Analysis Politics

ELECTION 2012: Susan B. Anthony List Blames Losses on Inadequate Focus on Abortion; Their Record Proves Otherwise

Robin Marty

When it came to the presidential and senate campaigns, SBA List had an almost perfect record... of losses.

The anti-choice political action arm of the Susan B. Anthony List invested considerable  resources into influencing the presidential race in the final weeks of the campaign, hoping to eke out a win for Republican Mitt Romney. Instead, President Barack Obama was re-elected, a fatet they say rests solely on the shoulders of Romney for not bringing the abortion issue up more frequently.

According to Roll Call, SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser believed it was a “strategic error” of Romney’s campaign not to highlight the candidates’ differences on abortion more clearly.

“Voters overwhelmingly disagree with the extreme positions on abortion taken by President Obama and the Democrats. Mitt Romney, the Republican Party, and their Super PAC allies never highlighted this vulnerability, despite the fact that our polling of likely swing voters revealed it to be a persuasive line of argument. What was presented as discipline by the Romney campaign by staying on one message — the economy — was a strategic error that resulted in a winning margin of pro-life votes being left on the table.”

If Dannenfelser was right, and pledges to restrict abortion really would have been the winning issue for the campaign, her group’s overall failures to win their own endorsed races don’t support her argument.

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SBA List endorsed six candidates for senate (this does not include Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin, whom the group continued to verbally support but did not officially endorse), the group had only one successful race—that of Nebraska’s Deb Fischer. The group also endorsed Wendy Long, Richard Mourdock, Pete Hoekstra, Rick Berg and Tommy Thompson, all of whom lost.

SBA endorsed one gubernatorial candidate, New Hampshire Republican Ovide Lamontage. He lost to Democrat Maggie Hassan. They also endorsed Diana Irey Vaughan for Treasurer in Pennsylvania, who lost to Democrat Rob McCord.

Their record was somewhat better in House races, much as Republicans did better in more targeted areas than where a larger voter demographic had to be swayed and where redistricting has less influence. Female House candidate outperformed male House candidates, and incumbents did better than challengers.

Of the 11 incumbent female House candidates, all won re-election. The biggest surprise may have been Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann, who won, but just barely. Normally, Bachmann has done well in her races, but this year she barely squeaked through without triggering an automatic recount. Had she been up against a candidate with previous political experience, she very well could have been swept out of office.

Kristi Noem easily won reelection in South Dakota with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Michigan’s Candace Miller won her district with over two thirds. Jackie Warlorski won in Indiana. Incumbent Vicky Hartlzer won in Missouri and Martha Roby won reelection in Alabama.

Both incumbents Diane Black and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee won reelection, as did incumbents Renee Elmer and Virginia Foxx in North Carolina. In Florida, incumbent Ileana Ros-Lehtinen won an easy reelection as well.

Female challengers or those trying for open seats were a mixed bag. Martha McSally appears to be winning Arizona, and could replace Rep. Ron Barber, who won Gabrielle Gifford’s seat after she left the House. So far the upset is still not official and may go into a recount. Ann Wagner won an empty seat in Missouri, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Cathy McMorris Rodgers won seats in Washington state, but Karen Harrington was unsurprisingly trounced by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Florida. Ann Marie Buerkle lost in New York and in a shocker Mia Love lost in Utah. Four wins, three losses total.

SBA List male House candidates did even worse. Jim Rennacci kept his seat in Ohio, Steve King fended off Christie Vilsack in Iowa, Ron Desantes won in Florida and Kevin Kramer in North Dakota. Meanwhile, Bobby Schilling was beaten in Illinois by Cheri Butros. John Patton likely lost to Anne Kirkpatrick and Vernon Parker to Kyrsten Simena in Arizona, and John Koster lost in Washington. That left the male congressional endorsements for the group at a 50/50 win lose ration.

Put them all together, and you see the power of re-districting, and the polarity of the voters at a glance. Ultra right-wing candidates were successful if they were incumbents, had a 50 percent chance of election if they were in a very conservative district, and when forced to appeal to the entire state versus a gerrymandered district overwhelmingly failed.

But by all means, focus on denying women the right to an abortion more next election. The Democrats would no doubt love a filibuster-proof majority.

Analysis Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats Employ ‘Dangerous,’ Contradictory Strategies

Ally Boguhn & Christine Grimaldi

Democrats for Life of America leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradict each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party's platform is newly committed to increasing abortion access for all.

The national organization for anti-choice Democrats last month brought a litany of arguments against abortion to the party’s convention. As a few dozen supporters gathered for an event honoring anti-choice Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), the group ran into a consistent problem.

Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradicted each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party’s platform is newly committed to increasing access to abortion care for all.

DFLA leaders and politicians attempted to distance themselves from the traditionally Republican anti-choice movement, but repeatedly invoked conservative falsehoods and medically unsupported science to make their arguments against abortion. One state-level lawmaker said she routinely sought guidance from the National Right to Life, while another claimed the Republican-allied group left anti-choice Democrats in his state to fend for themselves.

Over the course of multiple interviews, Rewire discovered that while the organization demanded that Democrats “open the big tent” for anti-choice party members in order to win political office, especially in the South, it lacked a coordinated strategy for making that happen and accomplishing its policy goals.

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Take, for example, 20-week abortion bans, which the organization’s website lists as a key legislative issue. When asked about why the group backed cutting off abortion care at that point in a pregnancy, DFLA Executive Director Kristen Day admitted that she didn’t “know what the rationale was.”

Janet Robert, the president of the group’s executive board, was considerably more forthcoming.

“Well, the group of pro-life people who came up with the 20-week ban felt that at 20 weeks, it’s pretty well established that a child can feel pain,” Robert claimed during an interview with Rewire. Pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to legal abortion care before the point of fetal viability, Rogers suggested that “more and more we’re seeing that children, prenatal children, are viable around 20 to 22 weeks” of pregnancy.

Medical consensus, however, has found it “unlikely” that a fetus can feel pain until the third trimester, which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. The doctors who testify otherwise in an effort to push through abortion restrictions are often discredited anti-choice activists. A 20-week fetus is “in no way shape or form” viable, according to Dr. Hal Lawrence, executive vice president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

When asked about scientific findings that fetuses do not feel pain at 20 weeks of pregnancy, Robert steadfastly claimed that “medical scientists do not agree on that issue.”

“There is clearly disagreement, and unfortunately, science has been manipulated by a lot of people to say one thing or another,” she continued.

While Robert parroted the very same medically unsupported fetal pain and viability lines often pushed by Republicans and anti-choice activists, she seemingly acknowledged that such restrictions were a way to work around the Supreme Court’s decision to make abortion legal.

“Now other legislatures are looking at 24 weeks—anything to get past the Supreme Court cut-off—because everybody know’s it’s a child … it’s all an arbitrary line,” she said, adding that “people use different rationales just to get around the stupid Supreme Court decision.”

Charles C. Camosy, a member of DFLA’s board, wrote in a May op-ed for the LA Times that a federal 20-week ban was “common-sense legislation.” Camosy encouraged Democratic lawmakers to help pass the abortion ban as “a carrot to get moderate Republicans on board” with paid family leave policies.

Robert also relied upon conservative talking points about fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, which routinely lie to patients to persuade them not to have an abortion. Robert said DFLA doesn’t often interact with women facing unplanned pregnancies, but the group nonetheless views such organizations as “absolutely fabulous [be]cause they help the women.”

Those who say such fake clinics provide patients with misinformation and falsehoods about abortion care are relying on “propaganda by Planned Parenthood,” Robert claimed, adding that the reproductive health-care provider simply doesn’t want patients seeking care at fake clinics and wants to take away those clinics’ funding.

Politicians echoed similar themes at DFLA’s convention event. Edwards’ award acceptance speech revealed his approach to governing, which, to date, includes support for restrictive abortion laws that disproportionately hurt people with low incomes, even as he has expanded Medicaid in Louisiana.

Also present at the event was Louisiana state Rep. Katrina Jackson (D), responsible for a restrictive admitting privileges law that former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed into law in 2014. Jackson readily admitted to Rewire that she takes her legislative cues from the National Right to Life. She also name-checked Dorinda Bordlee, senior counsel of the Bioethics Defense Fund, an allied organization of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“They don’t just draft bills for me,” Jackson told Rewire in an interview. “What we do is sit down and talk before every session and see what the pressing issues are in the area of supporting life.”

Despite what Jackson described as a commitment to the constitutionality of her laws, the Supreme Court in March blocked admitting privileges from taking effect in Louisiana. Louisiana’s law is also nearly identical to the Texas version that the Court struck down in June’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision.

Jackson did not acknowledge the setback, speaking instead about how such measures protect the health of pregnant people and fetuses. She did not mention any legal strategy—only that she’s “very prayerful” that admitting privileges will remain law in her state.

Jackson said her “rewarding” work with National Right to Life encompasses issues beyond abortion care—in her words, “how you’re going to care for the baby from the time you choose life.”

She claimed she’s not the only Democrat to seek out the group’s guidance.

“I have a lot of Democratic colleagues in my state, in other states, who work closely with [National] Right to Life,” Jackson said. “I think the common misconception is, you see a lot of party leaders saying they’re pro-abortion, pro-choice, and you just generally assume that a lot of the state legislators are. And that’s not true. An overwhelming majority of the Democrat state legislators in our state and others are pro-life. But, we say it like this: We care about them from the womb to the tomb.”

The relationship between anti-choice Democrats and anti-choice groups couldn’t be more different in South Dakota, said state house Rep. Ray Ring (D), a Hillary Clinton supporter at DFLA’s convention event.

Ring said South Dakota is home to a “small, not terribly active” chapter of DFLA. The “very Republican, very conservative” South Dakota Right to Life drives most of the state’s anti-choice activity and doesn’t collaborate with anti-choice Democrats in the legislature, regardless of their voting records on abortion.

Democrats hold a dozen of the 70 seats in South Dakota’s house and eight of the 35 in the state senate. Five of the Democratic legislators had a mixed record on choice and ten had a pro-choice record in the most recent legislative session, according to NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota Executive Director Samantha Spawn.

As a result, Ring and other anti-choice Democrats devote more of their legislative efforts toward policies such as Medicaid expansion, which they believe will reduce the number of pregnant people who seek abortion care. Ring acknowledged that restrictions on the procedure, such as a 20-week ban, “at best, make a very marginal difference”—a far cry not only from Republicans’ anti-choice playbook, but also DFLA’s position.

Ring and other anti-choice Democrats nevertheless tend to vote for Republican-sponsored abortion restrictions, falling in line with DFLA’s best practices. The group’s report, which it released at the event, implied that Democratic losses since 2008 are somehow tied to their party’s support for abortion rights, even though the turnover in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress can be attributed to a variety of factors, including gerrymandering to favor GOP victories.

Anecdotal evidence provides measured support for the inference.

Republican-leaning anti-choice groups targeted one of their own—Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC)—in her June primary for merely expressing concern that a congressional 20-week abortion ban would have required rape victims to formally report their assaults to the police in order to receive exemptions. Ellmers eventually voted last year for the U.S. House of Representatives’ “disgustingly cruel” ban, similarly onerous rape and incest exceptions included.

If anti-choice groups could prevail against such a consistent opponent of abortion rights, they could easily do the same against even vocal “Democrats for Life.”

Former Rep. Kathy Dalhkemper (D-PA) contends that’s what happened to her and other anti-choice Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, which resulted in Republicans wresting control of the House.

“I believe that pro-life Democrats are the biggest threat to the Republicans, and that’s why we were targeted—and I’ll say harshly targeted—in 2010,” Dahlkemper said in an interview.

She alleged that anti-choice groups, often funded by Republicans, attacked her for supporting the Affordable Care Act. A 2010 Politico story describes how the Susan B. Anthony List funneled millions of dollars into equating the vote with support for abortion access, even though President Obama signed an executive order in the vein of the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on federal funds for abortion care.

Dalhkemper advocated for perhaps the clearest strategy to counter the narrative that anti-choice Democrats somehow aren’t really opposed to abortion.

“What we need is support from our party at large, and we also need to band together, and we also need to continue to talk about that consistent life message that I think the vast majority of us believe in,” she said.

Self-described pro-choice Georgia House Minority Leader Rep. Stacey Abrams (D) rejected the narratives spun by DFLA to supporters. In an interview with Rewire at the convention, Abrams called the organization’s claim that Democrats should work to elect anti-choice politicians from within their ranks in order to win in places like the South a “dangerous” strategy that assumes “that the South is the same static place it was 50 or 100 years ago.”

“I think what they’re reacting to is … a very strong religious current that runs throughout the South,” that pushes people to discuss their values when it comes to abortion, Abrams said. “But we are capable of complexity. And that’s the problem I have. [Its strategy] assumes and reduces Democrats to a single issue, but more importantly, it reduces the decision to one that is a binary decision—yes or no.”

That strategy also doesn’t take into account the intersectional identities of Southern voters and instead only focuses on appealing to the sensibilities of white men, noted Abrams.

“We are only successful when we acknowledge that I can be a Black woman who may be raised religiously pro-life but believe that other women have the right to make a choice,” she continued. “And the extent to which we think about ourselves only in terms of white men and trying to convince that very and increasingly narrow population to be our saviors in elections, that’s when we face the likelihood of being obsolete.”

Understanding that nuances exist among Southern voters—even those who are opposed to abortion personally—is instead the key to reaching them, Abrams said.

“Most of the women and most of the voters, we are used to having complex conversations about what happens,” she said. “And I do believe that it is both reductive and it’s self-defeating for us to say that you can only win if you’re a pro-life Democrat.”

To Abrams, being pro-choice means allowing people to “decide their path.”

“The use of reproductive choice is endemic to how we as women can be involved in society: how we can go to work, how we can raise families, make choices about who we are. And so while I am sympathetic to the concern that you have to … cut against the national narrative, being pro-choice means exactly that,” Abrams continued. “If their path is pro-life, fine. If their path is to decide to make other choices, to have an abortion, they can do so.”

“I’m a pro-choice woman who has strongly embraced the conversation and the option for women to choose whatever they want to choose,” Abrams said. “That is the best and, I think, most profound path we can take as legislators and as elected officials.”

News Politics

Somali-American Activist Ilhan Omar Makes History During Minnesota Democratic Party Primary

Michelle D. Anderson

Omar's win means she will likely become the first Somali-American legislator in the United States.

Ilhan Omar, a noted feminist and liberal policy advocate from Minnesota, has won the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary in the 60B Minneapolis House district.

Her win means she will likely become the first Somali-American legislator in the United States, the Star-Tribune reported Tuesday. It also means incumbent DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who was first elected to the House in 1972, will not serve a 23rd term.

After the primary results came in, Kahn told the Star-Tribune that Omar “mobilized a lot of people that we didn’t see before in previous elections.” This year, according to Omar’s campaign, 5,868 people from the district voted in the primary—an increase of 37 percent from the 2014 primary.

Omar, 33, currently works as the director of policy initiatives at Women Organizing Women, a local nonprofit organization that seeks to empower women to become engaged citizens and community leaders, according to the group’s official website.

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The group has a special focus on first– and second-generation immigrant women like Omar, who describes herself as an “intersectional feminist, mom, part-time social justice crusader, full-time political junkie” on Twitter.

On November 8, Omar will face Republican Abdimalik Askar, a Somali-American elementary school principal and community entrepreneur in the general election. If Omar wins, she will represent an area that includes the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, a community with a large number of Somali and East African immigrants, along with the University of Minnesota. The Star-Tribune noted that the district is “heavily DFL.”

“Our campaign is about connecting with people and engaging them in the political process. We are uniting the diverse voices of our district—long term residents, East African immigrants and students. I will make sure their voices are heard at the Capitol,” Omar said in an official statement released after her primary win.

She added that as a woman of color, people told her she would not be able to raise money and win the election.

“Those people were wrong, and I want every young woman of color out there to know that they have the power—and support—to run for office and win,” Omar said.

Omar’s platform includes criminal justice reform, instituting more environmental protections, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and making higher education more accessible. She also wants to enact police reforms, including banning stops for vehicle violations like expired license plate tags and broken taillights. “Instead, we should institute a policy where police car dash cams be used to assign tickets objectively. If such a law were in place, Philando Castile would still be alive,” her platform states. Castile was fatally shot by police officers outside of St. Paul last month after being pulled over for a reportedly broken taillight.

In the past, Omar has helped to ban environmentally harmful containers; pass a city ordinance to allow businesses to extend their hours to accommodate Muslims celebrating Ramadan; and win paid parental leave for City of Minneapolis employees, according to her campaign.

Omar, who was born in Somalia, immigrated to the United States after her family escaped a civil war and lived in a Kenyan refugee camp for four years.

Her official bio says that her interest in politics began as a 14-year-old student who acted as an interpreter for her grandfather at local DFL caucuses.

“It was a free process and it wasn’t like the one he was exposed to,” Omar told the Guardian earlier this year. “In America you could be involved in a political party and you didn’t have to be a member of a specific class.”

Omar went on to earn degrees in business administration, political science, and international studies and complete a policy fellowship at University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Her professional experience includes working as a community health educator at the University of Minnesota and as a senior policy aid for Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson.

In the weeks leading up to her win, Omar won the public endorsements of former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and several local activists and University of Minnesota students.

“From a refugee camp to the State Capitol with intelligence and insight,” Rybak told the Star-Tribune. “This is a wonderful story to tell as Americans, and a great source of pride for the state of Minnesota’s open arms.”

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