Pro-Life Women for Congress

If you want to know what the next wave is in pro-life politics, take a look at the Susan B. Anthony List. The Susan B. Anthony List is a group of congressional and senatorial candidates comprised of street- smart women who are committed to the pro-life cause. The list’s directors run a political fundraising club with tough entrance rules: the candidate must be female, have a pro-life track record, be articulate, and “winnable” in her particular race. No long shots need apply.

The list has its origins in a 1992 CBS Sixty Minutes program on EMILY’s List (“EMILY” stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast), which funds pro-abortion women candidates. After watching the program, Rachel MacNair, a pro-life Quaker and head of Feminists for Life, grabbed the telephone and began calling her friends in the pro-life movement. They all agreed: The time had come to counter EMILY’s List with a pro-life version.

Choosing Susan B. Anthony as the list’s namesake was an in-your-face gesture against the traditional pro-abortion feminists—for the leader of the women’s suffrage movement also believed in protecting the unborn. Anthony saw abortion as evil, but was concerned, too, that men were not taking responsibility for the problem. Her solution to ending abortion, which appears on the list’s letterhead, was “prevention, not merely punishment.”

Prevention of abortion is a key concept in the list’s ideology. “Let the healing begin,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the list’s president, referring to women who have been scarred, emotionally and/or physically, by abortion. According to Dannenfelser, pro-life political stances are winning ones, provided they are couched in supportive, not punitive, terms.

Dannenfelser stated that the purpose of the nonpartisan, nonsectarian Susan B. Anthony List is to have a strong pro-life feminine voice on Capitol Hill. That voice, she believes, can effectively challenge the abortion mythology promoted by women legislators such as Senators Barbara Boxer (California) and Patty Murray (Washington) and retiring Congresswoman Pat Schroeder (Colorado). Boxer, Murray, Schroeder, and their friends claim that the pro-life movement is run by men to keep women in a box. Simple political reality requires that pro-life women must speak up to counter the abortion-as-liberating myth peddled by their “pro-choice” sisters.

Will a woman gain a slot on the list if she merely declares that she’s pro-life? No —a simple declaration won’t work for the list because the women who run it know that a shallow pro-life candidate can’t withstand the pressures of the campaign trail. The list’s directors know that such a candidate’s pro-life convictions will quickly wilt at the first sign of the inevitable unfavorable poll or negative ad. Thus, the key question the directors ask of all candidate-applicants is: “What have you done to help women in crisis pregnancy situations?” The list’s directors believe that a candidate who speaks from experience in helping women turn from abortion will provide a formidable, yet compassionate, alternative to the candidate who intones the well-worn “women’s right to choose” mantra.

Mixed Results

For 1996, the Susan B. Anthony List supported thirteen candidates. Its success rate through the primary season was high; only one candidate, Patty Cafferata (Nevada, Second District) failed to make it to the general election.

On Election Day, November 5, the list’s results were more mixed. Of the remaining twelve candidates, only four won, among whom were two incumbent congresswomen (Helen Chenoweth of Idaho and Barbara Cubin of Wyoming, both Republicans). Only one challenger, a Catholic, Anne Northrup, (Third District, Kentucky, Republican), overcame a pro-abortion incumbent. The last of the four winners, Jo Ann Emerson (Eighth District, Missouri, Independent), took the open seat resulting from the death of her late husband, Congressman Bill Emerson.

What factors were at play for the winners and losers?

First was the power of incumbency. It worked for Chenoweth and Cubin. Although Chenoweth had an extremely tight race, Cubin won by an impressive fourteen points. But the power of incumbency worked against the other seven candidates who were challengers. According to The Polling Company’s Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, incumbents did well generally because the theme of 1996 was “Don’t rock the boat.” She contrasted the complacent voters of 1996 with the angry voters of 1994 — having gotten their congressional Republican revolution of 1994, the 1996 voters wanted incremental change, not additional radical change.

