Marjorie Dannenfelser

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–As a man challenging a woman in one of the most hotly contested seats in Congress, Illinois Republican Pete Roskam might not have expected to get an endorsement from the Susan B. Anthony List, a political action committee named after one of the nation’s best-known suffragists.

But Roskam has already received campaign checks from the group as he battles Democratic candidate Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who lost both of her legs in 2004 while piloting a helicopter north of Baghdad.

Duckworth, a pro-choice Democrat, won the endorsement of EMILY’s List, the Washington-based political action committee that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights.

Behind their support of Roskam, though, is the Susan B. Anthony List’s mission to dent the power of the pro-choice bloc of women in Congress.

The primary focus of the group, which is based in Alexandria, Va., and is named after Anthony because the group claims she opposed abortion, is to “increase the percentage of pro-life women in Congress.” But members also devote their energies to helping anti-choice men take down strong pro-choice female incumbents or new candidates like Duckworth who are vying for office.

The group’s dual agenda–of electing women but also often helping men defeat them–may lead to an occasional identity crisis, said Judith Saidel, director of the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society at the State University of New York in Albany.

“It appears that if the two come into conflict, they are willing to choose their ‘issue orientation,’ as it’s often called, over their interest in gender or women’s political participation,” Saidel said.

Two-Pronged Damage Control

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, explained the policy as part of a two-pronged strategy. “There are so many more pro-choice women in federal office that we had to have a defensive strategy as well as an offensive strategy,” she said. In addition to preventing pro-choice women from entering Congress, that often means “un-electing some of the women that we feel have done damage” to the cause.

There are currently 67 women in the House, 15 of whom oppose abortion rights, according to the SBA List. Of the 14 female senators, only a few are considered anti-choice.

The List hopes to grow that number this year, and, at the same time, decrease the number of pro-choice women. To achieve the latter goal, the group has endorsed Roskam and three other anti-choice men running against pro-choice women in House races in the general elections. The group has also endorsed an anti-choice male candidate who hopes to oust Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a pro-choice Democrat.

 Susan B. Anthony

Those five endorsements come on top of endorsements of 13 female candidates for the House and one female candidate for the Senate: Katherine Harris, the Florida Republican who gained notoriety during the protracted ballot counting for the 2000 presidential election when she served as Florida’s secretary of state.

Endorsed candidates will each receive between $30,000 and $100,000 from SBA List members, Dannenfelser said.

The Susan B. Anthony List also hopes to help anti-choice candidates in Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, Montana and Pennsylvania via statewide voter mobilization projects. Three of these states–Michigan, Missouri and Montana–feature Senate races involving an anti-choice man against a pro-choice woman.

Minimal Impact This Year

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, predicted the group will have only a minimal impact on this year’s midterm elections.

“I don’t see any sign that they’re a player in a big way,” she said, noting that the group has not gained much power or visibility in political circles, even at a time when anti-choice conservatives have controlled Capitol Hill and the White House. “In this kind of heyday of the right-wing political action committees, I’ve not seen it growing,” she said. “So I’m not sure why now it would.”

Indeed, the SBA List’s financial clout pales in comparison to groups like EMILY’s List.

EMILY’s List has so far shelled out nearly $24 million this election cycle, more than any other independent political action committee in the entire country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group in Washington that tracks money in congressional elections. Political action committees associated with national party committees have given out more to congressional candidates.

EMILY’s List executive director Ellen Moran said her group’s track record “speaks for itself,” noting that the group has elected 11 women to the Senate, 61 to the House and sent eight to governors’ mansions.

The Susan B. Anthony List has so far spent slightly more than $105,000, according to the center. It has spent more than $350,000 in each of the past three elections.

Still, the group should not be dismissed, Saidel said.

“They have the potential to have enormous influence,” she said. Any group that focuses on a narrow group of constituents can swing a close election, she said.

Strong Track Record

Dannenfelser conceded that EMILY’s List has “a lot more money than we do,” but countered that the SBA List has had a strong track record since it started in 1992. That year, there were only two anti-choice women in Congress, a number group members decided did not “reflect the sentiment of American women.”

One of the group’s most significant victories came six years later, when it worked on behalf of Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald in his successful campaign to oust pro-choice Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois.

In 2000, the group helped elect nine new anti-choice members of the House, including two women, and one anti-choice governor. In 2002, the group helped elect anti-choice Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole and helped boost the number of anti-choice House women to 12 that year. With their help, that number jumped to 14 in 2004, and to 15 in a special election in 2005. Among the lawmakers the group supported that year were Sens. Mel Martinez of Florida and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, both of whom were opposed by pro-choice female Democrats.

This year, the group’s male beneficiaries include Dick DeVos, a wealthy Republican businessman who hopes to unseat Granholm, the first woman to serve as governor of Michigan, and David McSweeney, a Republican who is working to oust Rep. Melissa Bean, a freshman Democrat from Illinois who won an upset victory in 2004.

Both Granholm and Bean are backed by EMILY’s List and are considered by independent political analyst Charlie Cook to be in danger of losing their seats.

The group has also endorsed two male anti-choice incumbents–Reps. Mike Ferguson of New Jersey and Jim Ryun of Kansas–who are being challenged by pro-choice women this fall.

A victory in Michigan’s Senate race would be especially sweet for the Susan B. Anthony List. That’s because the group’s immediate past president is Jane Abraham, the wife of former Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham of Michigan.

In 2000, Spencer Abraham lost to pro-choice Democrat Debbie Stabenow, who now faces a battle against anti-choice Republican Mike Bouchard. He could benefit from SBA List efforts in the state.

“If we could beat Stabenow, that would be a major victory,” Dannenfelser said.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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For more information:

Women’s eNews Spotlight on 2006 Midterm Election Races:

The Susan B. Anthony List:

EMILY’s List: