As they search for a wedge issue to blunt the gains Republican Linda McMahon is making among women in the U.S. Senate race, Democrats are turning to McMahon’s overtures to both sides of the abortion debate.
McMahon describes herself as pro-choice, but she has won favor in conservative quarters with her embrace of restrictions on late-term abortions and allowing employers to deny contraceptive coverage as a matter of conscience.
Has McMahon found a middle path through one of the most contentious issues of the past 40 years, or has she invited attacks such as the ones made Thursday by some who say her election would be a setback for women?
“Linda McMahon is someone who thinks creatively on these issues,” said Peter Wolfgang, the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, which opposes abortion and gay marriage.
Kind words from the leader of the FIC, which has not made an endorsement in the race between McMahon and Democrat Chris Murphy, are bound to further fuel claims that McMahon is no reliable supporter of abortion rights.
Outside the State Capitol Thursday, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and other women held a news conference attacking McMahon’s pro-choice credentials, reinforcing points made Monday by NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut.
“I’m here today because Linda McMahon is telling the women of Connecticut that she is pro-choice, and the evidence does not back up that fact,” said Shannon Lane, a Connecticut NARAL board member.
“She’s going to deny access to all kinds of health care,” Wyman said.
The two news conferences came in a week when Murphy is trying to regain the offensive after having to respond to stories about lawsuits he faced over debts owed on a rental apartment and his home.
At the same time, McMahon has taken the narrowest of leads over Murphy in public polling, while making inroads with women, who supported Democrat Richard Blumenthal during McMahon’s previous Senate race in 2010.
“The facts are: Linda McMahon is a pro-choice candidate who supports access to contraception,” said her campaign manager, Corry Bliss. “Congressman Murphy’s continued insistence that Linda is anything other than pro-woman is ludicrous.”
McMahon says she generally opposes government restrictions on abortion, saying a decision to end a pregnancy should rest with a woman, her family and her doctor. But she is open to some restrictions.
“I am not pro-abortion, I am anti-government telling me what to do or telling a woman what to do,” McMahon told The Mirror. “Those decisions should be left to a woman, or the family that’s involved, whatever. But not the government.”
But McMahon said she would have voted for the Blunt Amendment, a failed effort earlier this year by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to vastly expand the ability of employers to deny birth-control coverage on moral grounds.
“This would make birth control less accessible, more expensive and, quite frankly, out of reach for many American women,” Lane said. “Choosing to make it harder for women to access birth control does not make you pro-choice.”
A variety of national polls have found overwhelming support for mandatory birth-control coverage but a split over whether religious institutions should be forced to comply.
McMahon recast the debate over the Blunt Amendment as about religious freedom, not contraception. She refuses to discuss it as a measure that gives employers control over their employees’ access to birth control.
“I don’t think that’s what the issue is. I think the issue is a matter of government overreaching into religious freedom. That’s my whole issue with this,” McMahon said. “This is not about contraception. This is about government forcing people with a particular religious — not people, companies – with a particular religious belief, and I just don’t think that’s correct.”
McMahon said she also supports the ban on federal funding for abortions, except in the case of rape, incest or if the life of the mother is at stake. “If it’s a matter of choice and you’ve made that choice, I think those are choices you have made,” she said.
McMahon supports two other restrictions on abortion, ones with significant public support, according to national polls.
“I am not a supporter of late-term abortion. I just cannot support that at all,” she said. “I do think there should be parental notification for minors.”
(Murphy joins McMahon in opposing partial-birth abortion, a form of late-term abortion.)
All those positions give McMahon an entrée with social conservatives in Connecticut, many of whom have given up on finding viable candidates for statewide office who favor a blanket prohibition of abortion.
“I think there’s been some evolution in the battle over abortion,” Wolfgang said. “It’s not all or nothing. I think it speaks to the success of the pro-life movement in recent decades.”
In the first 20 years after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, the anti-abortion forces were dedicated to electing conservative presidents who they hoped would tilt the Supreme Court toward overturning the landmark case.
Wolfgang said a turning point came in 1992, when three appointees of Ronald Reagan voted to uphold Roe, prompting a hard question for the movement: “What have we been doing for 20 years?”
The movement shifted away from an all-or-nothing position on abortion to other restrictions, including ones that self-described pro-choice voters and politicians could entertain, such as late-term abortions and parental notification laws.
“The pro-life movement got much smarter in the 1990s,” Wolfgang said. “It looked for ways to find space for people who are not 100 percent with us.”
Either by design or happenstance, McMahon has stepped into that space.
Wolfgang said McMahon still is relatively rare in Connecticut, where many Republicans recoil from any abortion-related issue, missing an opportunity to energize a conservative base.
“By being part of the way with us, I think Linda points to a future for the Republican Party,” he said. “The Republican Party in Connecticut is not going to succeed by continually insulting folks in better circumstances who would be their supporters.”
In Connecticut, abortion has faded as an issue that can move votes, at least in comparison to other issues, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
Forty-nine percent of voters recently said abortion is “extremely important” or “very important” to their presidential choice, a significant percentage.
But other issues were rated as more important: health care, 87 percent; taxes, 79 percent; the economy, 93 percent; the deficit, 77 percent; foreign policy, 71 percent; and Medicare, 77 percent.