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Abortion rights group presses Republican centrists on Roberts

The nation’s leading abortion rights group will go on the air in Maine and Rhode Island Wednesday, and on CNN and Fox News, with a $500,000 television ad purchase which attacks Supreme Court nominee John Roberts.
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NARAL Pro-Choice America, the nation’s leading abortion rights advocacy group, will go on the air in Maine and Rhode Island Wednesday, and nationally on CNN and Fox News, with a two-week, $500,000 television ad purchase which accuses Supreme Court nominee John Roberts of being a judge "whose ideology leads him to excuse violence against other Americans."

The targets of the ad appear to be two Republican senators who are running for reelection next year: Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, whom NARAL has already endorsed, and Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.

The ad assails Roberts for the legal brief he filed in Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic, a 1993 case, in which he said the Civil Rights Act of 1871 did not apply to violent abortion protestors, but that state remedies were adequate to punish and deter them.

The Supreme Court, in a 6-to-3 decision, agreed with Roberts’s view.

Supreme Court agreed with Roberts
The majority found that in the actions of violent anti-abortion clinic protestors, there was no racial or class-based hatred as their motive, as required in order to be covered by the 1871 law.

Roberts argued the case before the Supreme Court when he was serving as Deputy Solicitor General in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

"We are not suggesting that Mr. Roberts condones or supports clinic violence," said NARAL president Nancy Keenan.

But the NARAL ad itself says, “America can’t afford a justice whose ideology leads him to excuse violence against other Americans.”

Keenan said Monday that Roberts’s “ideological views of the law compel him to go out of his way to argue in support” of violent anti-abortion protestors.

She said he “sided with groups that supported clinic violence. The government did not have to file an amicus brief, they could have stood down on that issue, and they did not…. He was a political appointee who shared the ideology of that administration. He was the one who was the architect of policy; he was the architect of legal briefs, and the architect of strategy of that administration.”

Congress resolved the issue by passing a 1994 law that made it a crime to use force or the threat of force to intimidate abortion clinic workers or women seeking abortions.

How the vote will play in Rhode Island
The apparent targets of the NARAL ads, Snowe and Chafee, each have voting records which show strong support for maintaining the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that legalized abortion nationally.

For example, both Snowe and Chafee voted for a “sense of the Senate” resolution in 2003 that said Roe v. Wade secures an important constitutional right and should not be overturned.

Keenan said Monday that “the chance of Roe v. Wade being overturned is likely with him (Roberts) on the bench.”

If Roberts did lose the votes of a few of the Republican senators who support Roe, such as Chafee, Snowe, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, that might make the roll call vote uncomfortably close for President Bush and Roberts. (This assumes that Democratic senators do not use the filibuster tactic to prevent a vote on the Roberts nomination.)

Are there any electoral repercussions for Chafee or Snowe if they vote "yes" on the Roberts nomination?  Would a substantial number of pro-Roe Republican voters respond by casting ballots for the Democratic candidates in Maine and Rhode Island?

Snowe appears to be less at risk since, so far, she has no viable, top-tier challenger.

But Chafee does face a potentially formidable foe, former state attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse.

“There will be electoral repercussions for Chafee” if he votes for Roberts, said Darrel West, a political scientist at Brown University. “He is a Republican representing a blue state. Everyone is watching how he votes.”

Chafee “has a stellar pro-choice record in the Senate and so we fully expect he’ll do the right thing here,” said NARAL political director Beth Shipp.

Chafee issued a non-committal statement on July 20 saying, "It is important that Senators not rush to judgment one way or another" on the Roberts nomination.

The Chafee campaign did not return a phone call seeking comment for this article.

Chafee's mixed record
Chafee has a mixed record on the most contentious of Bush’s judicial nominees: He voted for California conservative Janice Rogers Brown, but voted “no” on Alabama appeals court judge William Pryor, who’d been sharply critical of Roe v Wade before becoming a judge.

Chafee also voted “no” on appeals court nominee Priscilla Owen, who’d criticized abortion and on district court nominee Leon Holmes, who had written critically of Roe. The Senate voted to confirm the nominations of Brown, Pryor, Owen and Holmes. In May, Senate Democrats dropped their filibusters of Brown, Pryor, and Owen.

West, who directs Brown University’s John Hazen White Sr. Public Opinion Laboratory, did a survey of 470 registered voters in Rhode Island in late June and found that 41 percent would support Chafee, compared to 36 percent for Whitehouse, making the race a dead heat considering the poll’s margin of error.

“Our June survey shows a very close race between Chafee and Whitehouse,” West said. “I expect Rhode Island to be the South Dakota of 2006, in terms of the closeness of the race.”

In a bare-knuckles race in South Dakota last November, Republican John Thune edged Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle.

Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan newsletter the Cook Political Report, rates a Chafee-Whitehouse contest as a toss-up.

As of June 30, Chafee’s campaign had $1.1 million in cash on hand, just slightly more than the Whitehouse campaign had, compared to $467,000 for Matt Brown, the Rhode Island Secretary of State, who will face Whitehouse in the September 2006 Democratic primary.

Mike Guilfoyle, a spokesman for the Whitehouse campaign, said Whitehouse has “serious questions about John Roberts and his record. Where does he stand on Roe and a woman’s right to choose? Would he alter the balance of a narrowly divided court in a radically conservative direction?”

Guilfoyle added that Whitehouse hadn’t yet decided to oppose Roberts and will wait to hear what Roberts says in his confirmation hearings which begin on Sept. 6.

Democrats open attack on Chafee
The general theme of the Whitehouse campaign is that Chafee has too often supported Bush.

An analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Quarterly found that Chafee supported Bush 76 percent of the time in a sample of votes in 2004 and 77 percent of the time in 2003.

“You can’t side with President Bush and represent the values and interests of Rhode Island,” said Guilfoyle.

Rhode Island is one of the two or three most Democratic states in the union, with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry winning 59 percent of the vote there last November. Only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia showed stronger support for Kerry.

Chafee may face his own primary challenger, Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, who is backed by some fiscal conservatives but who hasn’t yet declared his candidacy.