Abortion's Death as a Wedge Issue in the West

The issue has gotten dangerous for the GOP, Democratic strategist Laura K. Chapin writes.

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Lost amid the culture warriors' cheers over the success of Prop 8 in California were two substantial social conservative political failures: antiabortion ballot initiatives in South Dakota and Colorado, two states George W. Bush won in 2004.

Both proposals were designed as potential vehicles to overturn Roe v . Wade, and both were defeated by double-digit margins. Additionally, for the third time in four years, Californians rejected requiring parental notification if a minor seeks an abortion.

Which leads to the inexorable conclusion: Abortion is finished as a wedge issue, at least in the suddenly swing-state West.

In South Dakota, Measure 11 would have banned abortion, with limited exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the mother. In Colorado, Amendment 48 would have changed the state Constitution to include a fertilized egg in the definition of legal "personhood," effectively banning—possibly even criminalizing—abortion without exception, as well as many forms of contraception.

Measure 11 failed by 10 points, the second time in two years South Dakota voters rejected an abortion ban.

Colorado's Amendment 48 went down even more spectacularly. The "No on 48" campaign won statewide 73 percent to 27 percent. "No on 48" won by huge margins—averaging 30 percentage points—in conservative counties like Mesa and Montrose that Sen. Barack Obama lost to Sen. John McCain by the same margins. "No on 48" even won El Paso County, home of Colorado Springs, Focus on the Family, and Dr. James Dobson, 65 percent to 35 percent.

So why didn't abortion work as a wedge issue in a formerly red state like Colorado? There are a couple of major reasons.

One, libertarian-minded Colorado voters draw a bright line between something they disapprove of and something they think the government should ban. This is a distinction western icon Sen. Barry Goldwater got and air-quoting candidate John McCain did not.

And second, westerners are inherently allergic to being told what to do, especially by deceptive means. The word "sneaky" came up most often among low-information voters in "No on 48"-sponsored focus groups because the amendment intentionally didn't mention abortion at all.

Ballot initiatives are tempting for abortion opponents because they at least partially sidestep the complications of the legislative process. This is especially true in states like California and Colorado that have very low thresholds for getting something on the ballot. Antiabortion forces tried language similar to Amendment 48 in at least five other states but failed because of more stringent qualification requirements.

But Amendment 48 backfired. If anything, the extreme nature of Amendment 48 strengthened the pro-choice community in Colorado by reminding people that we're the moderates and by attracting support from a broad coalition that otherwise wouldn't have been involved, including the Republican Majority for Choice, the Colorado Medical Society, the Colorado Gynecological-Obstetrical Society, the Colorado Federation of Business and Professional Women, and the Colorado Bar Association. The Bar Association doesn't take a position on abortion, but since the word "person" appears more than 20,000 times in Colorado state laws, the group opposed 48 on the grounds that changing the definition to include a fertilized egg would create a legal nightmare.

Emphasizing impractical wedge issues like abortion continues to turn off moderate Republicans in the West and produces diminishing political returns for the Republican Party as a whole. Economic concerns overrode cultural issues nationally as well as locally in the 2008 elections, contributing not just to Senator Obama's win but widening Democratic majorities in the House, the Senate, and governorships.

Here in Colorado, thanks to an emphasis on more pragmatic concerns, including energy and economic development, Democrats took over the majority in the Colorado legislature in 2004 and have held it for the two cycles since, plus electing John Salazar to the House and his brother, Ken, to the Senate. In 2006, Gov. Bill Ritter won by a 16-point margin in a state where two thirds of voters aren't Democrats. (Registration-wise, unaffiliated are first, Republicans second, Democrats third.) This year, Democrat Mark Udall handily beat Bob Schaffer for a Senate seat, and Betsy Markey defeated Marilyn Musgrave, once a hard-right darling of social conservatives, by double digits in the majority-Republican Fourth Congressional District.