This article has been corrected.
The stump speeches and political advertisements that define our political season have been focused on a few traditional themes: the economy, terrorism, and jobs, jobs, jobs. But there's one surprising issue that keeps cropping up in progressive campaigns this year: A woman's right to choose.
Despite the fact that a majority of people in the United States support Roe v. Wade, moderate restrictions on abortion, and access to contraception, reproductive choice isn't usually the centerpiece of progressive political campaigns. For one, it excites people on the wrong side -- anti-choice conservatives. And for many moderate voters, choice is an important issue but not the dominant one -- economic or national security issues more commonly drive voting patterns.
But this year, Democratic political operatives have been surprised by the success they've had in deploying pro-choice messages. Congressional campaigns from New Jersey to Nevada have picked up on the trend, and outside groups spreading the word are not just usual suspects like NARAL and Planned Parenthood, but also the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).
"We didn't use it as much in 2006. Voters then were really focused on Iraq and the economy," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who is working on several House and Senate races this year. "I was surprised, honestly. You think the economy and nothing else will break through, but this is breaking through."
Lake points to a number of factors that are making the issue key this cycle. It's a presidential year, and the president's choice of Supreme Court justices (the next president could nominate several) are deeply important at a time when court-watchers anticipate several challenges to Roe. This message is aimed squarely at moderate and independent women whose more conservative views on other issues have often trumped their pro-choice beliefs. In previous years, it hasn't seemed possible for one or two judicial appointments to tip the scale in favor of overturning Roe, but that changed during the Bush years.
Choice is also a clear-cut issue that distinguishes the two presidential candidates in the minds of low-information voters, especially when compared the complexities of tax plans or health care reform. Another factor has been that many potential moderate candidates on the Republican side chose to sit out this cycle due to the poor political climate for the GOP, leading to the nomination of candidates with more extreme views. This was reinforced by McCain's running-mate selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who believes abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape or incest. Some voters, worried about a possible GOP win on the presidential level, feel the need to support congressional candidates who will protect choice in Congress.
GOP candidates who are unwilling to support free access to contraception are especially ripe targets, according to Lake. "Women voters react, 'I have enough to worry about, I don't need to add this to my plate, I don't need to be running around trying to get my prescriptions filled,'" Lake says. "When politicians are interfering and making their lives more difficult, that really has an edge to it."
These factors have led congressional campaigns and independent-expenditure committees in New Jersey, Colorado, Illinois, Virginia, Arizona, Connecticut and Washington, among others, to push a pro-choice message in television and radio ads, and through direct mail. And it's not just Democratic candidates who are touting their reproductive-rights credentials.
One example is New Jersey's 7th Congressional District, a traditionally Republican seat where Democratic challenger Linda Stender, a member of the state Assembly, is in a close race with Republican State Senator Leonard Lance. The candidates share more than an affection for rhyming insults ("big spender Stender," "the Leonard Lance dance"); they both also seek to define themselves as the pro-choice candidate, and have aired advertisements to that effect. While Lance says he is pro-choice and has previously voted for Planned Parenthood funding, he was one of only six senators to vote against a bill Stender supported in the Assembly that would have required pharmacists to fill birth control prescriptions for women, regardless of their personal feelings on the matter. (Eleven other Republican state senators voted for it.) The DCCC has gotten in on the action, spending at least $2.2 million in the district.
Lance's stance on the bill "exposes his whole 'I'm a moderate' façade," says Irene Lin, communications director for the Stender campaign. She adds that this is why "Republicans are losing fluid, suburban districts." Lance's attempt to establish his moderate credentials has undercut his support among more the conservative GOP base.
"Women's health and prevention seem to resonate with voters," says Tait Sye, a Planned Parenthood spokesperson, citing Barack Obama's advantage in social issues over John McCain, as well as pro-choice commercials run by Jeff Merkley, the Democratic Senate candidate in Oregon. He pointed to another reason that pro-choice messages are important this cycle: Many voters initially assumed McCain is pro-choice, and in February a Planned Parenthood poll showed that 38 percent of pro-choice women supporting McCain were likely to switch their vote when told he opposes Roe v. Wade.
There's one other reason that pro-choice ads are springing up around the country. This year, the electorate will be much younger than in recent cycles, both because more young people tend to vote in presidential elections and Obama has galvanized young voters unlike any politician in recent memory. Surveys show that young voters are more consistently pro-choice than their older counter-parts.
Though it doesn't seem that this burst of emphasis on choice by congressional candidates will change the framework of the abortion debate in electoral politics, it does suggest that many voters aren't pleased with the way the Bush administration slowly chipped away at women's autonomy. These candidates, including Obama, appeal to voters who may be ambivalent about abortion by emphasizing access to contraception, women's health, and social programs to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Or they focus on the absolutist stands of conservative candidates like Keith Fimian in Virginia's 11th District, where the DCCC ran an ad arguing that his no exceptions stance on banning abortion was "too extreme."
Indeed, for all of the right-wing attempts to make pro-choice voters seem like extremists the message of many Democratic (and a few Republican) campaigns this season is that it isn't extreme to let women control their bodies. At the final presidential debate, John McCain was discussing abortion and noted that "[Senator Barack Obama supports] health for the mother. You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, 'health.'" For most Americans, health isn't an extreme position. As long as conservatives make it out to be, progressives can claim an advantage on the issue.