Kate Michelman

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–With the anti-choice faction of the Republican Party firmly in control, abortion rights activists are deeply concerned that control of the Senate could change hands on Election Day, handing power to anti-abortion Republicans for a two-year period in which at least one of the five Supreme Court justices that support abortion is expected to retire.

Consequently, pro-choice groups are mounting a multi-million dollar offensive in a dozen keySenate races across the country in an attempt to ensure that control of the Senate remains in pro-choice hands on Tuesday. Convinced that the anti-choice Republicans will maintain control of the House of Representatives, the groups are targeting only a handful of contested congressional races where abortion is a defining issue.

Currently, Democrats control the Senate by a one-vote margin. And political observers are reluctant to predict which party will win control of the upper chamber on Tuesday. Pundits are nearly unanimous, however, in their assessment that Republicans will hang onto their narrow majority in the House.

Pro-choice leaders are alarmed.

“A pro-choice Senate is the only barrier to an extreme anti-choice agenda that has the full backing of President Bush and the House majority,” said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, known as NARAL. “These efforts are not intended to just poke at the edges of the freedom to choose. They want to limit access to contraception and ban abortion outright.”

Michelman said the Bush administration has already demonstrated its intention to outlaw abortion by implementing a plan to pack the lower federal courts with anti-choice jurists. If Republicans win back control of the Senate, she said, conservative leaders in the White House and Congress will resume a “full-throttle assault” on reproductive freedom through legislation, executive appointments and regulatory fiat.

“Clearly for people in the choice community, there is an understandable sense of urgency to making sure that the pro-choice forces remain in control of the U.S. Senate,” Planned Parenthood political director David Williams said. “Whether it’s the issues of judicial nominations or a whole host of regressive policy initiatives coming out of this administration, who controls the Senate is very, very important.”

Pressing Local and National Concerns Overshadow Pro-Choice Agenda

But despite their best efforts, pro-choice groups may not be able to effectively communicate their messages at a time when the nation is focusing on issues such as the possible war against Iraq, the ongoing war against terrorism, the troubled economy and a series of sniper shootings in the Washington area.

The prospect has left Williams concerned, especially because despite the surge of civic pride and patriotism that came in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the electorate remains fairly unengaged in the political process.

In addition to having the usual midterm malaise, voters appear to be focusing on local concerns, Williams said, rather than national issues such as the threat to reproductive choice, the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs and a Social Security system headed toward insolvency–trends that would have a larger impact on women than on men because, as a group, they tend to live longer and closer to the poverty line.

“I do think that other issues are playing a large role,” she said.

Susan Medalie, executive director of the Women’s Campaign Fund, added that “choice never is up there high in many races . . . But it’s one of a number of issues that make up the whole candidate’s profile.”

Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY’s List, a political action committee dedicated to electing pro-choice women Democrats to office, countered that the pro-choice groups’ message is getting through loud and clear. As president of the country’s largest political action committee, Malcolm said her donor base is motivated by the fear of losing the Senate and that targeted women are “painfully aware” that anti-abortion Republican leadership in the Senate could threaten reproductive rights.

Michelman agreed that the pro-choice message is resonating among suburban women and noted that, unlike issues at the top of the agenda, the issue of choice presents a clear distinction between candidates.

“Frankly, on the war on terrorism, there isn’t a candidate on either side that doesn’t believe we shouldn’t be fighting,” Michelman said. “On the economy too. But when it comes to women’s right to choose, the facts are quite clear, and that makes a difference to voters.”

Big Spending to Support Pro-Choice Candidates in Tight Races

To prevent anti-choice Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi from resuming his former post as majority leader–a position he lost last year when Vermont Sen. James Jeffords bolted the GOP to become an Independent–NARAL has spent $3 million to help elect pro-choice Democratic challengers and protect endangered pro-choice incumbents in a number of states across the country. A powerful political action committee, NARAL has targeted suburban women between the ages of 25 and 55 with campaign commercials, mailings and phone calls.

In addition, the group staged political rallies in seven states on Oct. 9, the opening day of the Supreme Court’s fall term, to call attention to the link between competitive Senate races in states such as Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, Missouri, New Hampshire and Texas, and abortion rights.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood plans to spend about $2 million this election cycle, double the amount it spent in the last midterm elections in 1998.

Both groups are emphasizing four Senate races where pro-choice Democrats face tough elections against staunch anti-choice Republicans. These include Democratic incumbents Sen. Jean Carnahan of Missouri, who is locked in a neck-and-neck race against former Republican Rep. Jim Talent, and former Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota, who is running in place of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, in a close battle against Republican St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.

Pro-choice groups are also strongly backing pro-choice Democratic challengers in New Hampshire, where Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is running against anti-choice GOP Rep. John Sununu for the seat to be vacated by Sen. Bob Smith, and in Colorado, where U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland is taking on anti-choice Republican Sen. Wayne Allard.

Democrat Ron Kirk of Texas, who is waging an uphill battle against Texas Attorney General John Cornyn in the state’s open-seat race, and Sen. Tom Harkin, who faces GOP Rep. Greg Ganske, are also targets of support.

As a result of the emphasis on the Senate, pro-choice groups are giving most gubernatorial and House candidates short shrift this year.

One major exception is in Maine’s northern district, where a pro-choice Republican, Kevin Raye, is battling an anti-choice Democrat, Mike Michaud, for the right to succeed Democratic pro-choice Rep. John Baldacci.

“The House race in Maine is very important to us,” said Lynn Grefe, national director of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition, a political action committee, calling it a “perfect example” of the kind of race her group hopes to influence.

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.

For more information:

National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League:

Planned Parenthood Federation of America:

Women’s Campaign Fund: