CLINTON, IOWA — Democratic groups that support Hillary Clinton and focus on women’s issues have taken the gloves off against Sen. Bernie Sanders, a move aimed at undercutting his support among liberal voters, particularly younger women, days before the Iowa caucuses.
The groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice America and Emily’s List, have seized on a comment by Sanders last week lumping them and other groups into the much-maligned “establishment” column, which he did in an effort to dismiss the importance of their support for Clinton.
“It was a real wake-up call for folks that he probably wasn’t where he needed to be in this fight,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “When he said that, it became incumbent on us to point out that he had not been paying the attention to these issues that is required to actually meet where the progressive base is at, and where the voters are at, but also to confront the crisis in this country.”
Clinton, too, has contributed to the jabs, albeit more subtly. “We all need a champion in the White House, and not just someone who says the right things, but someone who does them as well,” she said in New Hampshire on Friday at a dinner marking the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. “But we need somebody in the Oval Office who really understands that NARAL and Planned Parenthood are not part of the establishment.”
If the effort has any impact at all, it is likely to be with younger, female voters who are the core of abortion-rights groups’ membership. In Iowa, NARAL’s average member is a young woman in her 30s — the very demographic that tends to support Sanders, despite Clinton’s strength with older women.
Less clear is whether the new attacks will stick — or whether they are more likely evidence of Clinton allies’ concern about her standing in Iowa and New Hampshire than a winning critique against Sanders.
In an interview Saturday, Sanders said Clinton is taking his remarks out of context — and her allies are offering no substantive evidence that he is on the wrong side of women’s reproductive issues. Regarding the offending remarks, he said he was specifically talking about the leadership of the groups and their endorsement decisions, and not the activists who had pushed their agenda over the years.
“If I’m not mistaken, I have a 100 percent lifetime voting record with NARAL, a 100 percent voting record with Planned Parenthood,” Sanders said. “To be attacked for that is, I think, unfortunate. It’s unfortunate, and it’s obviously wrong. I’m a fierce believer in a woman’s right to choose, and as president, I will do everything I can to take on those people around the country who are making it more and more difficult for a woman to choose.”
In addition, aides to Sanders said they don’t plan to engage in a point-by-point response with Clinton each time she or her allies attack. They say they are confident that voters will see the attacks as a sign of Clinton’s weakness and dismiss the substance — a point Sanders echoed in the interview Saturday.
“I think most people perceive it as a campaign that is getting desperate, a campaign that was supposed to easily win Iowa and New Hampshire and is now struggling in both, a campaign that eight, nine months ago had a 50-point lead and is now struggling to win.”
Some of Clinton’s allies acknowledge that Sanders has a consistent voting record on abortion issues. But they now say that it is simply not enough.
“I think that in Washington, he’s never been seen as someone who is really engaged or active on civil rights issues,” said Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist and Clinton ally. “Whether it’s women or gays or African Americans, I think his progressive politics have always been focused on the economic issues, and I think you’re seeing that divide a little bit more in this primary.”
On Friday, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Clinton’s allies also began contrasting her pledge to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which blocks federal funding for abortion, with Sanders, who they claimed had been silent on the issue. Sanders, who opposed the amendment in the House, issued a statement by the end of the day making clear that he would seek to repeal it, as well.
“Women must have full control over their reproductive health in order to have full control over their lives,” he said in the statement.
Clinton’s final weeks in Iowa were already focused heavily on her support from these groups, and have been punctuated by events tailored at reaching younger women. Over the past week, she visited two college campuses, including one event with pop singer Demi Lovato. And after speaking at an event with NARAL in New Hampshire, she will campaign with Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood’s president, on Sunday.
The latest sparring began Tuesday, when Sanders dismissed groups like NARAL, Planned Parenthood and gay rights group the Human Rights Campaign — all of whom have endorsed Clinton in the primary — and accused them of being part of the same establishment he was campaigning against.
Clinton’s campaign had already begun increasing its attacks on Sanders. But his “establishment” comments seemingly blew away any remaining concerns these allied groups, who view Clinton as the more electable Democrat in a general election, may have initially had about attacking Sanders directly. Abortion groups, in particular, had previously framed their arguments to focus on Clinton’s strengths, rather than Sanders’ weakness.
“I’ve got members who have been fighting for equal rights for two generations, three generations and they’re like, ‘Wait a second. This isn’t right,’ ” Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock said in an interview this week, as she traveled across Iowa on Clinton’s behalf. “It’s not just wrong, but it’s someone who doesn’t understand that the movement is not just about breaking up the big banks.”
Kara Roy, a lawyer who came to see Sanders in Hudson, N.H., on Friday, said the suggestion that he isn’t strong enough on reproductive rights doesn’t ring true to her.
“Honestly, I think it’s an issue that’s going to be decided by the courts,” she said, adding that she has no doubt that Sanders would appoint abortion rights advocates as Supreme Court justices.
Roy, 43, said she’s been heartened by Sanders’s repeated pledges to boost funding for Planned Parenthood. Part of what has drawn her to Sanders is his commitment to pushing progressive causes, Roy said, and this one is no different.