August 22, 2010
Hartford Courant | Daniela Altimari
Abortion is a surprising subtext in a number of key political campaigns in Connecticut this year.
No one expects the outcome of any race to turn solely on the issue, especially in an election cycle dominated by the economy. Yet the success of several candidates who oppose legalized abortion in this reliably blue state has galvanized activists on both sides of the divide.
The shift is most visible within the Republican Party, where traditional Yankee moderation on social issues has not held sway with a number of GOP candidates on the issue of abortion. Among those clear about their anti-abortion stance are Martha Dean, a candidate for attorney general, and Mark Boughton, the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor. Dean and Boughton both beat primary opponents who support abortion rights. (On the Democratic side, abortion foe Michael Jarjura lost his party's nomination for state comptroller to Kevin Lembo, who was endorsed by NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut.)
"'In Connecticut, traditionally the Republican voter has been pro-choice,'' said Jillian Gilchrest, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut, "but this is a different kind of campaign and a different kind of election year.''
The success of Dean and Boughton prompted Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, to call 2010 "a breakthrough year for the pro-life movement'' in the state.
"Connecticut is not going to elect a Henry Hyde or a Rick Santorum in the next year or two,'' Wolfgang said, citing two widely known anti-abortion advocates on the national level. "But there is movement in our direction. … Below that veneer of New England Republican enlightenment, there is still a wellspring of pro-lifers to be found."
'Not A Side Issue'
Dean handily beat back a challenge from her fellow Republican, the NARAL-endorsed Ross Garber, to win the party primary earlier this month. She said she does not expect her anti-abortion stance to play a major role in her race against Democrat George Jepsen, who favors abortion rights.
"This is not an issue for the attorney general's office,'' Dean said. "Abortion policy is under the exclusive purview of the legislature.''
But, she added, it's not a side issue, either. "I would never characterize life as a side issue,'' Dean said. "I think voters want to know who candidates are as individuals. They want to know about their personal beliefs. I've been very open about who I am out of respect for the voters. I've been open about a variety of issues I have no impact over as attorney general. It gives voters an insight into your character, it gives them some insight as to the thinking process you go through."
Although Dean's stance is clear, others walk a more delicate line. Republican Linda McMahon, a political newcomer running for U.S. Senate, defines herself as "pro-choice, with a caveat." She supports requiring minors to obtain parental consent before undergoing an abortion and also favors a ban on a medical procedure known as "partial-birth abortion."
McMahon has been lobbied by both opponents and supporters of abortion rights. Woody Bliss, chairman of the Connecticut chapter of the Republican Majority for Choice, has spoken with her several times and plans to meet with her again soon. The group had donated to the campaign of her now-vanquished GOP opponent, Rob Simmons, a strong advocate of abortion rights.
Whenever Bliss meets with a candidate, he says, he tells that candidate that more than 70 percent of state residents define themselves as "pro-choice.''
"I counsel them: 'You may have religious convictions or [whatever] but that dog doesn't hunt in Connecticut,' '' Bliss said. "We try and sit down and talk to them, especially newly running candidates, and become a source of information to them [and] educate them.''
Wolfgang, too, has met with McMahon, former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment. "She may be a harbinger of things to come in the abortion issue,'' Wolfgang said. "Simmons staked out a position so extreme on abortion that all Linda McMahon had to do was be a little to the right of him.''
Yet Wolfgang said he is in "watch and see mode" when it comes to McMahon's candidacy. "She reached out to me early and often and she's running one of the most professional campaigns I've seen,'' he said. "The questions that linger have to do with the WWE and its effect on the popular culture."
NARAL called McMahon "an untested wild card" and has embraced her Democratic opponent, Richard Blumenthal.
The abortion debate is likely to resonate strongly in the state's 4th Congressional District, home to an affluent base of voters who tend to favor fiscally conservative, socially moderate candidates. Republican U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, who favored abortion rights but also opposed "partial-birth abortions," represented the district for more than two decades before losing to Jim Himes in 2008.
Both Himes and his current GOP opponent, Dan Debicella, identify themselves as "pro-choice." But the Himes campaign senses softness in Debicella's support for abortion rights. When he served in the state Senate, Debicella was one of three senators to vote against a bill requiring all hospitals, even those run by the Catholic church, to offer emergency contraception to rape victims.
"I think the Himes campaign will want to highlight that vote,'' said Gilchrest of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut.
Himes is doing just that.
"Dan Debicella's vote against making emergency contraception available to rape victims is radical and wrong,'' said Himes' campaign manager, Mark Henson. "The economy is our main focus, but that's not the only area where Debicella is wrong for southwest Connecticut: he votes against the environment, he votes against consumers, he's against Wall Street reform, and he votes against the interests of women and families."
Suburban women are a key voting bloc in Connecticut, and a new group affiliated with the Himes campaign aims to capture their support. Himes "is also a firm believer that women should have complete control over their reproductive rights, without interference from politicians or government,'' states a press release announcing the creation of the group, Women for Himes.
Debicella's campaign manager, Jason Perillo, accused the Himes camp of misrepresenting Debicella's views.
"Jim Himes is trying to draw a distinction between himself and Dan Debicella that doesn't exist in order to distract voters from his failures on the economy,'' Perillo said. "Dan Debicella has been a strong advocate for women. He co-sponsored laws that help police departments convict rapists and that double the minimum sentence for abusive spouses. He is pro-choice. He proposed legislation to increase funding for rape crisis centers and increase breast cancer care funding.''
Debicella won kind words, if not the endorsement, of the Family Institute's Wolfgang.
In Wolfgang's view, Debicella isn't the perfect candidate. But the Family Institute's goal is "to build a bench of serious candidates who are pro-life, or open to the pro-life message, who can eventually get to Congress,'' he said, citing as examples Debicella and Republican Sam Caligiuri, running for Congress from the 5th District.
Wolfgang said he is aware of the realities facing Connecticut candidates who run on a platform that opposes rights to an abortion.
"A sure-loser, pro-life candidate who says all the right things then goes down to noble defeat won't save a single unborn life,'' Wolfgang said. "But a Caligiuri victory, even a Debicella victory, can. That's why 2010 is such a breakthrough year for the pro-life movement in Connecticut.''