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

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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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Emily Baer, a 26-year-old independent voter from Portland, said she considers issues such as contraception access to be on par with the economy. "Any candidate who sort of limits women's rights in any way is off my radar," she said. "It's a feeling I think a lot of my peers share."

Ciocca, a 61-year-old South Portland resident, said she also cares about economic issues. But she believes efforts to limit access to contraception and abortion are a form of discrimination against women, and has even made anti-GOP bumper stickers as a personal protest.

"It's just mind-boggling that there are people who want to control what women can and cannot do in terms of their own health."

Ciocca, a registered Democrat, said she doesn't know enough about the Senate candidates yet to say who she will vote for. But it will be someone who stands up for women's health choices, she said.

There are many Maine women who disagree.

Laura McCown of Oakland said she votes for leaders who oppose easy access to abortion and to "morning-after" contraceptives. She also believes religious employers should be allowed to opt out of contraception coverage.

"The government is intruding upon what has always been a basic right of conscience and religious liberty," McCown said. "There's sort of this camp that believes that contraception and abortion should not have any limits placed upon it."

McCown, a 43-year-old marriage and sexuality educator for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, is a registered Republican and said she will likely vote for an anti-abortion candidate in the Senate primary, although she had not yet decided.

"Certainly the economic issues are extremely important, but at the end of the day ... respect for human life at all levels is first with me," she said.

Joanne Tibbetts, a 53-year-old English tutor from Scarborough, also is an anti-abortion voter and said she believes expanded access to birth control pills is dangerous for women because of serious side effects. "It's not a healthy option."

Tibbetts, an independent voter, said she also will consider the issues of abortion and contraception when she chooses a candidate. But she will consider many other things, too, such as her concerns about the use of torture and drone attacks.

Political scientists say there's a simple reason why politicians work to win women's votes.

"Women are now a majority of the electorate in every U.S. state," said Larry Sabato, an oft-quoted author and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Women represent 51.7 percent of Maine's voting-age population. There are 544,824 women 18 and older in Maine, and 509,004 men, according to the 2010 U.S. census. Maine does not track voting or voter registration by gender, but women are believed to be the majority of active voters, as well.

Over the past several decades, American women have leaned more toward Democratic candidates while men -- especially white men -- have tended to favor Republicans. That so-called gender gap now appears to be as wide as ever, Sabato said.

Women's health issues are just one reason for the growing gap. Women voters also tend to be more vulnerable to the weak economy and to see a greater role for the government in regulating commerce and guaranteeing access to health care, political scientists said.

"Men and women as groups do look at life and culture differently and the role of the government differently," Sabato said. "Both sides know it, and that's why Democrats talk about the war on women and why Republicans try to counteract that and Ann Romney introduces (Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney) at campaign events."

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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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