Abortion Split Shades Michigan Race

Posted April 12, 2010 at 6:24pm

The Democratic primary in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) appears destined to highlight the same internal party fissures that dogged Stupak during his battle over abortion funding in the health care bill.

Stupak’s push to include strict language to prohibit federal funding of abortion put him at the center of the national debate on the issue and ultimately contributed to the burnout that led to his retirement announcement on Friday. It also earned him the enmity of progressive women’s groups and abortion-rights advocates, who have rallied behind former Charlevoix County Commissioner Connie Saltonstall (D), an abortion-rights proponent who was challenging Stupak in the primary before his exit from the race.

But Stupak’s decision not to seek a 10th term has generated interest from a crop of state legislators in the district’s Northern Michigan and Upper Peninsula regions who hew more closely to Stupak’s brand of socially conservative, populist politics. Most are opposed to abortion rights.

National Democrats are also zeroing in on that pool of candidates, which could set the party on a collision course with Saltonstall and her surrogates, including the National Organization for Women, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

“We wanted [Stupak] gone. We’re thrilled he’s gone. Now we want Connie in,” National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill said. And O’Neill said that if the party recruits another candidate like Stupak, who opposes abortion rights, it will be “a huge mistake.”

“If the Democratic Party wants to be known as the party that cares about women’s issues, it will not continue to support anti-women people,” she said.

Saltonstall, who has shown no sign she is preparing to drop out of the race, is already guaranteed to face off against one anti-abortion Democrat.

On Monday, state Rep. Joel Sheltrown (D) announced that he will seek the party’s nomination. A Navy veteran and small-business man, Sheltrown boasted that he has built a staunchly independent record during his time in the state House.

“I went to Lansing and challenged the status quo there,” he told Roll Call.

Sheltrown, who calls himself “pro-life,” said he agreed with Stupak’s efforts to deny federal abortion funding in the health care overhaul, including persuading President Barack Obama to sign an executive order confirming existing restrictions.

But Sheltrown also said he supports the goal of providing health care coverage for the uninsured. He said he has not taken the legislative health care package that’s provided by the state of Michigan. “Until we resolve this crisis and every Michigan resident has some sort of health care, I don’t feel I should be taking taxpayer dollars and paying for mine,” he explained.

Like Stupak, Sheltrown is also a supporter of gun rights and will be coming to Washington, D.C., next week for a march in support of the Second Amendment. He hopes to meet with Democratic leaders while in town, but nothing has been ironed out yet, he said.

Another leading Democrat being promoted for the seat, state Rep. Mike Lahti, told Roll Call on Monday that he was not going to run. Other names on the list of potential Democratic candidates include state Senate Minority Leader Michael Prusi and state Reps. Gary McDowell, Judy Nerat and Steve Lindberg. Both Prusi and Lindberg are known as supporters of at least some abortion rights. McDowell and Nerat are not.

From a tactical standpoint, Democrats will face a tougher time holding on to the seat if they field a socially progressive candidate, given the high proportion of Catholic and socially conservative voters in the largely rural district.

As longtime Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger told Roll Call on Friday, Democrats “better come up with somebody who is pro-life” if they hope to win the race in November.

That argument doesn’t sway abortion-rights groups, who are planning to mount a concerted grass-roots effort to rally support for Saltonstall in the primary and general election, if she gets that far.

“We’re going to fight very hard,” O’Neill said. “We’re mobilizing our boots on the ground.”

And Tait Sye, spokesman for Planned Parenthood Action Fund, dismissed concerns that Saltonstall is not electable. “Democratic primary voters and especially women will respond to Connie’s message,” Sye said. “And I think also that general election voters will respond to putting common-sense health care issues ahead of ideology and politics.”

Republicans hope to take advantage of Democratic division leading up to the Aug. 3 primary to snag yet another GOP-friendly open seat from the Democrats. The distressed state of Michigan’s economy and voter dissatisfaction with Democratic leadership at the state and national level will help their cause, they believe.

Thus far, three potential candidates have publicly confirmed they are considering a run — state Sen. Jason Allen, state House Minority Leader Kevin Elsenheimer and bankruptcy attorney and former Justice Department official Lawrence Friedman. Allen plans to make a decision in the next few days, a spokesman said, and has already contacted all the Members of Michigan’s Republican Congressional delegation to alert them of his interest.

Sheltrown, though, said he hopes divisive social issues such as abortion and Stupak’s role in the health care debate won’t define the race. “We have to move forward,” he said. “We have an economy in Northern Michigan that is in bad trouble, and we need to address that.”