U.S. Rep. Debbie Stabenow

(WOMENSENEWS)–If you say “Michigan,” most election observers automatically say “battleground state.” The Presidential race is expected to be close, and the state’s 18 electoral votes are considered necessary for a victory.

Michigan also claims, however, one of the tightest Senate races around and a hotly contested open House seat.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Stabenow has taken on one of the toughest jobs in U.S. politics, trying to unseat an incumbent U.S. Senator, in this case, anti-choice Republican Spencer Abraham.

At the same time, state Sen. Dianne Byrum, a pro-choice Democrat, is running for Stabenow’s former seat against an anti-choice Republican, state Sen. Mike Rogers.

With both races in a statistical dead heat, it’s a 50-50 chance whether Byrum and Stabenow will both be elected. A double victory for women candidates here would lift the number of women Senators from nine, while maintaining a pro-choice seat in the House.

Two Women Candidates Together Way Back

This double-fisted campaign is the result of a rare partnership between two of the state’s most fiery political women.

Stabenow and Byrum have known one another for 20 years. As state legislators, they helped pass pioneering legislation on domestic violence and women’s health care. When Stabenow moved on to Congress, Byrum moved into the leadership of the state senate. While Stabenow fought successfully in Washington for renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, Byrum successfully promoted a bill requiring insurance companies and health maintenance organizations to cover treatment for the victims of domestic violence.

Stabenow’s opponent, Spencer Abraham, was elected to the U.S. Senate six years ago on the coattails of Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America. He has a solid anti-choice and anti-gun control voting record.

NARAL, the abortion-rights advocacy organization, placed Abraham near the top of its “Worst Choice List,” and he has been called among the most vulnerable U.S. Senators by the well-known Washington analyst Charlie Cook and ABCnews.com.

“He’s voted against abortions for overseas military women and he’s voted for the ban on late-term emergency abortions,” said Roselyn O’Connell, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus. “Everywhere there has been an opportunity to vote for choice, he’s voted the other way,” she said.

Abraham also voted against other legislation considered to have a positive impact on women, such as an increase of the minimum wage and continued funding for women- and minority-owned business programs.

Byrum is running against a candidate apparently cut from the same cloth, but one who describes himself as moderate. Republican Rogers has been endorsed by the Michigan Right to Life and the National Rifle Association.

In addition to the choice issue, the 2000 election nationally is largely being fought over other issues of particular concern to women as well–education, Social Security and health care. Nowhere are these issues and the choices more sharply defined than in Michigan.

Stabenow Takes Senior Citizens to Canada to Buy Medications

This past July, Stabenow took a bus full of senior citizens across the border to Canada to buy medications, dramatizing the high costs of prescription drugs in the United States. Abraham operatives trailed her bus and displayed a billboard stressing the high cost of Vice President Gore’s proposed Medicare prescription drug benefits.

Stabenow and Byrum have also emphasized the Democrats’ version of a “Patient’s’ Bill of Rights” to force additional requirements in insurance coverage. A new Stabenow television ad features Jessica and Calvin Luker, whose daughter Jessica died last year of a rare metabolic disorder that caused multiple seizures. Jessica died after their insurance company refused to cover her follow-up care after surgery.

Abraham’s response: He has called the mother a liar, forcing a series of press conferences to debate the issue.

Health care and prescription drugs have also been focal points for Byrum’s race against her opponent Rogers. But the main flashpoint has been education, especially his long commitment to school vouchers.

Rogers Supports Vouchers, Byrum Opposes

In the Michigan State Senate, Rogers unsuccessfully promoted two bills to amend the state constitution and remove the prohibition on state funding for private schools.

Byrum opposes vouchers and, as a result, has won the endorsement of the Michigan teachers’ unions.

In Michigan, a bruising, multi-million-dollar ballot initiative calls for school vouchers, and money is pouring from outside the state to influence the outcome.

Under Michigan’s proposal, parents in school districts that have a high-school graduation rate lower than 66 percent would automatically have access to $3,100 in vouchers that could be used at any private or parochial school in the state.

Voters have rejected similar initiatives in Colorado and Washington State, agreeing with legislatures in Texas, New Mexico and Pennsylvania that rejected similar voucher plans.

Both Stabenow and Byrum are unsure how the initiative will affect their campaigns.

“It’s a moving target,” said Byrum’s campaign manager, Tom Russell. “No one can tell for sure what sort of impact it will have. The supporters have a lot of money–but the opponents will be all over the TV in the run-up to the election, as well.”

Chris Lombardi is a free-lance writer based in New York.