It’s about abortion, not immigration

It’s a strange thing joining the class of talking heads on cable TV: Stephanie Ruhle is speaking into my earplug while I stare into a black box that is the camera operated by Jerry Johnson’s crew at Buena Vista University’s studio. I cannot see her or myself. Brett Stephens of The New York Times is talking.

“Art,” Stephanie (we are close personal friends by now) says. I am startled into attention.

She would like to know about immigration.

I talked about hard-working hungry people living in fear, just wanting to put their boot on the first rung of the ladder to American success.

What I wanted to say, and probably should have said:

It’s not really about immigration around here. It’s about abortion. And, to a far lesser extent, guns. Immigration provides the glue that keeps the King-Trump coalition strong in northwest Iowa.

Any number of polls show that voters in the Fourth Congressional District, and Iowa generally, favor a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have committed no crime but crossing the Rio Grande. It’s the 20 percent to 30 percent who are adamantly opposed to Mexicans or Hondurans working in Storm Lake who give King the margin he needs in a GOP primary and, until now at least, to hold office for nine terms.

The overwhelming factor is abortion.

People who otherwise are nice, modest and would never talk like King or Trump were voting for Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, not to lock children in cages at the borders.

Fred Hubbell found out that running ads about Planned Parenthood in the Sioux City TV market is no way to win over independent voters west of I-35.

Northwest Iowa is Missouri Synod Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Reformed Church, Evangelical Free Church, plus your assorted Methodists, Presbyterians and ELCA Lutherans. The Iowa Republican Party always has been a bulwark in the pro-life movement. Riverdale Twp. in Kossuth County is nearly 100 percent Catholic, and the first time it voted Republican was for Tom Tauke in his bid to unseat Democrat Tom Harkin for the U.S. Senate. 

Both candidates were Catholic. Tauke was pro-life.

It remains the most powerful issue in rural Iowa, although it is the most overlooked when people from the outside try to understand Iowa. They hear Steve King talking about immigration. They don’t hear the pastors talking on Sunday, or see the white crosses in the lawn of the Catholic Church on a wide spot in the road representing aborted lives.

To a lesser extent, many rural voters also are motivated by guns. Hunters and fishermen who otherwise might be motivated to vote for a Democrat over environmental issues close their ears when they hear of an assault-rifle ban. They don’t call them assault rifles. They call semi-automatic weapons tools.

Immigration brings in the disaffected not necessarily drawn by abortion. It is the shortest leg of the three-leg stool. If you talk with the guys in the bar at Webster City, where the Electrolux plant is shut down, they will introduce you to the only Latino in the bar as their friend. If 20 Latino men are in the bar it might be a different mood. A new packing plant is gearing up at Eagle Grove just up Hwy. 17, and that means more brown people in towns dealt gut punches by maquiladora plants in Mexico. The feelings are not as clear as the rhetoric might suggest.

Feelings are crystal clear about abortion, one way or the other. There are more churches than bars in Newell. That is where the rural vote is consolidated in the GOP: in the pews. 

They have not been satisfied with the truce on abortion since Roe v. Wade in 1972. Democrats have forgotten how to talk with people of faith, so Joe Biden stumbles around while under attack from the left. Meanwhile, Republican state legislatures are attempting to force the issue at the Supreme Court. Most people in the muddle of the middle are uncomfortable with the idea of abortion, and don’t really know what to do about it.

But explaining the power of Steve King’s resilience, or Trump’s surprising sweep of Iowa, has more to do with abortion than immigration. It has everything to do with Democrats forgetting how to work with rural voters and not understanding their faith roots. 

Most want a compromise, but our politics has declared the 1972 truce to be finished. Tom Harkin eventually figured out a way to talk about it in a way that could put the issue aside — that, despite all our profound reservations, in a pluralistic society you have to go with the doctor and the woman — but Harkin is gone. 

Bill Clinton used to say that abortion should be legal, safe and rare. That isn’t working for Joe Biden anymore.

Art Cullen is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The Storm Lake Times.

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