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In N.H. Senate race, suddenly the issue is abortion

Senator Jeanne Shaheen appeared at a campaign stop to receive the endorsement of the NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire PAC in Manchester, N.H. Brian Snyder/REUTERS

US Senate candidate Scott Brown is spending considerable time and resources trying to extinguish the brush fire of doubt that keeps flaring up over his support for women’s access to abortion and contraception — a problem accelerated by his opponent, incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

Her fuel: Brown’s voting record.

It started with a Shaheen television ad disputing Brown’s record on “prochoice” issues, including abortion. Brown responded with a 30-second ad defending himself, which was followed by another Shaheen ad, propelling the abortion issue front and center once again — despite the fact that voters see many other issues as more pertinent to this season’s campaign.


“I can’t think of any polls conducted here in New Hampshire, in terms of how voters rate top issues, that’s included abortion among them,” says Wayne Lesperance, professor of politics at New England College in Henniker. “In that sense, they aren’t responding to an issue voters have identified as a top concern.”

Yet Shaheen hammers away at Brown’s voting record in the Massachusetts Legislature, on abortion and related legislation, including his support of the 2005 Women’s Right to Know Act, requiring women to wait 24 hours before having an abortion and to be provided pictures and information detailing the development of their fetuses. And she criticizes his US Senate vote for the Blunt Amendment, which would have allowed employers to deny coverage for contraception if it didn’t align with their religious or moral beliefs.

In response, Brown notes that he has voted to protect federal funding for Planned Parenthood and in favor of a measure sponsored by Shaheen to better protect female servicemembers who are victims of rape. He characterizes the Massachusetts law as one encouraging adoption.

The ongoing war of words is working in Shaheen’s favor, political analysts say.

“Every day that Brown is forced to defend his credentials on reproductive rights is a day he’s not talking about national security, the economy, or President Obama. In other words, any day Scott Brown is defending his credentials on reproductive rights is a good day for Shaheen,” says Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.


“Brown needs to get back to his issues — not that women are single-issue voters, but what Shaheen’s managed to do is change the conversation to turf that’s much friendlier to her. It’s an issue Brown thought he’d neutralized, but the last week or two has proved otherwise,” Scala says.

But poking holes in Brown’s credentials on abortion and contraception is not Shaheen’s sole objective, says Andrew Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center. He believes the strategy is aimed at counteracting what Democrats anticipate as the real Election Day foe: midterm malaise.

“A real problem for the Shaheen campaign is that they’re having trouble motivating their base to get out and vote. Shaheen’s ad makes tactical sense in that it targets the strongest Democratic demographic group, which is single women and single moms, those who are typically less likely to vote in a midterm election,” Smith says.

New Hampshire Republican candidate Scott Brown is seen through the view finder of a camera during a campaign stop in Derry, N.H. Charles Krupa/Associated press

Republicans who support abortion rights are not unusual on the New Hampshire ballot, says Lesperance — former Republican congressmen Charlie Bass and Jeb Bradley are two recent examples. Brown’s path may be slightly more difficult to navigate than theirs, given that the state Republican Party adjusted its platform in September, adding language to protect a “pre-born child’s fundamental right to life and personhood under the Fourteenth Amendment.”


New Hampshire Republican Party chairwoman Jennifer Horn dismissed Shaheen’s strategy as a “smear campaign” designed to distract voters from her “blind allegiance” to President Obama. “She cannot defend her failure to be an independent voice for the Granite State, and voters will choose to replace her with Scott Brown this fall,” Horn said.

But New Hampshire House Speaker Terie Norelli, a Democrat, argues that the issue of Brown’s vote in Massachusetts and for the federal Blunt Amendment deserves serious attention.

“We actually had a similar bill to the one Scott Brown sponsored in Massachusetts, called the Women’s Right to Know Act — which I always called the Women’s Right to Know What Other People Want You to Know Act,” Norelli said. “If you ask me, someone who tells me I have to check with my employer as to whether I can access birth control is far from being prochoice.”

Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund vice president Jennifer Frizzell believes Shaheen’s reputation as a strong supporter of women’s reproductive rights is too historically sound to penetrate. She notes that in her first term as governor, Shaheen signed legislation repealing antiquated laws that made abortion a felony — leaving the state without authority to interfere with women’s access to abortion.

But Brown’s camp has not ceded the issue. “Scott Brown is a prochoice independent Republican who has a strong record of supporting women’s health care,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Guyton said in a statement. “It is shameful that [Shaheen] is playing politics with women.”