Deborah Goldberg

(WOMENSENEWS)–When the moment came this year to decide between making a political campaign donation or supporting the ballet that she loves, Polly Rothstein didn’t hesitate. She chose politics.

“I’m putting more into electoral organizations and cutting down on non-electoral,” said Rothstein. “I look for aggressive campaigns that identify voters and get them to the polls, and don’t just spend my money on big offices and consultants,” said Rothstein.

While Rothstein has long worked for choice–she’s founder of the Westchester Coalition for Legal Abortion, Inc. in New York and co-author of a 1990 manual “Pro-Choice Power: How to Turn Pro-Choice Supporters Into Pro-Choice Voters and Change American Politics”–pro-choice organizations and political campaign experts say that she is not alone.

Even before the typically frantic fall donation season, campaign chests of both political parties are bulging, says Deborah Goldberg, director of the Democracy Program, which specializes in campaign finance issues, at the Brennan Center for Justice, part of the New York University School of Law. “A record-breaking year,” said Goldberg.

As of Aug. 18, presidential candidates had raised $582 million dollars, already exceeding the 2000 total of $529 million, and House and Senate candidates had raised $801 million, which is $201 million more than 2002 totals, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group, which analyzed reports of the Federal Election Commission.

Pro-Choice Spending Record

Amid those heavy flows of political donations, pro-choice political organizations like Planned Parenthood Action Fund, NARAL Pro-Choice America, EMILY’s List, The WISH List and the Republican Majority for Choice are also expected to raise substantial sums during election season of over $50 million to support pro-choice candidates, get out the vote and broadcast advertisements.

That anticipated gush of pro-choice election spending can be explained in part by the fierce passions that have been stirred by what many advocates see as the Bush administration’s campaign to reverse Roe v. Wade.

“The stakes are so high. Women’s reproductive rights are so close to being lost,” said Gloria Feldt, president of the Washington-based Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which is endorsing 200 pro-choice candidates, including giving its first-ever endorsement of a presidential candidate to Senator John Kerry. “The anti-choice people have organized themselves–we ‘get it.'”

In March, Gloria Steinem, who founded Voters For Choice, another group that raised funds for pro-choice candidates, announced that it merged with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

But it can also be explained by campaign-finance laws that took effect after the last federal election in 2002 and now offer certain membership organizations a special chance to flex their political muscle and shake their money trees with enthusiasm.

Under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, qualified membership organizations, such as issue-oriented advocacy groups, may run broadcast advertisements in the days before the election. Broadcast advertising by groups with hidden donors and that mention or target a candidate is prohibited in the 60 days before the general election.

More Chance to Flex Muscle

This has meant that some pro-choice groups–such as Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice America–can actually flex more muscle.

“In any election, there are last-minute issues. The ability to do these last-minute TV ads is really meaningful,” said Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “It gives us an advantage.”

NARAL Pro-Choice America–which has it been touting its new ability to enter the last-minute political fray to its members and other possible contributors–hopes to raise $25 million for its election activities, including $500,000 for a Political Action Committee or PAC that will make direct donations to candidates.

NARAL will also fire up its Choice Action Network, a technologically sophisticated online and direct mail community developed in the past three years and with over 600,000 subscribers.

Some groups work specifically with pro-choice candidates of only one party and they, too, are gathering money and momentum for political activities.

The Republican Majority for Choice hopes to raise $2 million for 40 male and female pro-choice House and Senate Republican candidates, according to Jennifer Blei Stockman, national co-chair.

Funding Pro-Choice Republicans

The WISH List, formed in 1992–WISH stands for Women In the Senate and the House–raises funds for pro-choice Republican female candidates. It is supporting 11 federal candidates, said President Pat Carpenter, along with state and local candidates. In 2002, the WISH list collected $775,000 dollars for 225 candidates across the country, said Carpenter, an amount that it hopes to match this year.

The WISH List encourages members to write checks to endorsed candidates. Individuals may give $2,000 to a candidate under the new campaign finance law, a doubling of the prior limit of $1,000. These donations are then delivered in a group from the WISH List. The technique–known as bundling–allows the individual donors to put more financial punch into their pro-choice message. Like NARAL and Planned Parenthood, the WISH List also has a Political Action Committee, or PAC, that makes direct donations to candidates.

The much larger Democratic equivalent, EMILY’s List (EMILY stands Early Money Is Like Yeast), is raising campaign funds for 19 pro-choice Democratic women running for office, and is already topping its prior fundraising feats, which were considerable.

“People are paying more attention and getting more engaged,” said Ramona Oliver, communications director.

By the end of the second quarter, the 19-year old organization had added 22,000 members to its existing 73,000 members and spurred $6.7 million in candidate donations, said Oliver.

It expects the numbers to continue to rise. Donations are bundled, as well as delivered through a Political Action Committee.

In the last Congressional cycle in 2001-2002, EMILY’s List members contributed a total of $9.3 million to candidates. For eight years, EMILY’s List has been the nation’s largest Political Action Committees, according to Oliver. “It’s fantastic. It’s individual women and men who are making donations,” said Oliver.

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York who frequently reports on reproductive rights and justice issues.

For more information:

Women’s eNews–“Decision 2004: Our Candidates, Our Choice”: