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

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.”

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.”

There is little data on the size of the gender gap in Maine, according to political scientists here. The state does not track party registration by gender, and detailed polling data has been limited. However, political scientists say the phenomenon does tend to help Democratic candidates here and is one reason Maine has voted Democratic in the past five presidential elections.

“In a traditional two-party race, (the gender gap) would be a Democratic advantage,” said Emily Shaw, an assistant professor of political science at Thomas College in Waterville who has studied gender politics.

Maine’s electorate also leans more toward protecting access to contraception and abortion.

A recent Gallup poll found Maine is the third least religious state, after Vermont and New Hampshire, with just 25 percent of Mainers classified as very religious. In Mississippi, the most devout state, 59 percent of voters are considered very religious.

That makes it difficult for socially conservative candidates to win national office here, said Shaw. “You don’t have that automatic evangelical base.”

Maine is one of just four states with two women senators. The others are New Hampshire, California and Washington.

Two women are running to replace Snowe — state Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, and state Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth. But simply being a woman is not enough to claim the female vote, the experts and voters agree.

“It would be nice to replace Olympia with a woman simply because there really aren’t that many women senators, or congresswomen overall,” Ciocca said. But, she said, “it’s more about the issues that matter to me. I’m not going to vote for someone just because she’s a woman.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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