Democrats put heat on GOP with two hot-button issues
Seattle Times chief political reporter
Republicans had hoped to avoid, or at least lessen, those attacks this year by fielding their most moderate-appearing slate of candidates in years.
But that seems only to have fueled Democratic campaigns appealing to swing voters by painting Republicans as out of step with Washington's long tradition of supporting legal and accessible abortion.
And the Democrats are adding a new twist this year, linking the issue to the Bush administration's controversial limits on stem-cell research.
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray says in a television commercial that challenger Rep. George Nethercutt's record on abortion makes him "just too extreme for Washington."
In the 8th Congressional District, Democrat Dave Ross — fresh from a primary campaign in which he was accused of not being pro-choice enough — is now helped by pro-choice forces attacking his Republican opponent, King County Sheriff Dave Reichert.
For the most part, Republicans would rather not talk about it.
"I'm not running for U.S. Supreme Court," is the favored response of Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, an abortion opponent.
King County Councilman Rob McKenna, the Republican candidate for attorney general, supports abortion rights but opposes late-term procedures except in cases of rape or incest, and he supports parental consent before underage girls could get an abortion.
That, he says, has Democrats attacking him for not being "enthusiastic about abortion." His Democratic opponent, former Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn, is a strong supporter of legalized abortion and questions McKenna's commitment to it in campaign appearances.
"One of the reasons Republicans are so uncomfortable with this issue is that, with the fervor of Democrats to declare how pro-choice they are, they make abortion sound like a good thing," McKenna said.
"Abortion is a sad thing. A lot of us want to do everything we can to make the decision to choose the baby as much as possible."
Democrats seem mindful of talking about abortion too much, which may explain all the discussion about stem cells by Democratic candidates up and down the ticket. Former Vice President Al Gore headlined a stem-cell town-hall meeting in Seattle on Friday along with local Democratic candidates.
That's part of a move to cast Republicans as more concerned about the same moral and religious objections they have to abortion than about the potential good that could come from stem-cell research.
Democrat Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Christine Gregoire has spun it even further, saying the emerging research field would be an economic generator for the state.
Murray barely mentions abortion. At least not by name.
"Everywhere I go women talk about it as an issue that is important to them because it is a question of whether or not they as women will be able to make their own health-care choices," Murray said.
"And I think that's part of the independent voice of Washington speaking."
Long state tradition
By many measures, Washington is one of the most pro-choice states in the nation.
With a 1970 referendum, it was the first state to legalize abortion by a vote of the people. A 1984 initiative that would have prohibited public funding of abortions was rejected by voters.
Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide, was codified as state law in a successful 1991 initiative. In 1998 an initiative that would have prohibited so-called late-term abortions was rejected by 57 percent of voters.
"Choice is part of that western libertarian streak that we all have. The 'don't tell me what to do' kind of thing," said Karen Cooper, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington.
Washington has one of the lowest church-going figures of any state in the nation, which Cooper says in polls tracks with support for abortion.
No one interviewed for this story could name a Republican who opposed abortion who has been elected statewide in Washington.
"It's a wedge issue because it's a clear distinction between the two candidates," Cooper said. "It's an easy, simple message that people can remember."
There's money to fight the fight, too. EMILY's List, a national group that raises campaign cash for pro-choice Democratic women, has raised about $800,000 for Gregoire and nearly $250,000 for Murray.
By contrast, the other side has little money, says Dan Kennedy, CEO of Human Life of Washington, the leading anti-abortion group in the state. He says the group has worked to register voters and will do a get-out-the-vote effort, but it has no money for an ad campaign.
Kennedy said there's a debate about abortion going on among Republicans.
"One is, 'Gee, just don't bring it up. We're going to get clobbered,' " Kennedy said. The other is the assumption that voters who care about abortion already know where the candidate stands and there's nothing to be gained from bringing it up.
Given the state's history, Kennedy's not sure an openly anti-abortion Republican can win statewide.
"Maybe not in this decade," he said. And he's not urging any Republican candidate to play up abortion.
"I don't see it as a pressing need to run specifically on that issue," he said.
Evolving GOP position
There have been cycles of Republican consensus on abortion. In the 1970s the party was dominated by Gov. Dan Evans, a liberal Republican and champion of legal abortion. Out of his office came former Secretary of State Ralph Munro and current Secretary of State Sam Reed, both prominent GOP pro-choice voices. Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton supported abortion rights but opposed federal funding.
