Politics & Policy

Pryor’s Secret

Asked about a ban on late-term abortion, the senator from Arkansas smiles and shuffles off.

Good luck getting Mark Pryor to talk to you about abortion. And I’m not being sarcastic. Seriously, please try to get him to talk to you about it, and I wish you luck. The Arkansas senator is probably 2014’s most vulnerable incumbent, and his behavior in the Capitol would suggest he’s acutely aware of this distinction. I don’t spend an enormous amount of time on the Hill — I’m in the Capitol maybe once or twice a week when Congress is in session — but when I’m there, I often try to talk with Pryor and other vulnerable red-state Democrats. That’s because, given the national interest in their reelection bids, their comments are more newsworthy than, say, comments from a Democrat in a safe seat might be.

Of the four Democrats up for reelection in 2014 in states that Romney won — Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Pryor — I’ve had helpful conversations, before and after votes, with the first three: They’ve always been polite, straightforward, and forthcoming. I appreciate this.

Pryor is a different story. I’m at least 0 for 5 in getting any sort of answer out of the bespectacled Arkansan. He hurries through the halls of the Capitol — sometimes accompanied by staff, but often going solo – with his head down, zipping in and out of votes as if he hasn’t a moment to waste.

When I try to talk to him, this is what happens: He makes eye contact, smirks a little bit, sort of gives me side-eye, shakes his head, and bustles off. Tom Harkin doesn’t do this. Bob Casey doesn’t do this. Tammy Baldwin doesn’t do this. Sherrod Brown, bless his heart, certainly doesn’t do this. I can’t think of anyone who does this, besides the senior senator from Arkansas. I’m not doing a good job describing how weird it is; please just trust me when I say that it’s really weird.

Anyway, I bring this up because a few days ago I tried to ask Pryor a question about abortion, and he responded predictably. This wasn’t trolling, by the way. Pryor’s stance on the issue has vacillated, and that puts him in a tricky position as a representative of one of the most pro-life states in the country. Plus, the issue is about to get some buzz in his state; on Saturday, the Arkansas Coalition for Reproductive Justice will hold its fourth annual pro-choice rally at the state capitol in Little Rock. And a day later, Arkansas Right to Life will hold its 36th March for Life in the same place, and Representative Tom Cotton, Pryor’s most formidable challenger, will speak at that event. In short, there’s some abortion news in Arkansas, and it makes sense that a person who’s been in the Senate since 2002 would be reasonably comfortable getting asked about such a contentious, headline-grabbing issue.

Apparently not. I saw the Senator on Monday night shortly before the 5:30 p.m. vote to confirm Robert Wilkins to be a circuit judge for Washington, D.C. He was passing through the Ohio Clock room off the Senate chamber, so I caught up with him to ask about Senator Lindsey Graham’s Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks except in cases of rape, “incest against a minor,” or the endangerment of the mother’s life. When The Weekly Standard’s John McCormack asked Pryor about the legislation last August, he said, “I’ll have to look at it. I haven’t focused on it.”

Fair answer. It’s been four months since then, so one would think Pryor would have had a chance to give it a look by now.

So on Monday evening, I skittered across the Ohio Clock room to ask the senator if he’d had any more thoughts on the bill. He looked at me, sort of smiled, said nothing, and kept walking. I walked after him for a bit, giving him time to answer. He didn’t acknowledge me at all beyond his smirk-ish facial expression, and certainly didn’t provide any insight into his views on late-term abortion. He did say “Hi guys” to a few men standing in the hall between the Senate chamber and the rotunda. Then, munching peanut-butter M&Ms, he disappeared toward the House side of the building.

A request for comment sent to his office was unanswered at press time.

Pryor’s past comments on the abortion issue have been across the board. During a bid to be attorney general in 1998, he said he was pro-choice for an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette candidate survey. In 2002, the same paper reported that Pryor said, “I have never considered myself ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life.’ . . . I believe that abortion is always wrong, with the possible exception of when the mother’s life is in danger.” 

And in 2013, he told a local outlet that he’s “always leaned toward the pro-life side.” He added: “I sort of live in that tension of somewhere being in the middle of that issue, probably where most Arkansans are. I think for most Arkansans it’s not a pure black or white issue. There’s not just a bright-line rule, no exceptions.”

Most Arkansans might be “in that tension” as well, but not when it comes to Graham’s bill. A Talk Business Arkansas–Hendrix College survey showed that 60 percent of Arkansans supported a bill that banned most abortions after the first trimester. Perhaps more surprisingly, only 50 percent of the state’s Democrats opposed that measure. And Americans United for Life recently ranked Arkansas as the third-most pro-life state in the country.

In other words, it doesn’t seem like the kind of state where supporting a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of gestation would be a huge political liability. But if Pryor remains as tight-lipped as he’s been, he might never find out.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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