However, the power of incumbency did not work for Congresswoman Andrea Seastrand (Twenty-second District, California, Republican). Seastrand was a freshman Republican in a district characterized as a “toss up” by the newspaper Roll Call because of its predominately Democrat registration and voting trends. Fitzpatrick noted that Seastrand faced a strong, well-financed opponent in Walter Capps—who, interestingly, did not challenge Seastrand on her abortion position. To Fitzpatrick, Capps’s failure to challenge Seastrand on the life issue proved that being pro-life is not axiomatically a political liability. Seastrand lost not because she is pro-life, but because she was constantly and effectively “morphed” into Newt Gingrich by a robust Democrat, backed by union funds, in a teeter-totter district.

The second factor that these (mostly Republican) women faced was that they had little help from the top of the ticket. Although Bob Dole had a 100 percent pro-life voting record in the Senate, Fitzpatrick said he “took bad advice from pro-choice Republican advisers,” which gave him the appearance of flip-flopping on the life issue. She stated that, in general, voters can be comfortable with a pro-life candidate whose commitment comes from the heart, but a flip-flopper who changes his or her abortion stance to suit the polls makes voters uneasy. In 1996, Dole’s reluctance to use the partial-birth abortion issue against Clinton gave him the appearance of backing away—or flip-flopping—from his previous pro-life stance. This, naturally, was of no help to a group of female Republican candidates who were outspoken and firm in their support for the unborn.

1998 Forecast

Perhaps 1996 was a disappointment for the supporters and candidates of the list, but the prospects for 1998 look very good.

Statistically, 1998 could well be the time of the “six-year itch” election. Normally, in an off-year election, the party that does not control the White House gains seats on Capitol Hill.

This trend can accelerate in the sixth year of a president’s eight-year span. “Six-year itch” fans can point to the large shifts on the Hill in 1938 (FDR’s sixth year), 1946 (Truman), 1958 (Eisenhower), 1966 (Kennedy-Johnson), 1974 (Nixon-Ford), and 1986 (Reagan).

According to political scientist Alvin Felzenberg, there are two general reasons for the “itch.” First, re-elected presidents tend to overreach their grasp as they attempt to get into the history books or act upon an ephemeral mandate. For example, in 1938 Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court, and in 1966 voters reacted negatively to Johnson’s overheating Great Society plans as well as the Vietnam War. Second, a popular president can pull in weaker lower-tier candidates on his coattails. However, without the president at the top of the ticket, these same candidates (now incumbents) become very vulnerable in an off-year election.

But Felzenberg warned against challengers putting too much faith in the power of the “itch.” He echoed a sentiment expressed by Kellyanne Fitzpatrick—it is important for the 1998 challengers to start getting their message out now and not wait until early 1998 to do so. Fitzpatrick believes that, if they wished, challengers could safely take back the pro-family issues from Clinton, because, like “a new car leaving the lot,” Clinton’s political value is dropping fast.

For Felzenberg, a possible flaw in a 1998 “itch” expectation will be that Clinton’s coattails in 1996 were not very long, resulting in fewer vulnerable liberal incumbents. Although he did campaign for certain congressional and Senate candidates, Clinton’s overall support was very shallow and he did not ask the voters for a Democrat-controlled House and Senate. But overall, Felzenberg, like Fitzpatrick, is very optimistic for the list’s candidates in 1998, especially if the ones who were in tight races decide to mount a second challenge. In particular Fitzpatrick mentions Judge Linda Wilde of California, who lost by fewer than 835 votes, as a very strong possible second-round candidate.

Bearing in mind that the “itch” is a negative factor—as voters vote against a president’s power—here is a possible 1998 strategy for the Susan B. Anthony List: Assuming there are candidates who meet the list’s requirements, the directors could target both marginal pro-abortion Democrats and Republicans. The “itch” increases the vulnerability of certain Democrats, but adds little or no margin of safety for at- risk Republicans.

Another factor that might add to the list’s success in 1998 is the likely increase in pro-abortion Democrat retirements from the House and Senate. Such retirements could step up now that a second session of Congress will be under Republican control (leaving Democrats with the frustrations of being in the minority again) and if Clinton’s Whitewater and political fundraising scandals acquire a peculiarly Watergate-like aura.

Perhaps 1996 was not all it could have been for the Susan B. Anthony List, but if the list’s supporters and their candidates hunker down and work for the next round, 1998 could be a great year for the pro-life cause.


  • Joanne Sadler

    At the time this article was published, Joanne Sadler wrote on political issues.

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