April 22, 2012

Women emerge as a force in Election 2012

Women's reproductive health issues, like contraception and abortion, are likely to be at the forefront of the race to replace Sen. OIympia Snowe.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Women such as Nancy Ciocca of South Portland may well decide who will be Maine's next U.S. senator.

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Jayne Leiner, 58, of Cape Elizabeth: “I will not vote for a candidate who doesn’t take women’s issues seriously.”

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Emily Baer, 26, of Portland: “Any candidate who ... limits women’s rights in any way is off my radar.”

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You don't have to be a political scientist to understand the power of female voters. Just listen to the presidential campaigns arguing almost daily over who really cares more about women.

The national campaign rhetoric about a "war on women" and "mommy wars," along with recent debates in Congress, have put a spotlight on women's health care. And many Maine women will be listening closely to what the Senate candidates have to say about issues such as contraception and abortion.

"It really would affect who I vote for," said Ciocca, who fears that women could lose access to reproductive health services. "The economy is very important. A lot of things are important. But this is fundamental."

The Maine Sunday Telegram asked the 10 primary candidates and one leading independent running for Maine's open U.S. Senate seat a series of questions about family planning, contraception and abortion. The Telegram also analyzed the voting records of the seven candidates who have served in Maine's Legislature.

All four Democrats in the race generally support access to reproductive health services across the board, although there are some caveats. Independent former Gov. Angus King, the clear front-runner in the race, also was surveyed and tends to agree with Democrats when it comes to women's health issues.

The six Republicans are more divided. Three, for example, say they would protect access to abortion. The other three candidates say they would prefer abortion services to be more restricted.

Republican and Democratic voters will choose their nominees during the statewide primary June 12.

Whoever ultimately wins the general election in November is sure to have an important voice in the recurring national debates, and may even have a deciding vote.

Maine's two Republican U.S. senators -- Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins -- have been potential swing votes on women's health issues for years.

Two years ago, they sided with Democrats and opposed an unsuccessful effort to cut federal funding to health insurers that use other funds to provide abortions. Federal funding can't be used directly for abortions.

Last year, Snowe and Collins were heavily lobbied as the Senate considered funding cuts for Planned Parenthood and family planning services. Maine's two senators were among five Republicans who opposed the cuts, which ultimately failed.

And, less than two months ago, Snowe was the only Republican to vote against a proposal that would have allowed employers to drop contraception from health insurance coverage for moral reasons. Collins voted in favor of the proposal. Democrats unanimously opposed the idea and it failed, leaving only a narrow religious exemption for churches and their employees.

Snowe's breaking of the ranks on the contraception vote came just days after announcing she would not seek re-election, which set off a race that could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.

Both Collins and Snowe support abortion rights and are considered to be in line with the majority of Maine women. But, said Maine Women's Lobby Director Eliza Townsend, "by no means do the half a million women in Maine all think alike."

Maine women also vote based on a wide range of issues, including economic issues such as job opportunities, poverty, workers' rights and equal pay, she said.

"It is important to have control of our reproductive rights. We also need a good economy," said Julia Kirtland, a 47-year-old massage therapist from Portland. "I think women's issues are really everybody's issues."

Jayne Leiner, a 58-year-old Democratic voter from Cape Elizabeth, said women's health is an economic issue. "I will not vote for a candidate who doesn't take women's issues seriously," she said. "I left the Republican Party because they did not speak to issues that women care about."

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Additional Photos

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Nancy Ciocca, 61, of South Portland says she will vote for someone who stands up for women’s health choices.

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