Meet The Press
Alex Wong  /  Getty Images file
Kate Michelman discusses the high court nomination of Samuel Alito on Meet the Press on Jan. 8.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 3/6/2006 2:40:38 PM ET 2006-03-06T19:40:38

WASHINGTON — Abortion rights leader Kate Michelman is thinking of jumping into the Senate race in Pennsylvania as an independent.

Michelman is appalled by Democratic Party leaders’ selection of anti-abortion candidate Bob Casey Jr. as their choice to try to unseat two-term Republican Sen. Rick Santorum.

For Michelman and other supporters of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision, the final straw came in late January when Casey endorsed President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito.

Analyst and pollster Terry Madonna at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania said, “If she runs as an independent, they’ve given Santorum a significant boost.” He added, “This is a very interesting dilemma liberal Democrats have right now.”

Michelman said that if she joined the Senate race, she’d do so as an independent since she couldn’t meet Tuesday’s filing deadline to compete in the May 16 Democratic primary.

To run as an independent Michelman would need to get the signatures of 67,000 registered voters by Aug. 1.

A pro-Roe v. Wade alternative
Although Michelman said in an interview with MSNBC.com Monday she had not yet made up her mind about running, she reported that her colleagues in the abortion rights movement are urging her to get in the race so that she could offer a pro-Roe alternative to the two anti-Roe candidates, Santorum and Casey.

Michelman is conferring with Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman and other strategists and will make her decision in the next two weeks.

She has been traveling the country on a tour to promote her new book, With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose. At a book event in New York last Thursday night several prominent Democratic donors urged her to run against Casey and Santorum.

Casey is Pennsylvania’s state Treasurer and the son of former Gov. Robert Casey, who clashed with Michelman over the abortion issue 14 years ago at the Democratic convention in New York. Bill Clinton and party leaders barred the elder Casey from addressing the convention.

In the Democratic primary, Casey will battle two more socially liberal Democrats, Philadelphia lawyer Alan Sandals and history professor Chuck Pennacchio. Sandals and Pennacchio support the Roe decision.

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Casey's cash advantage
At the beginning of the year, Casey’s campaign had $3.4 million in cash on hand, compared to about $50,000 for Sandals and $9,000 for Pennacchio.

Santorum had $7.7 million in cash.

While Michelman poses a potential threat to Casey, Santorum facing problems of his own, from both the social conservative and libertarian wings of his party:

Social conservatives are angry at Santorum for supporting Sen. Arlen Specter in his 2004 primary battle against conservative Republican Pat Toomey.

A Republican abortion rights group, the Republican Majority for Choice, is trying to find a candidate to oppose Santorum, running newspaper ads last week in Pennsylvania denouncing “candidates who claim to be Republicans but instead use the Party to further their own personal or religious agenda.”

As of early February, a survey of 611 Pennsylvanians by Franklin and Marshall College’s Center for Opinion Research showed Casey besting Santorum, 50 percent to 39 percent, with 11 percent of those polled saying they were undecided.

Michelman said Democrats across the nation are angry at Democratic senators’ feckless resistance to Bush’s judicial nominees, who they fear will abolish legal abortion.

She derided the Senate Democrats opposition to Alito as “a lackluster effort. I was disturbed that the pro-choice senators would stand aside” and not use the filibuster to block a vote on Alito.

Why leaders chose Casey
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, recruited Casey to run against Santorum.

“Gov. Rendell suggested to us that Bob Casey would be the strongest candidate,” Schumer said last year. “This is not a positioning on choice (abortion rights) one way or the other. It’s about winning.”

Michelman said she warned Schumer about Casey’s anti-Roe views. “When I and others raised concerns (to Democratic Party leaders), we were told ‘The most important thing is the Supreme Court and Bob Casey will stand with Democrats against any nominee who threatens women’s right to choose,’” Michelman said. “Sen. Schumer told me that explicitly. I wanted to believe Sen. Schumer; he’s a friend.”

But she told Schumer last year that Casey might not turn out to be an ally of pro-Roe Democrats. “I told him then, ‘Don’t count on it,’” she recalled. The Alito endorsement supplied her proof.

“We don’t need any more Ben Nelsons,” she said, referring to the Nebraskan who is the Senate’s most conservative Democrat on social issues.

Nelson opposes Roe v. Wade and voted for Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts, and almost all of Bush’s other conservative judicial nominees.

Changed political terrain
Sandals said the political terrain has changed since Democratic Party leaders picked Casey. “Ten or eleven months ago, they were still reeling from the 2004 defeat,” Sandals said. “They believed Republicans were invincible. But ever since (hurricane) Katrina, Republicans have been vulnerable.”

Sandals said Democrats are disaffected with Casey because “a lot of people are concerned that Casey is not all that different from Santorum, on choice (abortion), gun control, and stem cell research. Progressive voters would rather not vote at all than vote for Casey due to his anti-choice position.”

Casey supports the current Bush administration policy which limits federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to those stem cell lines which existed as of August 2001 and bars federal funding for research using newly-derived embryonic stem cells.

On gun control, Casey's campaign spokesman Larry Smar said, "As a general rule he'll focus on enforcing existing laws."

In a statement on his campaign web site, Pennacchio said Michelman’s potential entry into the race “highlights the need for Democrats to unite behind a pro-choice candidate who can defeat Rick Santorum.”

Dismissing Casey as “an ultra-right Democrat” Pennacchio calls his selection by party leaders “the politics of surrender” to conservatives.

But Casey’s robust fund raising indicates he has broad support from donors. Despite his conservatism on social issues, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s political action committee gave the Casey campaign the maximum contribution, $10,000.

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