OMAHA — Fallout from an anti-abortion group’s explosive ire at U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson for supporting the health care package could impact other state Democrats — even those strongly against abortion.
Nebraska Right to Life is soliciting comments from supporters about whether it should continue to support Democratic candidates at all. A change in policy could cost the endorsements of several Democratic state lawmakers in Nebraska’s officially nonpartisan Legislature.
“Senator Nelson’s actions have raised questions about endorsing Democrats at higher levels,” the group’s January newsletter says. “What does that portend for those at lower levels such as the Legislature? If they are endorsed at that juncture, what happens to them when they want to run for Congress or other statewide offices?”
Nebraska Right to Life’s current policy is to provide sole endorsements to proven anti-abortion incumbents, regardless of party affiliation, and there have been a number of Nebraska Democrats who have benefited from that policy — including Nelson.
But the group is rethinking its policy following last month’s contentious U.S. Senate battle over health care reform. Nelson cast the 60th vote needed to advance the bill, which passed 60-39 on Christmas Eve.
Nelson said he approved the measure only after he was content with language in it that keeps taxpayer funding from being used for abortion. But abortion foes lamented the language, saying it didn’t go far enough, and Nebraska Right to Life dubbed Nelson a traitor.
Nelson said he had no comment on the possible change in the group’s endorsement policy.
There are five Democratic state lawmakers who received the group’s endorsement since 2006 who stand to lose that endorsement: Annette Dubas of Fullerton; Heath Mello and Jeremy Nordquist, both of Omaha; Norm Wallman of Cortland; and Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids.
Dubas, who is up for re-election this year, was caught off-guard by the possibility of losing the group’s backing.
“I would be disappointed that everyone gets thrown under the bus because they’re unhappy with one particular person,” Dubas said. “I don’t feel that that’s really fair. My record has been strong.”
Dubas acknowledged that the group’s endorsement is vital to candidates like her who come from districts with strong anti-abortion sentiment. She had used the endorsement in her campaign literature in 2006.
Dubas said group leaders should talk to Democratic incumbents about changing the policy “and allow us to at least make our case as to why they shouldn’t.”
Julie Schmit-Albin, director of Nebraska Right to Life, said the policy question came from its supporters, many of whom have contacted the group since Nelson agreed to support the Democratic-backed measure. They expressed their dismay that Right to Life would support any Democrat.
“We understand that it’s unfair to paint everyone with a broad brush because of what party they might belong to,” Schmit-Albin said. “But they have to understand that in this climate, with what’s going on in D.C., it does trickle down to them.”
But Schmit-Albin seemed torn by the prospect of writing off all Democrats. She noted that her organization has long supported candidates across all political parties, as long as their record reflects an anti-abortion stance. She also said the group has been disappointed by a Republican candidate in recent months, too, referring to University of Nebraska Regent Jim McClurg’s vote in November on stem cell research.
McClurg’s vote sank a proposal to place tighter restrictions on embryonic stem cell research at the university.
“I’m just as upset with the Republicans who have abandoned us,” she said. “What we’ve got here is a call out to our grass roots saying, ’These questions are being raised: Should we ever endorse a Democrat, even at the state legislative level?’ In our newsletter, it’s pointed out: Look, some of our best state senators have been pro-life Democrats.”
Nebraska Right to Life’s board meets Jan. 29, and Schmit-Albin said it will decide on any endorsement policy change at its March meeting — in time for this year’s May primary.
State Sen. Nordquist, who could seek re-election in 2012, said the group “would lose a lot of credibility if it were to become a purely a partisan organization.”
“It would just be a branch of the Republican Party then,” he said.