for state-sanctioned execution of doctors who serve women — and then crying crocodile tears when someone takes that vision into their own hands.”
NARAL was in the midst of a campaign to push the Obama administration to investigate reported instances of vandalism and attempted arson at abortion provider sites as acts of domestic terrorism when the Colorado Springs shooting happened. On Wednesday, the group planned to deliver a nearly 60,000-signature petition to the Department of Justice calling for that investigation to begin. The petition now features mention of the Colorado Springs shooting and ties it directly to the surreptitiously recorded Planned Parenthood videos — which accuse the organization of selling aborted fetuses’ organs and tissues and include graphic descriptions — that have dogged that group for much of the year.
The word “terrorism” is important, activists told BuzzFeed News. They’re trying to make the case that anti-abortion rhetoric ties directly to abortion clinic vandalism, and, finally, to the Colorado shooting. “Terrorism” signals that the ideology behind the shooting was extreme in nature, activists said, and suggests a network of anti-abortion groups and advocates are helping to fuel violence.
Hogue said she knows a thorough investigation into the Colorado shooting is ongoing, and that details of the shooter and his motivations will continue to come out. But the deaths at a Planned Parenthood clinic are about more than one man’s acts, she told BuzzFeed News in an interview.
“The story is not about this one guy,” she said. “The story is about a really well-funded, really well-connected infrastructure that outlives any one candidate, any one guy, and creates a culture.”
Hogue is not speaking from the fringe of the abortion rights movement. Her line is, increasingly, the line people on the abortion rights side are taking, and next week it will be a core part of Democratic messaging on the Colorado shooting aimed at putting Republicans on their heels.
On Sunday, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz called the Colorado shooting “an act of terrorism” in a statement to reporters and said, “Those running for president and those of us in leadership roles in our country's major political parties have an obligation to denounce these attacks and clearly say that violence and intimidation in the pursuit of ideology are not acceptable in America.”
A few hours later, Planned Parenthood vice president Dawn Laguens took a swing at her own version of the “crocodile tears” argument Hogue made. “It is offensive and outrageous that some politicians are now claiming this tragedy has nothing to do with the toxic environment they helped create,” she said in a statement. Laguens also directly called out Cruz for the Newman endorsement.
And on Sunday night, Martin O’Malley said in New Hampshire at the state party’s annual JJ dinner that the Planned Parenthood shooting was among shootings motivated by "intolerance, racism, and hate... acts of terror."
This week promises a potential moment in Washington, where lawmakers will return to Capitol Hill on Monday and Senate Republicans are expected to take up a bill that includes defunding Planned Parenthood soon after.
The measure will require only 51 votes to pass in the upper chamber, because it's part of the reconciliation package — a complicated legislative tool that doesn't require a filibuster-proof majority. The politics are pretty much set: President Barack Obama will veto the bill, which also includes repealing parts of the Affordable Care Act. But a debate over Planned Parenthood funding so close to the shooting in Colorado gives Democrats a chance to turn the vote into a political cudgel.
House Democrats will likely call for dismantling the recently formed Planned Parenthood Select Committee — designed to investigate the videos — in the aftermath of the shooting. The Democratic members on the committee have so far been reluctant to make the shooting too political before law enforcement establishes a motive for the shooter, but that could change quickly after House Democrats hold their first weekly closed-door meeting after Thanksgiving break.
On Saturday, California Sen. Barbara Boxer previewed the anti–select-committee messaging in a statement to the press. Along with calling for new gun control laws, Boxer specifically singled out the committee as a political target.
“It is time to stop the demonizing and witch hunts against Planned Parenthood, its staff and patients, and the life-saving health care it provides to millions every day,” Boxer said. “Today, I am calling on Speaker Paul Ryan to disband the GOP's special committee, which was set up only to continue this witch hunt against Planned Parenthood."
The driving force behind next week’s political push over the Colorado shooting will be the more experienced, politically capable abortion rights movement. Planned Parenthood — whose rapid response and messaging operations were tested and improved by the debate over the videos — is run by Cecile Richards, who used to run America Votes, the well- (and secretly) funded group that attempted to remake Democratic politics by putting disparate liberal groups in the same room so they could act in a common direction. Overseeing rapid response for Planned Parenthood and coordinating many of the post-Colorado efforts for the group is Anita Dunn, a key member of the Obama campaign brain trust who is now a powerful political consultant. Dunn helped run the campaign that remade Democratic politics with a focus on digital innovation and sharp political messaging.
While some activists bemoaned ongoing message coordination problems in the earliest moments after the Colorado Springs shooting and said the abortion rights movement still lacks the rapid across-the-board response of the modern gun control movement, they say their movement is uniquely poised to at least alter the political conversation around abortion rights in the weeks after the Colorado Springs shooting thanks to a new generation of leaders ready to fight hard on the political battlefields of the moment.
“The pro-choice movement is more networked, more politically savvy,” Hogue said. “This generation grew up in a much more rapid response-based climate."
Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tarini Parti is a Capitol Hill reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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