I'm writing this column in Clinton, Connecticut, where I live part of the year and hope to vote in November. I'm abandoning the antiquated voting booths of New York City because I want to do my bit to help the Democrats take back the House and Senate. Connecticut is a major battleground. Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont gets most of the press attention, thanks to his surprise upset of Joe Lieberman, now running on the Egomania ticket, but for the balance of power in Congress the House races are the ones that count: If Joe Courtney beats Rob Simmons, and Diane Farrell beats Chris Shays, and Chris Murphy beats Nancy Johnson, little Connecticut will give the Dems three of the fifteen seats they need to take back the House. That's quite an opportunity! Or maybe not: NARAL ProChoice America wants Nutmeg Staters to vote for Lieberman, and for Republicans Simmons and Johnson. (They haven't made up their minds about Shays, who blotted his prochoice copybook in 2003 by voting to ban so-called "partial birth" abortion.) Just north, in Rhode Island, they're supporting Lincoln Chafee for the Senate against his Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse. All these contests are close. NARAL's money, volunteers and stamp of approval could make a difference--perhaps even the difference.
With all due respect to NARAL, an organization I've supported faithfully for years, Are they out of their minds? "We're not a partisan organization," NARAL president Nancy Keenan told me when we spoke by phone. "Party politics are not where we get involved." But for the prochoice agenda to have a shot, Congress must change hands. It's that simple. The dwindling number of prochoice Republicans are the party's useful idiots, permitted to cast futile votes against the "partial birth" abortion ban or right-wing Supreme Court nominees like Samuel Alito and John Roberts, or in favor of federal funding for birth control and sex ed (while casting hundreds of other votes along party lines) because their function is to hold on to seats a more reactionary candidate--an antichoice hard-liner, say--couldn't win. That's why in the Rhode Island primary Bush campaigned for Chafee, who didn't even vote for him in 2004, instead of Chafee's challenger in the primary, Steve Laffey, whose antichoice and right-wing positions would have handed the election to the Democrats.
The Republican Party can do the math. Why can't NARAL? Actually, it can. Take a look at "Why We Need to Take Back Congress" on NARAL's website (www.prochoiceamerica.org):
In the last 10 years, Congress has voted 147 times to restrict reproductive-health services, including abortion and birth control. This November, we have an opportunity to stop these attacks on choice by electing six more pro-choice senators and 15 new House members. Need help imagining what a pro-choice Congress would look like? Here are some examples of how Congress would shift in pro-choice hands:
• Pro-choice lawmakers would control key committees, and pro-choice lawmakers would instantly become a majority on every panel.
• Rather than sitting through anti-choice hearing after hearing, called by anti-choice committee chairs, new committee chairs could spend their time promoting women's health.
° Anti-choice lawmakers would no longer have a forum to spread propaganda on the "myths and effects" of Roe v. Wade, nonexistent syndromes like "post-abortion trauma," or allegations that RU 486 is dangerous for women.
° Pro-choice lawmakers could hold hearings to investigate the FDA's refusal to approve emergency contraception over the counter, the devastating effects of the global gag rule on women's health, and pro-choice measures that could reduce America's staggeringly high rate of teen pregnancy.
• Pro-choice forces would control the Senate and House floor schedules. This means that we could avoid anti-choice legislative attacks--and instead, see votes on pro-choice bills that have been held up.
Six and fifteen, the magic numbers. Obviously, "prochoice" and "antichoice" are fig leaves here; these changes will take place when Democrats, not "prochoicers," become the majority party. When I asked NARAL political director Beth Shipp about this, she repeated that NARAL was a bipartisan organization. "We need support in both parties. I can take out a fully antichoice incumbent, so why would I turn my back on my friends?" Well, maybe because the friends, unfortunately, stand in the way of that larger goal, the six and fifteen, without which reproductive rights will continue their slow death by strangulation at the hands of the party in power.
I'm singling out NARAL here, but the same argument applies to other progressive single-issue groups that support Republican incumbents. The theory is, you need supporters in both parties, and if you're not loyal to incumbents who support your cause, you lose your leverage. That rationale explains why in 1998 the gay rights organization Human Rights Campaign supported the sleazy antichoice conservative Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato against his Democratic opponent Chuck Schumer. In 2004, in return for his role in raising the minimum wage in New York State, the Working Families Party supported Nick Spano, longtime Republican state senator from Westchester, against his Democratic challenger, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a progressive black woman. She lost by eighteen votes. Eighteen votes! Thanks, WFP, for shoring up the GOP majority in the New York State Senate.
Stories like these are the reason I prefer to support individual candidates. They may betray you and break your heart, but at least you are not canceling your own vote, and funding your own funeral.