Schumer focuses on battle for the Senate, Scott Brown and contraception

Democrats are zeroing in on Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and contraception in their effort to retain the Senate.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday signaled he and his party think Brown did them a favor by voting for a controversial bill to weaken the Obama administration’s birth-control mandate.

Democrats are busy framing the issue as a fight over contraception and women’s rights, and they showed they think they can win over female voters in Massachusetts and other states.

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“Scott Brown’s trying to portray himself as a moderate? Well, this vote shows he’s not very moderate,” Schumer, the former campaign chief for Senate Democrats who now leads the caucus’s messaging efforts, said following the 51-48 vote.

Brown joined almost every Senate Republican in supporting an amendment sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). The proposal would have let employers opt out of any healthcare mandates that violate their religious or moral beliefs, including the White House’s order requiring employers to cover contraception in their employees’ healthcare plans.

Like his colleagues, Brown cast the debate over the Blunt amendment as a question of religious freedom, rather than a women’s-health issue.

“It is a very dangerous thing when government can compel people to violate their religious beliefs,” Brown said in a statement. “This is another example of why I campaigned and voted against ObamaCare in the first place.”

Some Catholic Democrats in Massachusetts might support Brown on the issue, and his campaign pointed to a letter of support from Ray Flynn, a former Democratic mayor of Boston, to illustrate the point.

“I intend to tell anyone who will listen how you stood tall in protecting the human and civil rights of everyone,” Flynn wrote.

Brown is considered the most vulnerable Senate Republican up for reelection this year, and his race could tip the balance of power in an upper chamber where Democrats must defend 23 seats in this year’s election.

If Obama is reelected, Republicans need to gain only four seats to secure a majority.

Democrats found a star opponent for Brown in Harvard University Professor Elizabeth Warren, a former Obama administration official and liberal hero who has already flexed her fundraising muscles.

Polls suggest a tight race, with some showing Brown in the lead and others showing Warren with the edge. Aside from the presidential election, their fight is expected to be the top race in the country this year.

Warren’s campaign seized on Brown’s vote and sought to link him to the GOP presidential field, an argument the Democrat is likely to accentuate in the fall campaign.

“Sen. Brown took sides with Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and the right wing of his party against the people of Massachusetts, who in tough economic times rely on insurance to get the healthcare they need."

The only Republican to break from the party line on the Blunt amendment was Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), who announced this week that she isn’t running for reelection.

Democrats were not united in the vote, as Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.) all voted with Republicans. Casey and Manchin are up for reelection this year, but Democratic leaders noted that they have a long history on social issues like the contraception debate.

Other vulnerable Democrats said they were comfortable backing the administration’s policy.

“Most women in my state do not want their boss deciding what healthcare they get,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said.

The Obama administration initially took heat for its mandate that all employers offer contraception. Critics said it violated religious freedom by forcing religiously affiliated groups such as Catholic hospitals to offer employees birth control, including morning-after pills.

Vice President Biden on Thursday said the administration “screwed up” when it wrote its initial rule. Under an “accommodation” offered by the White House, religiously affiliated institutions will not have to offer birth control, though their employees will be able to get it through their employer’s insurer without a co-pay or deductible.

While critics say the accommodation does not go far enough and would still infringe on religious liberty, Democrats have largely been successful in turning the fight into one about contraception.

At times they have been aided by their opponents. House Republicans held a hearing on the issue but invited no female witnesses on an initial panel, which backfired when photos of the all-male panel went viral.

Democrats also have seized on comments by conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh calling a Georgetown University student who testified in favor of the administration’s mandate a “slut” and a “prostitute."

Schumer reinforced that narrative Thursday, and sought to turn the screws on Brown, by saying the Blunt amendment would alienate female voters.

“I don’t envy the rank-and-file Republicans who walked the plank on this vote,” Schumer said at a press conference. “I think it’s going to be awfully hard to defend it back home, especially in places like New England.”