Senate Democrats hammer opponents over social issues

Democratic Senate candidates are hammering their Republican opponents on social issues, echoing a trend in the presidential race.

One of the most contentious moments in Wednesday night's presidential debate was when the GOP candidates were asked about the recent controversy over birth control.

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All of them attacked President Obama over his mandate requiring employers — including religious groups — provide health insurance that includes contraceptives. The administration made what it described as an "accommodation" for religious groups, but the mandate would, when it takes effect next year, still force self-insuring organizations such as the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington to provide free contraceptives to its staff.

Other social issues have also dominated the national conversation: a push from conservatives in some states to pass a law that would define “personhood” as beginning at conception, some state attempts to ban birth control and the House Republicans' repeated attempts to defund Planned Parenthood.

Democrats running for the Senate haven't been afraid to take the fight on social issues to states ranging from deep-blue Massachusetts to swing-state Virginia to Republican-leaning Montana.

The personhood law being pushed in Virginia's legislature, as well as another bill that would require women to have ultrasounds before they could have abortions, have become major issues in that Senate race. Former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) slammed former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) for his support of the state legislature's plans as well as his calls for a national personhood amendment.

Kaine, in a conference call on Tuesday, described the bills as part of a "very extreme and unnecessary anti-women agenda” and sought to tie Allen to the bills, which are opposed by Virginia voters by a 19-point margin, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch poll.

“The debate at the state level is a good indication of the kind of debate we’d have at the federal level if George Allen [wins],” Kaine said. “He’s decided to make it an important federal priority and I couldn’t disagree more."

Allen backs the Virginia personhood bill and has also called for a national personhood amendment, although he has argued that the bill would not ban contraceptives. He has not taken a position on the ultrasound legislation.

Kaine told The Hill that the battle in Virginia part of a pattern. “It clearly is part of a broader trend when you see personhood amendments popping up in a number of states, when you see members of Congress fighting back against the contraception mandate compromise,” he said. “This is a national topic. It’s a kind of surprising one. I would not have predicted there’d be this fight against contraception access.”

Allen spokeswoman Katie Wright said Kaine was a hypocrite for focusing on the issue while saying Allen should focus more on the economy.

“It’s ironic that Tim Kaine professes to want to talk about jobs while he is on a conference call — that his own campaign organized — discussing issues moving through the General Assembly,” she told The Hill. “He and his allies seem intent on making this race about anything other than solutions to create jobs, addressing our country's energy issues including surging gas prices and reining in the wasteful excesses of Washington that have made trillion dollar deficits the norm."

Democrats have raised the issue in other states.

In Massachusetts, Democrat Elizabeth Warren blasted Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) for co-sponsoring Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) bill to override the Obama administration’s ruling on contraception coverage.

Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) campaign has blasted Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) for voting to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides access to abortions as a small part of its reproductive healthcare coverage, and sought to tie him to a controversial joke by billionaire Republican donor Foster Friess, who said that, when he was young, women “used Bayer Aspirin for contraception — the gals put it between their knees and it wasn't that costly.” Friess, who supports several super-PACs, told The New Republican he planned to spend heavily in support of Rehberg, who is one of his favorite candidates.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) won his 2010 race by painting opponent Ken Buck (R) as too conservative on social issues like abortion. His former campaign manager, Craig Hughes, predicted the issues could help other Democrats this election.

“Look at how we wound up winning the state: We had the largest gender gap of any race in the country and a large part was because Buck overstepped [on social issues]… of the various messages we tested, it was the number one message against Ken Buck statewide,” said Hughes, who was recently hired as an adviser to Obama’s reelectin campaign but said he was not speaking on the campaign’s behalf. “Republicans have gone so far that they're really risking a major backlash from female and younger voters in particular. I'm amazed they walked back into this.”

The issue plays differently in various states.

In Missouri, which has a large number of religious voters, Republicans picked the fight with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D): The GOP-aligned American Crossroads ran radio ads criticizing her for supporting Obama on the birth-control coverage mandate. She responded with her own radio ads in which a narrator says that “Claire McCaskill is fighting to prevent abortion — she wants all women to have access to affordable birth control,” and that “no church or hospital will be forced to pay for anything that violates their beliefs.”

In Nevada, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is running Spanish-language radio ads aimed at the predominantly Catholic Hispanic population in the state. The ad accuses Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) and Obama of "regulating the Catholic Church."

NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said that Democrats were the ones who had picked the fight on the issue — and that Republicans would focus on the economy, and win.

“It’s clear given the Democrats’ economic record they are desperate to change the subject to anything but the economy,” he said. “But the reality is that’s what this election will come down to in November, not these side issues they are trying to bring up in these states.”

Republican pollster Whit Ayres said focusing on social issues could hurt candidates of either party in a year where voters care much more about the economy. Ayres said he expects Republican candidates to focus laser-like on the economy.

“I think candidates for office need to focus on the issues and concerns that are foremost in the minds of the people they hope will vote for them, and the issues and concerns that are foremost in the minds of the people are jobs, the economy, spending and debt,” he said. “I can’t imagine a lot of discussion about personhood amendments when you have an economy that is still dragging, you’ve got unemployment higher than it’s been for any presidential reelection in a half-century. There will be skirmishes here and there but there will be isolated skirmishes.”