NARAL considers midterm, 2008 candidates at meeting

NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group, officials gathered last week, on the eve of the 34th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, to discuss and celebrate a midterm election season they described as a “pivotal year” for women’s rights.{mosimage}

Despite repeated mentions of net gains of 23 pro-choice House members and three pro-choice senators, there was no mention of freshman Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.).

While Casey’s landslide victory over then-third-ranking Republican Sen. Rick Santorum was the highlight of the year for Democrats who viewed Santorum as their No. 1 target, the race was a source of early tension for the Democratic Party, NARAL, and other similar groups.

A number of Democrats who favor abortion rights were dismayed the DSCC would recruit and run the famously anti-abortion Casey.

That dismay was brought into focus when former NARAL president Kate Michelman considered running as an Independent against Casey, though she concedes now that it was more important to defeat Santorum.

“The reality that I faced … I certainly did not want to make it easier for Santorum to win,” Michelman said.

Michelman, now an adviser to former Sen. John Edwards’s (D-N.C.) presidential campaign, said that while she doesn’t expect all Democratic candidates to support abortion rights, she considers it a mistake for the party to recruit “aggressively” candidates that stand firmly against abortion.

“I think the Democratic Party doesn’t need to be a more pro-life party to demonstrate respect for difference of opinions,” she said. “It is the party of choice, there’s no doubt about it.”

Michelman said compromises, such as her decision not to run against Casey, are necessary in the interest of pragmatism. A Democratic majority, ensuring Democratic committee chairs, helps to advance pro-abortion-rights causes even when some of the members oppose abortion, Michelman said.

“That’s where the balancing comes in,” she said.

In 2006, Michelman said, it was necessary to make such concessions in both House and Senate races to retake the majority. But she added those compromises, while beneficial in the short-term, could have a “dangerous” effect on the Democratic Party and groups that support abortion rights in the long run.

If the DSCC or Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee continue to actively recruit candidates like Casey in the name of pragmatism, a woman’s right to choose could suffer, Michelman said.

NARAL’s current president, Nancy Keenan, said last week that Casey was “an anomaly,” adding that he was one candidate in what was an overall good year for groups such as hers.

Both Keenan and Michelman said that Casey doesn’t employ the same zeal in opposing their cause as Santorum.

“Rick Santorum woke up every morning attacking a woman’s right to choose,” Keenan said.

An official at the DSCC said the committee continues to enjoy a strong relationship with groups such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood.

Keenan said she has yet to meet with DSCC Chairman Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) about candidate recruitment for 2008, but she is planning to do so, adding that NARAL has already begun the long “exhaustive” process of deciding which candidates to endorse.

The DSCC official said that Casey was a rarity, and there don’t appear to be any similar potential candidates on the 2008 horizon.

“Bobby Casey was a great candidate who happened to be pro-life,” the official said. “I think these groups have faith that we’re going to find good candidates.”

Michelman said she and the DSCC saw more in Casey’s candidacy than a social moderate who also opposes abortion, including name recognition.

“Bob Casey did not win because of his position on abortion,” Michelman said. “To be fair to the DSCC, Casey had other assets that the party was looking at.”

The official said because the majority of Democrats support abortion rights, it is unlikely there would be a slew of Senate candidates who oppose abortion filing in 2008.

But the official added the DSCC looks for candidates who can win, and with 22 Republican senators facing reelection or retirement and two years before the next election, it is too difficult to look at the map and anticipate whether or not there will be any anti-abortion Democrats on ballots.

Keenan said that Democratic gains in 2006 were welcome comrades in their fight to keep abortion legal, but both the House and Senate continue to project an anti-abortion mentality.

According to NARAL’s 2006 political findings, there are 35 “pro-choice” senators, 17 “mixed-choice” senators — defined by NARAL director of government relations Donna Crane as a “friendly label for people that come and go with us depending on the vote” — and 48 “anti-choice” senators.

In the House, the group found there are 165 “pro-choice” members, 51 “mixed-choice” members and 219 pro-life members.

With majorities still solidly opposing abortion, Keenan said the DSCC and DCCC will need to look for candidates who back NARAL’s cause for the next cycle.

“I think in 2008, they’ve got to take note of that,” Keenan said.

In the 2006 cycle, NARAL Pro-Choice America PAC contributed more than $540,000 to 160 candidates, according to a NARAL release.