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In Alaska, will reproductive rights make the difference?

As Republicans pick the challenger to Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, he has one not-very-secret weapon: Women voters.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, arrives in the Capitol for a vote on June 17, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, arrives in the Capitol for a vote on June 17, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

"When people ask me, on issues of abortion, I am pro-choice, period. No deviation from that."'

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The song resounding through the Spenard Roadhouse was “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Sen. Mark Begich reddened, not exactly displeased. “I can’t believe that’s playing!” the first term Democrat said. “That’s kind of funny!” 

The soundtrack, though unplanned, was on the nose. That morning’s “Business Owners Roundtable Discussion” had one very specific order of business: Mobilizing female voters in Begich’s competitive re-election race in November. On Tuesday, Republican primary voters select the candidate that will face Begich, and the Democrat has strenuously sought to draw a contrast with all three contenders on women's issues. 

Sitting beside Begich to drive the message home was Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, whose political action arm is investing heavily in Alaska.

A flier for the event, which drew about a dozen invited guests, said it would focus on the Supreme Court’s landmark Hobby Lobby decision -- which allowed private companies to refuse birth control coverage to employees on religious grounds -- and “what it means for women, employees, and employers, and why birth control access is actually an economic issue.” No internet feminist activist could have put it more clearly.

Democrats have largely been unanimous against the Hobby Lobby decision, which both Richards and Begich say has mobilized new supporters like few things they’d seen.  Bolder, and less common after decades of some Democrats trying to triangulate on the issue, has been Begich’s defense of abortion rights – and in a red state where men still outnumber women and there are nearly twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats. 

“This is not a question of, is there a middle ground?” Begich had said of the issue the day before, at another event with Richards. “When people ask me, on issues of abortion, I am pro-choice, period. No deviation from that. My opponents have a laundry list of why they want to take away that right from you.”

Begich is no progressive on issues like gun control and energy -- he has an A- rating from the National Rifle Association and supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But on abortion rights, access to contraception, plus equal pay and anti-violence legislation, the Republican primary has handed him an easy contrast, and a rallying point.

Begich began airing radio ads in April defining two of the candidates, Lieutenant Gov. Mead Treadwell and former Attorney General Dan Sullivan, as believe it's "OK for the government and employers to intrude in our personal health care decisions." (The third candidate, tea party darling Joe Miller, won the Republican nomination in 2010 and is already well known as a fervent social conservative. On Friday, he was endorsed by the state's former governor, Sarah Palin.) Another video ad says Republicans' "positions on women's health are truly frightening." The hope is that whoever wins the August 19 Republican primary to face Begich will already be cast as an extremist. 

“I think people have a misunderstanding – that since this is a red state, we must be socially conservative,” Begich told msnbc. “That’s not the case. We’re very libertarian.” 

Begich has always been staunchly pro-choice, even as an Anchorage mayor. What's changed is who he's up against. The issue took a back-burner in Begich's first Senate race in 2008 -- forty-year incumbent Sen. Ted Stevens' seven felony convictions on the eve of the election took care of that.  And in any case, Stevens, like Alaska's other Republican Senator, Lisa Murkowski, had been loosely considered pro-choice, with a mixed voting record. 

Murkowski, who beat Miller in 2010 in a write-in campaign after losing the nomination, seemed to have misread the state in 2012. She voted with her party in favor of legislation that would have allowed any employer a Hobby Lobby-like exemption from covering any healthcare, but later recanted after a backlash back home. "I have never had a vote I've taken where I have felt that I let down more people that believed in me," Murkowski said then. 

"I think people have a misunderstanding – that since this is a red state, we must be socially conservative. That’s not the case. We’re very libertarian."'

The ongoing extinction of the pro-choice Republican was clear at a Republican primary  “social issues” forum here in early August. They differ only one point, per their answers on a questionnaire: Whether abortion should be legal in case of rape and incest (Sullivan), whether it should be legal in the case of the woman’s life endangerment (Treadwell) or just plain never (Miller).

Sullivan, considered the front-runner and the biggest threat to Begich, had struggled to articulate why he'd allow any exceptions at all. “That does not mean that I’m supportive of abortions in those situations,” he said. “But because they’re so, such horrendous situations, in support for the victim in those kind of situations of rape or incest, it’s also important from my perspective, that’s something where the family should be making the decision on.”

On the morning Begich spoke to the business roundtable, Bradner’s Alaska Legislative Digest, a long-running local newsletter, had predicted that the issue would hurt the Republican: “Miller has essentially forced Treadwell and Sullivan to take extreme positions on abortion, or ‘absolute’ positions,” the newsletter said. “Does this fade after the primary? Not a chance!”

In other words, Begich and every other vulnerable Democrat this year is looking for the Todd Akin moment, where abortion -- a wedge issue that was once used against their party -- works to their favor.

The attendees of the business owner roundtable sensed it, too.

“Sometimes I feel like there has to be something so awful to really rally the troops,” one attendee said, referring to the Hobby Lobby decision, as well as her own state’s rightward lurch on women’s issues. “Is there a silver lining?”

“It is an opportunity,” replied Richards, “but only if we use it.”

Ever since 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern was dubbed the candidate of “acid, amnesty and abortion” – even before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision helped polarize the parties on abortion -- many Democrats have squirmed over how to address the topic.

Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have tried to have it both ways, wielding rhetoric that placates the prochoice members of their coalition while implicitly apologizing for the position. Bill Clinton often repeated his wish that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” which many abortion rights activists found stigmatizing of the women who did need abortions. They had the same reaction to then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton giving a speech in 2005 calling abortion a "sad, even tragic choice to many, many women." Neera Tanden, her legislative director at the time, told the New York Times that Clinton believed “we can have some common ground among all sides.”

“Common ground” seems less attainable these days, even just in the realm of speeches and talking points. After all, that common ground was supposed to be better access to birth control, and yet social conservatives have gone to war over contraceptive coverage on private insurance plans. That leaves room for Democrats to declare, as Begich has repeatedly, that Republicans are part of the “1950s club” when it comes to not just reproductive rights, but also legislation on equal pay and violence against women.

Planned Parenthood plans to bolster similar attack lines in other crucial Senate races, including North Carolina and Colorado.

The nation's largest abortion provider has long been a conservative bête noire, with repeated attempts on Capitol Hill to rob its funding for women's health services that don't include abortion. But the group has in its favor a track record of recent wins in tough races. In 2012, Richards campaigned with President Obama in his re-election effort, and Obama won the race largely on the strength of unmarried women’s votes, particularly women of color. A year later, Planned Parenthood helped Democrat Terry McAuliffe – a close Clinton ally – into the Virginia governor’s seat by highlighting his opponent’s hard-line stance on abortion. Twenty percent of Virginia voters told exit pollsters they were motivated most by the issue; 59 percent of those voters chose McAuliffe.

“It used to be that women were a bit of an afterthought in political campaigns, and they’re not anymore," Richards told msnbc. 

"Sarah Palin, she’s not very popular here. If she ran for governor, she’d be last of the last. If there were 50 people running, 200 people running, she’d be last."'

But it’s not a winning strategy everywhere. In Richards’ home state of Texas -- where her mother, Ann Richards, was the last Democratic governor – gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is trailing in the polls, though Planned Parenthood and other women's groups haven’t given up on her yet. Davis, a Democratic state senator, shot to fame for her filibuster of an omnibus anti-abortion bill, but has said little about the issue since, putting her in the awkward position of disappointing some of her allies without persuading enough voters to put her over the edge.

There is much on the line this year, most obviously the control of the U.S. Senate. There is the risk that betting too much on reproductive rights could backfire, by rallying social conservatives or simply failing to galvanize enough women to turn out. The unmarried women Democrats depend on for victory have been known to sit out other midterms, most catastrophically for the party – and for reproductive rights – in 2010. Luckily for Begich, that has been less true in Alaska, despite the fact that there are about 108 men for every 100 women, the highest male-to-female ratio in the country, and slightly more men registered to vote. In 2012, slightly more women than men voted, but they were at parity in 2010. 

