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Democrats woo abortion opponents for Senate

Democrats now hold only 44 seats in the Senate, the fewest number since 1931, so they’re seeking the strongest candidates they can, even if such candidates are doctrinally abhorrent to abortion rights groups.
Democratic leaders in Washington have picked Bob Casey Jr. to run aganst Republican Sen. Rick Santorum next year.Paul Vathis / AP
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The indefatigable senior senator from New York, Charles Schumer, has spent a career crusading for abortion rights.

Now as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Schumer’s job is to chip away at the Republican majority of 55. Schumer has scored a big success by persuading Pennsylvania state Treasurer Bob Casey, a foe of abortion rights, to be the Democratic candidate against two-term Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, a leader of the anti-abortion movement.

Casey has wide name recognition among Pennsylvania voters, elected three times statewide as auditor general and treasurer, as well as being the son of former Gov. Bob Casey.

Casey’s entry into the race came even as Schumer this week was waging a Senate floor fight for his measure to punish violent anti-abortion protestors.

Schumer and other Democratic leaders aren’t changing the party’s orthodoxy on Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide, but are accommodating candidates such as Casey who could begin the long march back to 51.

Democrats now hold only 44 seats in the Senate, the fewest since 1931, so they’re seeking the strongest candidates they can, even if such candidates are doctrinally abhorrent to abortion rights groups.

Backed by Schumer and Pennsylvania’s pro-Roe governor, Ed Rendell, who helped squeeze pro-Roe candidate Barbara Hafer out of the race, Casey now seems assured of the party’s nomination.

One possible pro-Roe entrant into the race: Chris Heinz, son of Republican Sen. John Heinz, who was killed in plane-helicopter collision in 1991. Chris Heinz campaigned widely last year for his stepfather, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

In addition to Casey, Schumer is also trying to recruit anti-Roe Rep. Jim Langevin to run against pro-Roe Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island.

A pro-Roe Democrat, Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown, has already declared his candidacy. Brown, who won with 68 percent of the vote in 2002, has gone as far afield as Los Angeles to raise money for his campaign, setting the stage for a defining ideological primary battle among Democrats in September of 2006.

Pro-choicers disturbed
Supporters of Roe are disturbed by Schumer’s recruitment of Casey and Langevin.

“It is a problem when leading Democrats publicly recruit candidates who do not share the core values of the party," Democratic consultant Kate Michelman, the former head of the abortion rights group NARAL, said Thursday. "I don’t think you ever win in the long term by sacrificing core principles. The right wing has never done that.”

Michelman asked, “Can you imagine recruiting people to run for the Senate with a record of opposition to affirmative action or to Brown v. Board of Education (the 1954 school desegregation decision)?”

Michelman is supporting Matt Brown’s candidacy in Rhode Island.

If elected, Langevin and Casey would join a tiny anti-abortion rights coterie among Senate Democrats.

As an indicator of who is and who isn’t for abortion rights, consider a March 12, 2003 vote on a measure offered by Sen. Tom Harkin, D- Iowa, which said that the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade “secures an important constitutional right” and should not be overturned.

The only current Democratic members of the Senate to vote against Harkin’s measure were Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, while 45 Democrats, including Schumer, voted for it.

'Not a positioning'
When asked this week whether Casey’s recruitment was designed to woo pro-life Democrats, Schumer said, “We are looking for the strongest candidate in each state. Gov. Rendell suggested to us that Bob Casey would be the strongest candidate. This is not a positioning on choice (abortion rights) one way or the other. It’s about winning.”

Reid added, “I think it speaks volumes that there’s one poll that shows Casey thirteen points ahead of Santorum. There’s no poll that shows him ahead by less than eight points. Obviously Casey’s the best candidate.”

If Casey is the strongest, is that primarily because he is an anti-abortion candidate?

Reid is an agnostic on the question. “I don’t know what the reason is. Polls show him ahead by eight points,” he said.

Casey himself told in an interview Wednesday, that voters “make decisions based on a cross section of issues.”

In past elections, he said, for some Pennsylvania Democrats “there have been some impediments. Sometimes there are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents that want to have the opportunity to vote for a candidate that has a broader reach.”

He said Social Security will play a dominant role in his run against Santorum, a proponent of personal retirement accounts within Social Security.

Pennsylvania voters “are very concerned about a proposal that takes away a guaranteed benefit” and “will result in $2 trillion being borrowed from foreign governments,” Casey said.

Mixed views on recruitment
Democratic senators voiced mixed opinions this week about Schumer’s strategy of recruiting anti-Roe candidates. “It’s been my strategy for a long time, as a pro-life Democrat and as a member of Democrats for Life,” said Nelson, who is running for re-election next year. “So I would welcome others who feel similarly.”

Referring to Casey and Langevin, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D- Mich., also up for re-election in 2006, said Tuesday that Democratic leaders “weren’t recruiting them because they are anti-choice. They are anti-choice, but that is not why people have been talking to them. They are very strong, terrific public servants, and it’s very clear that they can win.”

Casey’s candidacy has a particular symbolic value for Democrats as an act of reconciliation for the Clintons’ decision to bar his father from addressing the 1992 Democratic convention, a rebuff to pro-life Democrats. The senior Casey had opposed Bill Clinton in the primaries.

Staunchly anti-abortion in his views, he said in 1992, “The special interests controlling the party are absolutely intolerant of any view on abortion other than their own most extreme view” and contended that “by rejecting abortion on demand, we can move our party back to the mainstream.”

The younger Casey said Wednesday his father “would be very encouraged by the fact that the party is more embracing of a broader point of view, on a number of fronts, including abortion. That’s one of the messages he wanted to deliver in 1992.”

Not the same as his dad
Franklin & Marshall College political analyst Terry Madonna points out that the younger Casey “has not been a crusader on the abortion issue, unlike his father. It’s not a subject on which he proselytizes. He generally can go for months and unprompted will not bring up the subject.” 

Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis believes Casey's strengths make him the best candidate to face Santorum, but added, “My only concern is that we don’t begin to think that just because a Democratic candidate is pro-life, victory is just around the corner. Values issues matter, like one's position on abortion matters, but they are seldom the deciding factor in the majority of voters’ minds. And, contrary to some pundits and strategists, values were not the primary reason we lost Senate seats and the White House in 2004."

“The last thing any Democrat wants is a litmus test that disqualifies strong Democratic candidates because they are pro-life," Kofinis said. "That being said, a moderate position on abortion is important to many Democrats and many moderate Republicans who end up voting Democrat, so we need walk a fine line. The last thing we want to do is lose some voters just as we reach out to new ones.”