North Carolinas fiercely competitive U.S. Senate race could turn on one of the most divisive issues in politics.
The abortion question shows up the stark contrast between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and her GOP challengers.
Hagan supports abortion rights for women. The leading GOP contenders want to make abortion illegal. Three of the Republican candidates go even further, arguing to outlaw abortion even in cases of rape and incest. The only exception, they say, is to protect the mothers life.
The Republican candidates also say the state has the authority to ban contraceptives and favor a personhood constitutional amendment that would grant legal protections to a fertilized human egg and possibly ban some forms of birth control.
Democrats see such stances as an opportunity to continue to hammer Republicans with the war on women strategy that proved successful for them in the 2012 elections.
Women, not politicians, should be the ones to make these difficult and complex decisions in consultation with their doctor, their family and their faith, Hagan said in response to questions.
The race, one of several pivotal Senate battles that could decide whether Democrats keep control of the chamber, is expected to draw attention from outside groups on both sides of the abortion issue.
The Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Central North Carolina, the groups political arm, intends to help Hagan by targeting women who favor access to abortion. Its the same strategy that Planned Parenthood in Virginia used last fall in the governors race to help Democrat Terry McAuliffe defeat Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
Theres a really large number of women in North Carolina who care deeply about womens health and want to make sure women have access to basic health care, said Paige Johnson, the action funds vice president of external and governmental affairs.
She said that people were angry about the abortion restrictions and galvanized in a way theyve never been in the state and are paying attention in a way weve never had.
Republicans counter that voters are more concerned about the economy than they are about abortion. The health care law, in particular, trumps everything, said GOP strategist Marc Rotterman in Raleigh.
Still, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution at its winter meeting earlier this month that urged its candidates to speak out against abortion.
Comments offensive to many women have led to prominent stumbles by GOP candidates in recent campaigns.
This election cycle, Republican House and Senate candidates have been getting tutored on how to avoid verbal gaffes that could damage their credibility and campaigns.
Republicans arent going to sit back and let Democrats trump up this war on women and let it go unresponded to, said Katie Packer Gage, a Washington-area Republican consultant who works with candidates on how they present themselves to women voters.
Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Democrats will likely use the issue of abortion restrictions to motivate voters, especially women.
But North Carolina is one of those states where it probably will pack a little more punch because of what happened at the state level, she said.
In July, the legislature passed a law that gives the state the authority to regulate abortion clinics as stringently as same-day surgery centers but doesnt require it. The law also allows health care providers to opt out of performing abortions if doing so is against their beliefs, and stops government insurance plans from paying for them.
N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, who is an early front-runner in the GOP Senate race, also supported state efforts that blocked Planned Parenthood from receiving funding from the state for its screenings and other health services.
And last week, he called for an appeal of a recent federal ruling that struck down a provision requiring doctors to narrate an ultrasound by describing the fetus in detail to a woman seeking an abortion. That state law was passed in 2011.
I am pro-life, I believe all life is sacred, and I am proud that we have made real progress on this issue since I am speaker, Tillis wrote in an email. The country is moving in our direction on this issue.
Greg Brannon, a tea party activist endorsed by libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a potential 2016 presidential hopeful, and the Rev. Mark Harris, a Charlotte Baptist pastor endorsed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, are expected to mount the most serious challenges to Tillis in the Republican primary.
Brannon, Harris and Heather Grant, a nurse from Wilkesboro, oppose abortion in all cases, including rape and incest. Tillis believes abortion should be permitted in the case where the mothers health is at risk and in cases of rape and incest.
At an event in November, Brannon put abortion in a moral context and compared it to the end of slavery. I believe in my heart of hearts what our country went through because people had different color pigment versus the babies in the womb is the same exact battle, he said.
At a GOP forum last month, candidates also said they thought states had the right to ban contraceptives. Tillis, who skipped the event, later said he agreed.
In subsequent interviews, the candidates said even if North Carolina lawmakers had the ability, they shouldnt ban all forms of contraception.
Wed be eager for them to run against birth control, because it would be completely out of line with our state, said Planned Parenthoods Johnson.
Hagans voting record makes her views on abortion clear.
She voted against an unsuccessful amendment in 2012 by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would have allowed employers to refuse to provide insurance coverage for health services they disagreed with, including contraceptives.
The GOP candidates with the exception of Grant said they would support a similar measure.
The new health care law allows religious organizations to opt out of covering contraceptives.
Hagan said that states should not be allowed to ban contraceptives, just as they should not be allowed to ban any other safe, approved medication.
She also opposed a bill by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy except when the mothers life is endangered or in cases of rape or incest. The House passed a similar measure in June.
Tillis and Harris have said through spokesmen that they would have supported the bill. Brannon has said he supports any legislation that would end abortion.
Hagan has also opposed efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, noting that the organization provides preventive care for both women and men.
Womens health should never be a political football, she said. We need to be focused on creating jobs and getting our economy back on track, not legislating womens access to care.
Hagans top contributor in her Senate career, at $404,000, has been EMILYs List, a political action committee that funds the campaigns of Democratic women who support abortion rights, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics.
Abortion receives no mention on Hagans campaign website, under womens issues. It cites her support of equal pay, reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and measures that increase womens access to preventive care, and stopped insurance companies from charging women more than they charge men.
The last part is a reference to the new federal health law, although the website doesnt mention it by name. Hagans support for the Affordable Care Act sent her poll numbers tumbling.
Thomas Mills, a North Carolina Democratic political consultant, said Hagan was unlikely to focus her campaign on abortion because its too divisive, but her supporters could use it to get out the vote.
In a September Elon University Poll, 45 percent of registered voters said state laws should make access to abortion more difficult, 41 percent said it should be less difficult, and 13 percent said they didnt know. The poll of 701 voters had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.7 percent.
In a midterm election, even a small increase in turnout can be important in a close race, said Kenneth Fernandez, an assistant professor of political science and director of the poll at the school.
But the issue carries risks for both sides.
Any strategy by Republicans or Democrats to use abortion to rally the troops could always backfire and rally more opposition troops, Fernandez said.
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