Hillary Rodham Clinton

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Life and Liberty PAC, a new anti-choice political action committee in Washington, D.C., has so far attacked Sen. Hillary Clinton in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina and is planning to continue doing so in other states before Feb. 5, when more than 20 states hold nominating contests.

Altogether it plans to spend $500,000 in early primary states on phone calls warning voters that Clinton has been downplaying her support for abortion rights in her race against Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

While all three candidates are pro-choice, Mary Lewis–who founded the PAC in September because she said other anti-choice groups were not being aggressive enough–said Clinton is their top target because she is more hostile on the issue. Clinton, for example, is a co-sponsor of the Freedom of Choice Act, a bill that would enshrine protections for abortion rights into law; Obama is not.

Lewis is a former chief of staff for Alan Keyes, the social conservative who has mounted several bids for the presidency and the U.S. Senate and is on the GOP ballot this year.

Bill Constantine, also a former aide to Keyes and the PAC’s treasurer, said Clinton has the “worst” record of the three leading Democratic rivals. “She has a longer history and, shall we say, a not-as-likeable history.”

Clinton appears to agree with the part about her record. Her campaign has criticized Obama for casting several “present” votes on abortion-related bills when he was a member of the Illinois Legislature, suggesting his commitment to the issue is weaker than hers.

Clinton’s Gender a Factor

But Michele Dillon, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, said that Life and Liberty is not singling out Clinton for her voting record. She said it’s about the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy. Stopping U.S. women from gaining a role model in the White House, she said, will slow efforts to bring about greater equality for women, she said, including in the area of reproductive rights.

Lewis acknowledged Clinton’s gender played a role. She said that Clinton–as a mother and woman who often points out her work on behalf of children–“ought to know better” than to support choice.

“There is fundamental responsibility for women to understand the moral implications of abortion on demand,” Lewis said. “Even if the men are too stupid to get it, the women for millennia have understood what’s at stake.”

Whatever the PAC’s motivation for targeting Clinton, the intervention in the Democratic nomination contest marks a departure for anti-choice forces, which typically stay out of primaries that feature only pro-choice candidates, said J. Matthew Wilson, a political science professor with a specialty in abortion politics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Instead they have backed anti-abortion candidates in Republican primaries and then go on to work against pro-choice Democrats in general election races, he said.

The Washington-based National Right to Life Committee, the nation’s leading lobby against reproductive rights, has spent more than $100,000 in the last two months on behalf of Fred Thompson, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The former senator from Tennessee won the endorsement in November when his prospects looked better. Now in national surveys he is trailing Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachussetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Reassessing GOP Endorsement

Holly Gatling, executive director of South Carolina Citizens for Life, a state affiliate, said her organization could reassess its endorsement of Thompson after Feb. 5, when more than 20 states hold nominating contests.

The National Right to Life Committee has spent a nominal sum–roughly $5,000–against former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the GOP’s only pro-choice contender.

American Right to Life Action, a political action committee in Denver, has spent more than $20,000 on advertisements against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney highlighting his former support for abortion rights.

Life and Liberty also opposes Giuliani but has not spent any money against him because he hasn’t fared well in primaries so far, Lewis said.

Campaign finance rules changed in 2002 when Congress capped political action committees to $5,000 for individual candidate in each election. But PACs can still spend open-ended amounts for or against candidates as long as the expenditures are not coordinated with campaigns and are disclosed to the Federal Election Commission.

For her part, Clinton has received more than $500,000 in the last two months from EMILY’s List, the Washington PAC that backs pro-choice female candidates. She lost the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses but came back less than a week later with a narrow win over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

PACs advocating for and against abortion–which excludes EMILY’s List because it’s categorized under women’s issues–have so far given a combined total of less than $100,000 in direct contributions to candidates in the 2008 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog in Washington, D.C.

Still Early Days

But it’s still early days for these groups, which have historically played a large role in presidential and congressional campaigns, together donating roughly $1.5 million to political candidates in 2000 and that same amount again in 2004, according to the center.

In both election cycles, pro-choice contributions roughly doubled the amount spent by anti-choice groups.

For all the enmity from Life and Liberty, Clinton has also caught some flak from the pro-choice side, where some activists see her rhetorical emphasis on preventing pregnancy coming at the expense of bolder support for improving access to abortion. She also drew fire in 2006 for backing anti-choice Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey over pro-choice rivals in his quest for the party’s nomination in the election against former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum.

In 2006, both Clinton and Obama earned a 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America, the country’s leading abortion rights lobby, and both voted against the Supreme Court nominations of Samuel Alito and John Roberts, who symbolize to activists an anti-choice shift in the nation’s highest court.

Edwards also received a 100 percent rating from NARAL in 2003; he retired in 2004 to seek the presidential nomination and ran as vice president alongside Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Dillon and other political scientists said Life and Liberty’s anti-Clinton phone calls will have little effect on the outcome of the primary because most Democratic and Republican primary voters have already made up their minds on the issue.

But Southern Methodist University’s Wilson said it’s not a total waste. “They can test different anti-Hillary messages right now with the idea of having a finely honed message ready to go in the general election.”

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

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