Christopher Shays

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WOMENSENEWS)–In Connecticut, the state known as the Land of Steady Habits, two long-term incumbents may find themselves out of a job if their opponents–trying to catch the momentum of the anti-war mood and renewed concerns about abortion rights–have their way.

Republican Christopher Shays, who has represented Connecticut’s 4th congressional district since 1987, and Democrat Joseph Lieberman, in the Senate since 1989, have both made their reputations as moderates in a state that tends to lean to the left but elects politicians who drive straight down the middle.

But some women’s rights activists are gearing up the opposition to Shays and Lieberman, both longtime allies of the women’s rights movement. Some women feel they can do better with Diane Farrell, who is seeking to oust Shays in her second bid, and with Ned Lamont, a Democrat who is crafting a primary challenge to Lieberman around opposition to the war in Iraq.

It’s a gamble in both races since incumbents are notoriously difficult to beat and unseating an incumbent in a primary is even tougher. Even so, these activists are hoping that Shays’ and Lieberman’s trademark moderation will lose its sway with the voters.

On the anti-incumbent side, Rosemary Dempsey, president of the state chapter of the National Organization for Women, is delighted that challengers Farrell and Lamont have been endorsed at the chapter’s request by NOWPAC, the national organization’s political action committee. “We don’t endorse anybody unless they’re perfect on our issues,” she says. “We’ve got two exciting races in the state.”

Women’s Groups Split

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the political arm of the national health care provider, took a different course. The organization automatically endorsed Lieberman when he earned a 100-percent rating on the group’s election scorecard and, even though the group endorsed Farrell two years ago, it decided to remain neutral in this year’s race.

“I think what happened since the last election is that Chris Shays has done many things to be helpful and take a leadership role in the Congress on issues of concern to women both here and globally,” says Susan Yolen, vice president of Planned Parenthood Connecticut. “These are hard decisions to make, but it didn’t feel right to endorse in the race. We can’t endorse Chris because of his support for the partial-birth abortion ban.”

That ban would prohibit almost all abortions after 12 weeks and provides an exception only to save the life of the woman. Shays’ vote for the ban also grates longtime Fairfield County Democratic activist Anne Marie Sutton, who says women in Connecticut are getting tired of politicians who claim they support women’s issues, but are always hedging and circumscribing that support.

“Chris Shays was one of the few Republican politicians who attended the million-strong March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., in 2004,” Sutton says, “but he supports the partial-birth abortion ban.”

That’s enough to keep her in Farrell’s camp. Two years ago, Farrell was a little-known local politician who almost unseated Shays, but lost the race by four percentage points. This time around, though, her persistence has raised her profile. “The issues have only intensified since then,” Farrell says.

Michael Sohn, Shays’ campaign manager, says his vote in favor of the abortion ban is “one vote out of a long record of being a leader on women’s issues.”

Strong Record on Women

Among male Republicans, Shays is a unique champion of women’s issues. He is an original co-sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment. He has repeatedly voted in support of the Planned Parenthood position on abortion access for low-income women, insurance coverage for contraceptives, funding international family planning, confidential family planning access for minors, access to emergency contraception, and access to abortion for women in the military, currently offered only to rape victims. He has also voted to repeal the global gag rule, which prohibits international aid to groups who provide access to or information about abortion or advocate for change in their nation’s abortion laws.

Last year, Shays earned a 100 percent approval rating from Washington-based NARAL Pro-Choice America, which grades politicians’ voting records on reproductive health issues.

Diane Farrell

“These are not Republican or Democratic issues; they cross party lines,” Sohn insists. Nevertheless, almost none of Shays’ woman-friendly legislative proposals has been passed by the Republican-controlled Congress.

This track record is ammunition for Farrell, who emphasizes her support for full abortion rights and opposes the abortion ban. Farrell’s campaign touts her as the candidate who will provide “truly moderate leadership,” a rebuttal to the oft-repeated description of Shays as the “Republican moderate.”

But, as Farrell points out every chance she gets, “The first vote that Chris Shays casts in every new session of Congress is for his party’s leadership.” By supporting the most reactionary Republicans in the House, she argues that Shays is no moderate in practice, even though he was the first Republican who called for the resignation of House Speaker Tom DeLay. Running on a platform of support for reproductive rights, more funding for education and child care, and opposition to the war in Iraq, Farrell is hoping that this is the year when voters will swing her way.

War Stance Taking a Toll

Their unwavering support of the war is taking a toll on both Shays–who has visited Iraq 12 times since the spring of 2003–and Lieberman, especially with women. An AP-Ipsos poll taken in the first week of June showed that 70 percent of women disapproved of the way the war has been handled.

Lieberman has been hammered on the war issue; like Shays, he touts his credentials as an environmentalist and a supporter of women’s reproductive rights instead.

“The senator is a strong defender of a woman’s right to choose,” says Marion Steinfels, Lieberman’s campaign communications director. “He’s fought any efforts to undermine Roe v. Wade. He’s fought for women’s equality in the workplace. He twice voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment,” but has stated that he believes legal marital rights should be reserved for heterosexuals.

But his NARAL score was downgraded to 75 percent last year, based on his vote to confirm John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court. This year, he voted against the confirmation of Samuel Alito.

In May, a group called Connecticut Choice Voice sprung up to support Lamont’s candidacy. One reason they oppose Lieberman is because he spoke out against a state bill that would have required all Connecticut hospitals to offer emergency contraceptives to rape victims, including Catholic hospitals.

“He said, ‘It’s just a short ride to another hospital,'” fumed Carolyn Gabel-Brett, one of the founders of Women Standing Up. “Talk about insensitivity to rape victims.”

Lamont’s approval rating has soared in the past two months, moving from a 19 percent favorable rating to 40 percent in early June, compared to Lieberman’s 55 percent, according to the Quinnipiac University Poll, based in Hamden, Conn. Lieberman has said he’ll consider running as an independent in the general election if he loses the August 8 primary.

Melinda Tuhus is a freelance radio and print journalist based in New Haven, Conn.

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