Pundits seeking signals about how abortion plays as a political issue will have to look somewhere other than last month’s elections for clear direction While concerns of the pocketbook seemed foremost in many voters’ minds, abortion was a key campaign issue in several races (CT, Oct. 22, 1990. p. 44). Yet in the nation’s first major elections since the Supreme Court’s Webster decision, both sides of the debate won some and lost some.
In the Kansas governor’s race, prolife challenger Joan Finney (D) beat incumbent, prochoice Republican Mike Hayden. The National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Fund for a Feminist Majority supported Hayden in the race. In Ohio, prolife candidate George Voinovich (R) defeated Anthony Celebrezze (D), who last year flip-flopped on the issue and made abortion rights a key plank in his platform. In Michigan, prolife challenger John Engler (R) edged out incumbent James Blanchard (D). Blanchard had angered prolife forces by vetoing dozens of abortion restrictions. In Pennsylvania, prolife Democrat Bob Casey was easily re-elected.
Prochoice winners included Florida’s Lawton Chiles (D), who beat incumbent Bob Martinez (R). Prochoicers targeted Martinez for defeat after he called a special legislative session on abortion following the Webster decision. In Texas, prochoice Ann Richards (D) narrowly defeated Clayton Williams (R). Minnesota’s tempetuous race ended with prolife incumbent Rudy Perpich being defeated by a prochoice Republican, Arne Carlson, who had been in the race for only nine days. Carlson, who had lost the Republican primary, entered after prolife candidate Jon Grunseth pulled out of the race due to scandalous revelations about his personal life.
Prolifers claim they may have provided the edge in U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’s (R-N.C.) close victory over Democrat Harvey Gantt. Prochoice forces campaigned heavily against Helms; the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) alone spent $230,000 to help defeat him. Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Oreg.) won against an unexpectedly tough challenge by Democrat Harry Lonsdale, who made abortion a major issue in the campaign.
Prolife Democrat David Bonior won re-election to the House from Michigan’s twelfth congressional district.
On the prochoice side, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (D) was re-elected. In northern Virginia, Jim Moran (D) upset incumbent Stan Parris (R), a staunch prolife advocate, and prochoice Democrat Floyd Flake beat his challengers in New York’s sixth district.
In press conferences following the elections, both sides took encouragement from the results. Molly Yard of NOW said she was “jubilant and euphoric.” Eleanor Smeal, Feminist Majority president, agreed. “The one-two punch of the gender gap and abortion rights really broke the ‘glass ceiling’ for women,” she said, adding that she sees “an end to the sexist ‘Bubba’ era” of politics. Kate Michelman of NARAL also said she was pleased, though only four of the eight prolife politicians on her “hit list” were defeated.
John Willke, president of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), told reporters he was especially pleased with the results because many in the media had predicted wholesale failure of prolife candidates. “We feel we came out smelling pretty good,” he said.
According to the NRLC, the elections produced a net loss of eight prolife seats in the House of Representatives. NRLC legislative director Douglas Johnson said that while this means the House may be more “closely divided” on the abortion issue, a majority remains that is opposed to federal funding of abortion and would likely support at least some abortion restrictions. In addition, he said there are still enough prolife votes to sustain a presidential veto of any proabortion legislation.
In the Senate, prolife forces lost two votes. But again Johnson said enough prolife votes remain to sustain a Bush veto of any proabortion measure. “It is unlikely that there will be a drastic shift in federal policy on abortion in either direction during the 1991–92 Congress,” Johnson said.
Willke added that prolife gubernatorial wins in Kansas, Michigan, and Ohio could result in strong prolife legislation in those states.
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