But Begich and Richards were taking nothing for granted that day at the Spenard Roadhouse. Richards implored the crowd to urge their friends to vote, saying that millions of American women are “busy finishing school, working two jobs, taking care of their kids. They rely on all of us to tell them what’s up…. If we don’t do anything, they won’t vote, because they won’t know it matters to them in their lives.”

Of men, Begich said, chuckling, “We vote, informed or not.” Richards explained, “The main reason women don’t vote is that they don’t feel they know enough, which has not been a burden for men. Or because no one asked them.”

Will asking them be enough? Begich is about to find out. 

One thing is clear in talking to people in Alaska: The most famous woman in the state doesn’t say much about the rest of them.

Begich was blunt on that point.

“Sarah Palin, she’s not very popular here,” he told msnbc. “If she ran for governor, she’d be last of the last. If there were 50 people running, 200 people running, she’d be last.”

Even so, Palin’s successor, Sean Parnell, has governed to her right. Once, a power-sharing agreement between Republican and Democrats in the state legislature kept most anti-abortion bills from a hearing. Now they’ve started to creep into the light of day.

It’s not easy to do a lot of things in the vast, largely unpopulated state of Alaska, but it’s particularly hard to get an abortion. Planned Parenthood offers the procedure at three of its five health centers in the state, but only on certain days; after the first trimester, a patient must fly to Seattle, which along with the required escort can cost thousands of dollars. Under the Alaska constitution, Medicaid must cover the procedure when deemed medically necessary, but a Republican initiative, currently in litigation, is trying to narrow that coverage to a list that doesn’t include mental health.

“Then you hear people say, ‘What does a miscarriage look like?’” said Jennifer Jarvis, manager of the Planned Parenthood in Anchorage. “You hear, ‘I got the abortion pill from the internet and I took that.’ This is this year that this is happening.”

It’s not easy to get other kinds of care either. “We have better access to bullets than we have to birth control,” said Shannyn Moore, a progressive radio host in Anchorage. Rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea, which disproportionately affect Alaska’s indigenous population, are regularly among the country’s highest.

"It used to be that women were a bit of an afterthought in political campaigns, and they’re not anymore."'

Even so, Alaska, like many other states with Republican governors, is not expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Berta Gardner, a state senator from Anchorage, told msnbc the increased family planning funds she had tried to get into the budget were stripped out by Republicans without explanation.

Meanwhile, Parnell’s response to Alaska’s catastrophically high rates of sexual and domestic violence was mainly a campaign called “Choose Respect,” which Gardner called “a couple of million dollars for rallies and marches. We feel that that’s a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

But even in this climate, there could be enough pro-choice votes to make a difference. Hollis French, a pro-choice state senator and candidate for lieutenant governor, told msnbc that among his Democratic colleagues, he represents the most Republican-leading district, in West Anchorage. “The last time I ran it was against one of these guys who oppose abortion even in cases of rape and incest,” he said, a fact he drummed home to voters. He won by 59 votes, out of a total of 15,000.

“Certainly supporting a woman’s right to choose has been easy for me philosophically, but also beneficial politically,” French said. “I am confident that hundreds of moderate Republican women voted for me over my opponent… and I think that was part of the reason.”

Johanna Richter, University of Alaska student who attended a Begich-Richards forum aimed at young women, and whose sister volunteers on the campaign, said, “Having men like Mark Begich say he cares about women’s issues is incredibly powerful.” The Richters’ father is a Republican, they said, but “he says, ‘I don’t know how they think government has the right to tell women what to do with their bodies.’” 

But Caitlin Shortrell, an attorney who just started a PAC, Alaskan Women Vote, to elect more women to the legislature, said she wanted to be optimistic, but worried that Alaska’s progressive days – including decriminalizing abortion three years before Roe v. Wade – are behind it. “I hope it’s true,” that women will turn out based on the issue, she said. “But I’m not so sure based on what I see. I feel like there’s been a cultural trend that’s very retrogressive. You sometimes question, did feminism happen?”