John Spellman, the last Republican governor, said that in his 1980 election, he told voters he supported legal abortion but had personal and moral reservations.
On the campaign trail four years later, Spellman recalls, "I didn't qualify it as much. I didn't keep mentioning my moral convictions."
But in the 1990s, Christian conservatives took control of the party. The 1996 gubernatorial nominee was Ellen Craswell, a former state senator who campaigned for a government based on biblical morality.
The 1998 GOP Senate nominee was Linda Smith, a conservative congresswoman from Vancouver who pledged to "never stop fighting to protect the unborn."
No major Republican candidate has made public statements like that this year.
The GOP candidates for Senate, governor and the 8th Congressional District on the Eastside "really are against abortion and legalized abortion," says Reed. But they differ from the likes of Smith and Craswell "who really were on a kind of crusade to try to change the laws."
"That is a nuance," Reed said. "But it is an important one."
More partisan lines?
Reed himself has experienced a hardening partisanship in the debate. Four years ago, he was endorsed by NARAL with pro-choice forces happy to have a Republican in their camp. But this year his Democratic opponent, state Rep. Laura Ruderman, got the group's backing.
NARAL's Cooper said that's because Ruderman has been "a champion of this issue" who has raised money for NARAL.
Four years ago NARAL also endorsed pro-choice Republican Doug Sutherland for lands commissioner. But this year, after Sutherland lent his name to the state Bush re-election campaign, NARAL backed his opponent, Democrat Mike Cooper.
"My PAC committee just said they are not going to endorse anybody who is co-chair of the Bush committee," NARAL's Cooper said.
"Choice should not be a partisan issue," she said. "But it is."
"As predictable as autumn rain"
It's clear this year that Democrats want to talk about abortion at every opportunity. Republicans would rather not.
"It's as predictable as the autumn rain. Democrats only know one way to campaign and that is to demonize Republicans on social issues," said state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance.
"The problem is this time we have candidates who don't fit the stereotype. They're not known as cultural warriors. That's not their thing, and I don't think it's going to work.
"I'd almost like to have a real debate about this."
But Republican candidates would rather not.
Rossi, the former state legislator running for governor, said, "What it does is detract us from what we think the goal is, which is putting forward our agenda for turning the economy around and putting people back to work."
Rossi opposes abortion, but he won't say much more about it, for example what he'd do as governor about funding issues related to abortion or whether he'd sign or veto legislation requiring parental consent for abortions.
"I'm not going to answer hypotheticals because I really believe the U.S. Supreme Court has taken this out of the hands of the states," he said.
Rossi hasn't always been reluctant to talk about the issue. He worked against Initiative 120, the 1991 measure that guaranteed the right to an abortion in the state.
Gregoire, Rossi's Democratic opponent, says the governor can have an effect on abortion in the state, pointing out there were nine pieces of abortion-related legislation introduced in the past two legislative sessions, which if Republicans controlled both houses, could have made it to the governor's desk.
Extending debate to stem cells
Gregoire has expanded the abortion debate to include questions of stem-cell research, promoting a plan for a stem-cell research center in Washington state and linking the issue to economic development.
Where one stands on the issue of federal restrictions on stem-cell research also has become a fairly reliable surrogate for one's stand on abortion. And Rossi's reluctance to answer specifically where he stands on federal restrictions on funding the research follows his hesitancy to talk about abortion.
Stem-cell research is mentioned in Murray's current hard-hitting ad against Nethercutt, which asks, "When so many are suffering from diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer's, how could George Nethercutt buckle under to party leaders and oppose funding for life-saving stem-cell research?"
Nethercutt is a consistent anti-abortion vote in Congress. He votes against federal funding of abortions, including opposing Medicaid funding for abortions in case of rape or incest. He also has opposed allowing abortions on U.S. military bases.
But, he says, he's never voted for a bill or made a proposal that would make abortions illegal — an issue settled for now by the Supreme Court.
Nethercutt says Democrats are using abortion to scare voters.
"I don't think the president has in mind any changes in the law," Nethercutt said. "I don't have any intentions, nor do the Republicans have any secret intentions, other than to look at the whole issue of federal funding."
Nethercutt said that as an attorney in private practice, he helped make thousands of adoptions happen. That, he says, has convinced him there are better options than abortion to unwanted pregnancies.
He says rather than try to change abortion law, he wants to "change hearts and minds" about abortion.
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
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