Abortion issues seemed left in the dust as economic concerns drove this year's election, but on Tuesday voters ousted several pro-life Democrats and ushered in fiscal conservatives who tend to oppose abortion.
As the names of defeated pro-life Democrats flashed across the screen Tuesday night, triumphant cheers erupted at Morton's Steakhouse, where staff and supporters of the Susan B. Anthony List (SBAL) had gathered to watch election returns.
SBAL, which works to elect pro-life women to office, typically supports pro-life members of both parties. But that largely changed this year after most pro-life Democrats voted for the federal healthcare bill that many abortion opponents say allows for federal funding of abortion.
Three of the four Democrats most heavily targeted by SBAL lost their seats, including Reps. Steve Driehaus (Ohio) and Kathy Dahlkemper (Penn.). Overall, 10 of 17 pro-life Democrats who voted for the healthcare bill were defeated on Tuesday, according to SBAL.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (FRC), said some seats formerly held by moderate Republicans are now being filled by more conservative Republicans. FRC gained attention in the last days of the campaign for its advertising against Joseph Cao—a Republican congressman from Louisiana who supported hate-crimes legislation and an effort to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on openly homosexual service members.
FRC ran ads against Cao even though his opponent, Democratic State Rep. Cedric Richmond, supports abortion rights. (Cao was one of the few incumbent Republican House members to be defeated by a Democrat Tuesday.) "Cao has repeatedly voted for extra protections for homosexuals at the cost of religious liberty," the ad stated. Cao told the Times-Picayune that the charge was ridiculous. "As a former Jesuit seminarian and practicing Catholic, it is ridiculous to say that I have ever taken a position against religious liberties," Cao said.
Perkins also explained that part of the campaign against Cao circles back to the healthcare bill.
"A lot of energy was expended to get him to vote against the bill," Perkins said. "If he was truly pro-life, he would have been leading the charge."
President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting abortion funding that did not satisfy many pro-life groups. While the pushback could serve to intensify the partisanship surrounding abortion, SBAL president Marjorie Dannenfelser said the Democrats spelled their own doom by voting for the healthcare bill.
"The members themselves made that happen," she said Tuesday night as she was watching election returns. "They decided for partisanship over the pro-life movement."
Citizenlink (Focus on the Family's political arm) and FRC spent $738,000 and $272,000, respectively, on independent campaign ads this year, according to OpenSecrets.org. Each group spent about two-thirds of their money working to defeat Democrats.
Heavier lifting was done by SBAL and National Right to Life, each group dishing out about $2.4 million in independent expenditures, OpenSecrets.org reports. Those numbers put them among the top 30 non-party groups spending to influence elections and behind the nearly $4 million spent by the pro-choice group Emily's List, whose success helped prompt Dannenfelser to start SBAL.
Senate contenders Sharron Angle and Carly Fiorina—two of SBAL's most heavily supported candidates—lost their bids. On the other hand, the House gained at least 20 pro-life members as of Tuesday night results, according to tracking done by the group.
Many Democrats lost seats they had wrestled from Republicans just two or four years ago when tables were reversed in favor of the left. "We're seeing not just a Republican shift, but a conservative Republican shift in the House," Perkins said.
FRC ended up with a mixed bag of results from the 19 races to which the group contributed. Its most heavily supported candidate—Republican John Raese, running for the Senate in West Virginia—lost.
Even as the healthcare bill gave new fuel to SBAL and other pro-life groups, it also helped to shift the focus away from social issues as voters grew more concerned about the expansion of government and federal debt. Polls consistently showed the economy was foremost in the minds of Americans, and the political dialogue rarely included debate over abortion or gay marriage policies.
Ashley Horne, a federal policy analyst for CitizenLink, said that "true conservatives" won't let social issues die in future elections. "We've been fighting to keep social issues on the front stage, so for us, social issues are never going away," Horne said.
Coupled with the stimulus bill passed in early 2009, the federal expansion of healthcare in March helped give rise to the Tea Party movement led by protestors of government spending. That movement, Perkins believes, is good for pro-lifers because the two go hand-in-hand. Current focus on economic recovery doesn't negate pro-life sentiment, he said.
"I think it's an insult to suggest that pro-life voters can't process more than one set of issues at a time," Perkins said. "When you have a bad economy and people are trying to pay their bills, certainly that's going to be the focus. But that doesn't mean other things aren't happening in the background."
In the end, Perkins said, Tuesday's outcome was driven by voters who wanted to reprimand Democrats for failing them on not just fiscal issues, but social issues as well. It wasn't so much a win for the GOP as a defeat for Democrats, he said.
"I think the message here can't be mistaken," Perkins said. "This is not an endorsement of the Republicans; this is a rejection of the Democrats and their liberal policies."
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Previous articles on pro-life Democrats include:
The Death of Pro-Life Democrats | Anti-abortion groups lead charge to halve their number in the House. (October 28, 2010)
Stupak: From Prolife Groups' Hero to Villain 'In a Nanosecond'| Groups say executive order is not enough, and will campaign against the Michigan Democrat they had promised to support. (March 22, 2010)
Stunned by Stupak| A surprise House ban on abortion funding reveals pro-life gains. (January 7, 2010)
Health Care Reform Splits Democrats on Abortion| Pro-life Democrats disagree over whether bills include federal funding for abortion. (October 23, 2009)