Are the Wisconsin recalls about women?

at 12:21 PM ET, 08/08/2011


Worried Wisconsin constituents hear from Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) at a "listening session" in Devalan, Wisconsin, Tuesday, April 19, 2011. (Melina Mara - THE WASHINGTON POST)
Liberal and conservative pro and anti-abortion rights groups are descending on the Wisconsin recall elections to champion their candidates, arguing that women’s issues have become a dominant theme of those campaigns.

Six Republican state senators, two of them women, will be on the ballot Tuesday in the ongoing recall fight, while the remaining two targeted Democratic incumbents will face voters on Aug. 16th.

Although the war on public employees has played the starring role in the recall conflict, women’s groups in both parties are lobbying for and against abortion rights and other issues they say are important to female voters.

On the left, the pro-abortion rights fundraising powerhouse EMILY’s List is involved in the recall fight to an unprecedented degree, and Planned Parenthood has also gotten in the ring. On the right, Wisconsin Right to Life, Wisconsin Family Action and Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition are active in ad campaigns supporting the Republican state senators.

“It’s a war on women, and that’s a war we intend to win,” said EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock.

Conservative anti-abortion groups agree that women’s issues are central. As a Wisconsin Right to Life press release put it: “No matter what you hear about the nine State Senate recall elections that will take place on August 9 and August 16, it’s really about the rights of the unborn.”

Six Republicans and two Democrats face recall elections in the next eight days; Democrats are hoping to recapture the state Senate they lost in last year’s GOP wave.

Five of the six Democratic candidates running in the recall elections are women. Only 24 percent of state legislators in the country are women, a slight decrease from before the 2010 elections. Wisconsin’s breakdown almost exactly mirrors the national average.

But two of the incumbents facing recalls are women themselves, so even if all five female Democratic candidates won, it would not change the gender breakdown of the state Senate dramatically. And one of the two Republican challengers is a woman running against a male Democratic state senator.

Some Republicans argue that Democrats are making the race about women’s issues because they can’t win on the economy.

“They’re pushing pro-choice Democratic women. That’s their objective, that’s their right,” said Nathan Duerkop, campaign spokesman for Republican state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf. “But it’s interesting that they’re getting involved in a Wisconsin state Senate race that’s really about economic issues.”

State Sen. Alberta Darling (R), locked in a surprisingly tough race with state assemblywoman Sandy Pasch (D) argued that what women care about most is the economy. She sees the involvement of Democratic women’s groups as all about abortion, not women’s rights.

“I’m a big advocate for women’s health issues,” Darling said, adding that she helped preserve family planning funds in the budget. But, she added, “I think the issue we need to talk about, the best thing we can do for women is to have jobs in Wisconsin.”

Democrats say that voters are the ones who made these races about something larger.

“The biggest issue that seems to be rising up is not collective bargaining ... but for a lot of people it’s the cuts to public education, cuts to Planned Parenthood and reproductive help is one of the biggest issues for independent women,” said Pasch.

“They describe themselves as fiscally conservative but they say, you don't mess with a woman’s health care.”

“I think it’s gone beyond collective bargaining,” agreed Lionel Dripps, spokesman for Democratic candidate Nancy Nussbaum. “What the budget really did is affected a lot of different areas, not just working families.”

EMILY’s List has departed from its usual state-race model to set up an independent expenditure in the recall fight, meaning they can spend unlimited funds but cannot coordinate with campigns. It even has national members doing phone banking and volunteer work.

Normally, in state legislative races, EMILY’s List uses coordinated expenditures, working with the campaigns and within fundraising limits that vary by states Officials at the organization said they were unsure whether this step would be a model for the future, given the complex election laws in each state.

“We realized it was a really unique opportunity for the EMILY’s List community to do what the EMILY’s List community does best,” said communications director Jen Bluestein.

Scores of outside groups are involved in the Wisconsin recall elections, where spending could top $40 million. These races might not be about women’s issues any more than they’re about the environment, gay rights, or any of the other policy areas where advocacy groups have gotten involved.

But the major involvement by women’s groups — highlighted by the fact that six out of eight candidates are female — shows how much this fight has expanded beyond collective bargaining.

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