Democrats seeking to drive stem cell wedge in Minn., N.H.

In 2006, two Republican House members with tough races ahead changed their views to favor an embryonic stem cell research bill.

In 2006, two Republican House members with tough races ahead changed their views to favor an embryonic stem cell research bill.

With the same bill having already passed the House in the 110th Congress, embryonic stem cell advocates are hoping for more converts, and many see the heaviest pressure likely to land squarely on the shoulders of two swing-state senators up in 2008 — Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.).

Democrats are already trying to drive a wedge into Coleman’s and Sununu’s reelection bids, hoping it could hurt them as it was supposed to have hurt former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) in November. But experts are divided about the issue’s impact.

Talent’s narrow November loss occurred alongside the narrow passage of a statewide embryonic stem cell initiative that he opposed.

The bill, which would allow federal funding to be used for embryonic stem cell research and would override President Bush’s limits, could come to a vote in the Senate next month. It passed both chambers last cycle but was vetoed by Bush.

Coleman will again vote against the measure, as it currently stands, his office said. Sununu’s office did not return numerous calls seeking comment.

In most polls, a majority of Americans support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The bill has received solid majorities in both chambers but has fallen short of a veto-proof majority in either.

The 2006 election added three pro-embryonic votes to the 63 already there, meaning one convert would likely give the bill a veto-proof Senate.

After last week’s 253-174 vote, the House is still 37 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed. But attaining the goal in the Senate would represent concrete progress and an important symbolic goal for embryonic backers and patient groups, and they are in turn focusing their efforts on those seen as the most likely defectors.

“They’re going to go after people in tough races; they’re going to go after anybody who’s new,” said Gail Pressberg, a senior fellow at the Civil Society Institute and co-author of a book on stem cell politics. “I think it’s a strong wedge issue in which the Republicans have a lot to lose.”

Coleman’s recent turn against the Iraq war and a past marked by shifting politics — he switched from Democrat to Republican when he was mayor of St. Paul — have Democrats predicting he might switch on the stem cell issue.

During the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Coleman led the Republican “truth squad,” which criticized Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for his “flip-flops” on the Iraq war and other matters.

Sununu’s state experienced about as big of a political overhaul as any in the nation in November, and he remains one of few anti-embryonic votes in the Northeast. Challengers have already begun to line up to face him.

The two of them, along with Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), were recently cited by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) as the three most vulnerable Republicans up in 2008. Allard announced Monday that he wouldn’t run for a third term.

All three come from swing states that trended blue in November. Both of New Hampshire’s Republican House members lost, and Democrat Amy Klobuchar soundly beat Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy 58-38 for Minnesota’s other Senate seat.

The Democratic parties in Minnesota and New Hampshire wasted little time setting up Coleman and Sununu for their potential “flip-flops,” issuing nearly identically worded statements.

Minnesota Democrats keyed on Coleman’s Iraq conversion. A longtime backer of Bush on the war, Coleman came out against the 21,000-troop surge last week, taking a similar tack to fellow 2008 candidates Sens. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).

“Now that [Coleman has] been recognized nationally as one of the most vulnerable Republicans of 2008, we can expect him to keep chasing the spotlight,” Minnesota Democratic Party Chairman Brian Melendez said. “Maybe he thinks no one will notice he switched parties — again.”

Coleman is also against changing the Medicare drug benefit to allow the government to negotiate drug prices. He missed the vote on a negotiation measure in the last Congress, but recently told The Hill he will vote against the politically popular bill this year.

Coleman continues to emphasize a compromise on the stem cell issue.

“Sen. Coleman has consistently been seeking ways to advance stem cell research without using federal dollars for the destruction of embryos,” press secretary LeRoy Coleman (no relation) said. “He believes a solution can be found that is consistent with the protection of the unborn, while offering funding for scientific research for those living with the hope of a cure.”

New Hampshire Democrats noted that Sununu’s “no” vote last year came even as the state’s two Republican House members voted to override Bush’s veto.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) also voted for the bill.

“Now that the Democratic Congress has provided [the] leadership by passing this critical bill, I call on Sen. Sununu to do the right thing and join Democrats in fighting President Bush’s efforts to veto this bill,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan said.

But experts aren’t completely sold on embryonic stem cell research as a wedge issue. Talent said after the election that the issue probably “cost me votes in some places and got me votes in other places” and wasn’t a major factor in his 50-47 loss to now-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

McCaskill didn’t heavily emphasize the issue on the campaign trail, but said she benefited from ads featuring actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease.

The issue likely played some role in the Missouri and Maryland Senate races, where the Fox ads ran, said Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society. But she said it doesn’t necessarily have the wedge-issue prowess the Democrats think it does.

“In Missouri, the proponents spent $30 million on it, and they squeaked by with 51-49 percent,” Darnovsky said. “That’s an indication that it doesn’t always work” as well as research advocates and Democrats think.

Skeptics cite the issue’s complexity as a main factor. Polling on embryonic stem cell research varies widely, depending on how the questions are framed.

Former Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), and Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) switched their positions in favor of the embryonic stem cell bill in 2006. Weldon lost reelection, while Reichert narrowly survived.

Groups including the Christian Coalition of America are closely monitoring the votes of House freshmen on the issue.