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Abortion to play low-profile but important role in some 2010 races

Charley Shaw//September 29, 2010//

Abortion to play low-profile but important role in some 2010 races

Charley Shaw//September 29, 2010//

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Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
According to Scott Fischbach, the executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the abortion issue “has cooled off in the sense that we are not in the headlines every day. But we are always just under the surface.” He added that the group intends to spend money this year in select legislative races as well as the gubernatorial campaign. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

After decades of very public clashes between anti-abortion and abortion-rights advocates, the issue has had a notably lower profile in recent state campaigns. And ostensibly at least, 2010 is likely to continue that trend. But it hardly means that abortion politics is a forgotten matter.

“I think it’s interesting that Tom Emmer doesn’t want to talk about it,” noted Dan Hofrenning, a St. Olaf College political science professor and authority on the relationship between religion and politics. “Neither does Mark Dayton.”

Public debate about abortion, like practically every other perennial issue, is being largely drowned out this year by talk of jobs and government budgets.

But the issue – and Minnesota’s foremost anti-abortion advocacy group, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) – continue to matter deeply, particularly behind the scenes and in certain legislative districts. In matters of internal Republican politics especially, MCCL’s priorities continue to carry formidable weight.

Dane Smith, who covered state politics for Twin Cities daily newspapers for more than 20 years, said that although MCCL’s 2010 profile is lower than in many past elections, the group’s clout hasn’t waned.

“I would never pronounce them dead or declining,” said Smith, who now leads the Growth & Justice nonprofit group. “They will be a force in the state into the future. But it has struck many people that abortion and social issues are in the back seat in this campaign.”

Scott Fischbach, MCCL’s executive director, says the issue remains politically potent. “It has cooled off in the sense that we are not in the headlines every day,” he said. “But we are always just under the surface.”

Fischbach draws a distinction between abortion and other hot topic social issues of the recent past like gay marriage. Until abortion is banned, he said, it will continue to galvanize voters.

“Life issues are not just another social issue,” he told Capitol Report. “They are not just another election issue. For people like me, they are a disqualifier. When we look at the issues, we have a lot of opinions about schools and the economy. But first we have to get over the life hurdle.”

MCCL pushed Emmer on LG

There is certainly evidence in Republican Party politics this year that MCCL is still a heavyweight.

MCCL’s muscle was made evident earlier this year when Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer’s campaign decided against selecting former Rep. Linda Runbeck as his running mate. Runbeck’s bona fides on abortion were sullied in 1994 when she voted to table legislation that would have required women to wait 24 hours before having an abortion.

MCCL’s stamp of approval will likely prove pivotal in a couple of races in central Minnesota where a DFLer is either retiring or running for re-election, according to Republican strategist Gregg Peppin. In District 16A, Rep. Gail Kulick Jackson, DFL-Milaca, is running in a rematch against former GOP Rep. Sondra Erickson of Princeton.  Jackson is supported by EMILY’s List, which supports Democratic women candidates who favor abortion rights. Erickson has MCCL’s support.

Abortion also stands to play a role in District 12B, where Rep. Al Doty, DFL-Royalton, is running in a rematch with Republican Mike LeMieur of Little Falls.

“I think the pro-life votes in those districts can play an oversized role in a non-presidential election year,” Peppin said.

The abortion issue could also play a role in switching District 11B to the Republican column, he added. The Republican-leaning district has been represented since 1997 by anti-abortion DFLer Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, who isn’t seeking re-election. MCCL is supporting Republican Mary Franson over DFLer Amy Hunter and Independence Party candidate Bert Pexsa.

“To the extent that there were Republicans who voted for Mary Ellen Otremba on the pro-life issue, they would come back to the Republican candidate,” Peppin said.

Apart from the primacy of jobs and the economy in the 2010 campaign, abortion is a quiet issue this year in part because there haven’t been any lengthy abortion fights at the state Capitol in the past several years. But during that time, MCCL has registered a quiet string of legislative victories. Fischbach pointed out that the Women’s Right to Know Act passed in 2003 after nine years of trying. In 2005, the Positive Alternatives Act – which pays for programs that help women find alternatives to abortion – was signed into law after passing through the Legislature with bipartisan authors.

To a large extent, MCCL’s legislative agenda is now concerned with preserving those gains.

“The status quo seems to be winning out, where neither side seems to be pushing for too much change,” Hofrenning said.

MCCL has also defeated a few DFL legislators that that the group considered key foes. Among the vanquished were former Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, and Rep. Ken Tschumper, DFL-La Crescent. Fischbach said the group has no “poster child” targets in mind for the 2010 cycle.

Sitting on campaign cash

One question that won’t be answered publicly until after the election is how MCCL will choose to deploy the cash it has stashed in its state political action committee.

Through the close of the most recent reporting period on September 14, MCCL’s state PAC has held onto the sizeable cash hoard with which it began the year. The PAC had $52,000 on hand back in January, and $56,000 as of mid-September. Much of the money is left over from the $52,000 that MCCL still had in the bank after the 2008 presidential election year.

While MCCL still had most its cash on hand as of the filing deadline, Fischbach said his group isn’t holding out for the next presidential election.

“We’ll be spending what we can during this election cycle,” he vowed.

In September the organization launched a series of 49 meetings that will be held around the state through late October.

The opportunities for MCCL to engage in politics have actually expanded since the U.S. Supreme Court in January handed down its ruling in the Citizens United case, which struck down existing state prohibitions on corporations spending directly to influence elections. Fischbach said the ruling has enabled MCCL to do more advocacy through its Chapter 501(c)(4) entity than in the past.

In the governor’s race, MCCL’s PAC is criticizing Dayton and Independence Party Tom Horner’s stances on abortion. MCCL refers to Horner as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” on the issue. MCCL criticizes Dayton as “pro-abortion.” It’s likely MCCL will steer its resources toward supporting Emmer’s election bid.

“We’re involved in all the lege races in any given year. The governor’s race is the top priority in 2010,” Fischbach said.

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