Abortion Groups Criticize DSCC
Pro-abortion rights groups are voicing frustration that Senate Democrats appear to be lining up behind anti-abortion rights candidates in two contests that are expected to become marquee races of the 2006 cycle.
Neither Pennsylvania Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. (D) nor Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), both of whom are opposed to abortion rights, has announced he will run, but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is actively recruiting both to challenge incumbents in their respective states.
Abortion rights activists were livid Wednesday when they received an invitation to a Feb. 16 fundraiser for Langevin that is being sponsored by the DSCC.
The fundraiser comes on the heels of a poll released by the DSCC in mid-January that showed Langevin ahead of Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) by 20 points. Langevin, a former Rhode Island secretary of state who has been paralyzed since age 16, has said he will decide by April 1.
Ramona Oliver, spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, said that abortion rights activists are most troubled by the appearance that Democrats are trying to clear the field for Langevin and Casey instead of allowing the primary process to play out.
“Democrats have always elected pro-life candidates,” Oliver said. “I think the concern is that the DSCC has taken this extraordinary step and seems to be trying to clear the field when there are obviously [other] very strong candidates in both those races. We’re not even close to resolving where those races are going to go.”
Casey was in the nation’s capital Tuesday to meet with DSCC chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), who is also opposed to abortion rights. Casey has indicated that he will only run if the field is essentially cleared for him, but has not given a public timetable for when he might make his decision.
Other Democrats eyeing a challenge to Sen. Rick Santorum (R) in Pennsylvania are former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer (D) and former Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D). Both Hafer and Hoeffel favor abortion rights.
In Rhode Island, Secretary of State Matt Brown (D), another abortion rights proponent, formally declared for the Senate race Thursday morning.
Schumer brushed aside the criticism on Tuesday, saying that he had not yet talked with abortion rights groups about their concerns.
“We’re a big tent party and they would agree,” Schumer said.
But Oliver charged that the DSCC’s recruitment efforts are a departure from a speech Schumer gave at NARAL Pro-Choice America’s Roe v. Wade Dinner last month.
“I think it is an extraordinary contrast to have sat and listened to Senator Schumer at the NARAL dinner … and then to see the actions of the DSCC under his leadership,” Oliver said.
Abortion rights activists have been circulating Schumer’s comments, which are posted on NARAL’s Web site.
“As many of you know, there’s been some open debate in recent weeks about the direction of the party. And, in particular, there has been some talk about adjusting our position on choice,” Schumer said at the dinner. “I come to you with a clear and unambiguous message. When it comes to choice, we will not retreat, we will not succumb, we will not bend in our firm commitment to protecting a woman’s right to choose. We will stand at the barricades and defend Roe v. Wade against all comers.”
A Democratic operative asserted that the DSCC only has the party’s best interests in mind by trying to recruit the strongest possible candidates.
“No. 1, there’s no concerted effort at all to exclusively recruit pro-life candidates,” said a Democratic campaign operative. “No. 2, there are a number of people considering this race and the Democratic Party has room for people of all different viewpoints. At the end of the day the overall goal is to field a competitive race against Republican Senators and the process will work itself out.”
Pablo Rodriguez, medical director of Rhode Island’s Planned Parenthood, said he is prepared to support Chafee if Democrats nominate Langevin or another anti-abortion rights candidate. Rodriguez, a former National Board Member of NARAL and current member of the National Abortion Federation board, actively raised money and support for Chafee in his 2000 race against then-Rep. Bob Weygand (D). Weygand opposes abortion rights, while Chafee supports them.
“If the process works out that we end up with an anti-choice candidate is one thing, but to have the [DSCC] actively be supporting candidates from the get-go that are not representative of the Democratic Party on choice, then we have a problem,” Rodriguez said. “Lincoln Chafee is in the Senate today because, I believe, in part because we turned against choice.”
The abortion rights community sees the 2006 Senate battleground as especially crucial, given the likelihood of an upcoming Supreme Court fight.
“The Senate is the most important defender of choice in this country right now,” Rodriguez said. “Everything else is lost. The Senate is the final frontier in my mind because of the Supreme Court and the judicial appointments. If we can’t hold the line on the Senate, then we might as well make abortion illegal in this country.”
Democrats also nominated an anti-abortion rights candidate, then-Rep. Ron Klink (Pa.), in the 2000 race against Santorum. Klink had difficulty raising money from the start and his campaign never caught fire. He lost to Santorum by 5 points, even as then-Vice President Al Gore (D) carried the state in the presidential contest.
While Pennsylvania is considered a swing state (it voted narrowly for Democrats in the past two presidential elections), Rhode Island remains one of the most Democratic states in presidential elections. Chafee was appointed then elected to fill the seat of his father, the late Sen. John Chafee, who was a moderate Republican like his son.
The state is both heavily Catholic (64 percent of the population) and heavily in favor of abortion rights, unlike Pennsylvania, where most Catholics tend to oppose abortion rights.
Oliver noted the DSCC’s reluctance to get involved in primary fights during the 2004 cycle, when the party lost a total of four seats.
“That’s a departure that concerns a lot of people,” she said. “Both of the candidates that the DSCC are trying to obviously favor I think causes a great deal of concern to the choice community.