(WOMENSENEWS)--The partisan rift over contraception health coverage that just broke into full national view has turned reproductive politics into one of the largest wild cards in this year's elections, along with redistricting and Super PACs.
In a recent poll of voters in battleground states, half said that that if their senator voted for the Blunt Amendment they would be less likely to vote for him or her. Blunt was widely denounced by pro-choice activists for weakening the contraception-coverage mandate in health reform by allowing employers to opt out of health coverage that violated their religious beliefs.
For GOP women running for Senate--the protective firewall for pro-choice laws--that is likely to mean close scrutiny of their credentials on reproductive health policies.
When senators narrowly defeated the Blunt Amendment on March 1, 51-48, three male Democrats – Joe Manchin (W. Va.), Bob Casey (Penn.), and Ben Nelson (Neb.) – voted with Republicans.
Only one Republican senator crossed the party line and voted nay on Blunt.
Unsurprisingly, that was Maine's retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe, who in 1999 co-sponsored a Senate version of the contraception-coverage mandate. At the time, it had no exemptions for religious institutions and had Republican co-sponsors, according to a recent article in The New Republic. During this month's Blunt vote, though, Snowe stood alone among her GOP colleagues.
Snowe is one of three Republican women in the Senate --alongside Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine)--who identify themselves as pro-choice. But the yes votes on Blunt by Murkowski and Collins raise questions about what that means. Murkowski has publicly regretted voting for the Blunt Amendment, according to the Associated Press.
Republican women currently hold only five seats in the U.S. Senate.
By retiring this year, Snowe and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas may keep a lid on that number as only a couple of GOP female contenders have strong chances of winning in November, at this point. The two who now look likely to replace them--numerically speaking--also provide a matching set of stances on choice.
In the Senate ranks of GOP women, Snowe's only likely replacement--in terms of both political viability and pro-choice credibility--is Linda Lingle, the former Governor of Hawaii. Lingle is considered a shoe-in for the Republican nomination for that state's open Senate seat. Like Snowe, she is considered decidedly pro-choice.
In Hawaii, Lingle is expected to face Mazie Hirono, who is slated to win the Democratic primary. It will be the only general congressional race with two pro-choice women, barring any surprises. It's a rematch for the two women, who ran against each other in Hawaii's 2002 gubernatorial race. Lingle won, and Hirono currently represents the state's 2nd District. While Hawaii leans blue, Lingle was a broadly popular governor.
Hutchison's up-and-coming counterpart, meanwhile, is Heather Wilson, who is running for New Mexico's open Senate seat.
Like Lingle, Wilson appears to be one of the most likely female GOP candidates to come out on top in November.
And like Hutchinson, she takes criticism from both sides on reproductive issues. Wilson has never claimed to support abortion rights, but the anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List sponsored attack ads against her on Christian radio stations in 2008, during her first Senate primary campaign, which she lost.
Hutchison called herself pro-choice in the early 1990s, yet recently voted in favor of anti-choice legislation such as the Blunt Amendment and the defunding of Planned Parenthood in April 2011. She used to belong to WISH List, a group that supported pro-choice female Republicans, but quit in 2006 when she was considering a gubernatorial run.
Wilson represented the state's 1st District from 1998 to 2009. She ran for Senate in New Mexico in 2008, too, but lost the primary (a Democrat won the general election). Wilson graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy, won a Rhodes Scholarship and earned both a masters and a doctorate from Oxford University. She describes herself as anti-choice, although her ratings from NARAL Pro-Choice America have varied from 0 percent in 2006 to 50 percent in 2007. Her primary race is in June.
Wilson Voted for Stem Cell Research
While representing New Mexico's 1st District from 1998 to 2009, Wilson voted in support of embryonic stem cell research and voted against a 1999 amendment to prevent the FDA from testing and approving drugs that chemically induce abortion. She was criticized by far-right conservative groups that claimed she supported tax hikes, reported Congressional Quarterly Roll Call in 2011. Though her record is considered fairly conservative by Democratic standards – she voted with her party 89 percent of the time while in office – she could be a target for ultra-conservative groups.
If Lingle and Wilson are the only two victors--which at this point looks possible-- GOP women will only manage to hold on to their five Senate seats, given the retirements of Snowe and Hutchison.
Snowe's retirement also critically hampers Republican chances of claiming a Senate majority, since liberal-leaning Maine could go blue in November. Six Republicans are running for the seat, one of which is state Sen. Debra Plowman; but Angus King, the liberal-leaning independent former governor, is the clear frontrunner at the moment, according to ABC News.
To add another GOP women's seat to the Senate, the party's best chances currently rest with the following candidates.
Linda McMahon, the pro-choice former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, is vying for Joe Lieberman's open seat in Connecticut and has raised well over a million dollars. But she would face a Democrat, Christopher Murphy, who has over $3 million. McMahon just ran for Connecticut's other Senate seat, in 2010, and lost. The primary is in August.
Sarah Steelman, Missouri state senator, also has a chance to pull out another U.S. Senate seat for GOP women. Steelman is running for the Senate seat currently occupied by Democrat Claire McCaskill, who will be running for her second term this year. The race is considered a tossup in the general election, but Steelman is running against two others for the Republican nomination, including current U.S. Rep. Todd Akin. By the end of 2011, all three campaigns had over one million dollars, though Akin was slightly leading Steelman, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But the primary isn't until August, giving all the candidates months to get ahead – or fall behind.
Deb Fischer, Nebraska state senator, is running in the state's U.S. Senate race. The seat, opened up by retiring Democrat Ben Nelson, would be an unlikely win for Fischer; as of the end of 2011, she had about $300,000, compared to Jon Bruning, who had about $2.8 million. The primary is in May.
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Samantha Kimmey is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.