Jennifer Lawless

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Rhode Island, the smallest state in the union, is poised for a big fight over abortion in the 2006 midterm congressional primaries.

Anne Burmeister, a community affairs associate and lobbyist for Planned Parenthood VOTES! Rhode Island, said abortion would be a “critical” issue in the Rhode Island primaries in September 2006. “We’re facing egregious attempts to erode Roe v. Wade at the federal level,” she said, referring to the landmark decision that legalized abortion. “And Rhode Island needs to send representatives who will fight for Rhode Islanders, given the fact that we’re pro-choice here.”

On the Democratic side in Rhode Island, Jennifer Lawless, a pro-choice political science professor at Brown University, is gearing up for her party’s nomination to the House of Representatives. She is taking on Rep. James Langevin, a three-term lawmaker who opposes abortion rights.

The Republican Party may see a similar fight, but from the other end of the ideological spectrum. Stephen Laffey, the mayor of Cranston, R.I., is mulling over a challenge to U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican who backs abortion rights. Laffey has no public position on abortion.

The debate over abortion–typically downplayed in general elections–is particularly tense as participants keeps close watch on possible retirements on the Supreme Court.

If vacancies arise and President Bush nominates anti-abortion rights justices–as he is expected to do–he could ignite a furor among abortion rights activists on both sides of the aisle.

Those fights, said Jennifer Blei Stockman, national co-chair of the Republican Majority for Choice, an advocacy organization in Washington, are expected to play out most intensely in primary contests, where differences on social issues
–such as abortion and same-sex marriage–often rise to the fore.

Within the Democratic Party, conservatives like Langevin are pushing leaders to ease their support for abortion rights, arguing that it is a political loser among religious and rural voters. Among Republicans, liberals such as Chafee are encouraging leaders to embrace moderate, pro-choice voters, a crucial constituency they say is necessary to keep control of Congress in Republican hands.

Rhode Islanders Favor Choice

Nowhere is this more the case than in Rhode Island, a pro-choice state smack dab in the middle of the solidly Democratic region of New England. Despite its strong Catholic strain, Rhode Islanders, in fact, favor abortion rights by a two-to-one margin, according to officials at Planned Parenthood.

Lawless, who plans to kick off her campaign in coming weeks, hopes to exploit this demographic statistic and is pinning her campaign in large part on Langevin’s record on abortion.

“I still think it’s really important to emphasize a woman’s right to choose,” she said, adding that she also intends to campaign on jobs, education and health care.

Langevin, she notes, recently opposed an amendment that would have allowed overseas service women to obtain abortions in military hospitals using their own money. The amendment fell, forcing women–those in the service or spouses of military men–to either use health services provided in the country where they are stationed or request permission to return to the United States to undergo an abortion. Lawless also plans to highlight Langevin’s support for legislation that would make it a federal crime to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion without parental consent.

Still, political observers regard her as a dark horse.

She does not enjoy the benefit of incumbency and she faces a popular lawmaker who has won his last two races with three-quarters of the vote.

“She’s not really very well known and I don’t think she’s going to be able to raise very much money,” said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University.

Laffey Challenge

But Laffey has a better chance to shake things up, West said.

Some local Republicans (only a small percentage of registered voters usually determine the outcomes of primary races that often have a light turnout) are angered by Chafee’s tendency to go against the grain on everything from the war in Iraq to tax cuts to the environment.

Disenchanted local Republican officials and activists have since tried to draft Laffey into a Senate primary and recently sent him a letter urging him to do so.

Laffey responded with a statement suggesting interest. “Rhode Island needs strong, independent leadership in Washington–not weak, indecisive waffling.” He has not said when he will announce his decision.

If Laffey does enter the race, he may well have the backing of outside groups, including the Club For Growth, a fiscally conservative group in Washington, which reportedly gave former Rep. Patrick Toomey, a Pennsylvania conservative, more than $1 million to bolster his challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter, a pro-choice moderate Republican. Toomey, who lost and went on to take over the helm of the Club For Growth, has reportedly not ruled out intervening in the Rhode Island race.

Laffey spokesperson Robin Muksian-Schutt said her boss has not taken stands on “national-level issues” such as abortion, a strategy may keep him from alienating the state’s progressive voters.

If Laffey does decide to run, abortion will play a leading role in the campaign, Stockman predicted. She likened the race to last year’s primary in Pennsylvania, where exit polls showed that most voters ranked abortion as their top concern.

“We were shocked,” she said. “Typically in national polls, when voters are polled, abortion is way down . . . But the fact–in this primary–was abortion was at the forefront.”

Steep Challenge

With or without outside help, the road ahead for Laffey is still steep.

Chafee, the son of the late John Chafee, a well-liked centrist Republican senator, enjoys a familiar surname and a network of fundraising contacts and already has the backing of the White House and Senate Republicans. He also won an early endorsement from NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Washington lobby group for reproductive rights. Appointed in 1999 to succeed his father, Chafee won his first bid for reelection in 2000 with a solid 57 percent of the vote.

Still, Laffey would be “a very serious challenger” if he jumps in the race, said West. From his perch as the mayor of the state’s third largest city, Laffey could reach out to the state’s small slice of Republican voters relatively easily, he said.

“He gets a lot of press and he’s very well known,” West added. “He is conservative, but the way he’s reached popularity is to campaign as a reformer, running against the Democratic establishment and high taxes and the party being in bed with labor unions.”

Allison Stevens is Washington Bureau Chief at Women’s eNews.