South Dakota Abortion Ban Reverberates in Election
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
Conservative voters delivered a stinging rebuke to four Republican South Dakota legislators who refused to support passage of the nation's strictest ban on abortion.
The four state senators were defeated in South Dakota's primary election on Tuesday (June 6), when eight other incumbents also lost their legislative seats: three in Alabama, three in Iowa and two in Montana. In all, 38 incumbent state legislators nationwide, including six-high ranking legislators, have lost re-election bids so far this year.
Tim Storey, an elections expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that the number of incumbents to lose their jobs in primaries so far is "par for the course" but that the number of legislative leaders to be toppled is unusual.
Abortion arose as an issue in the South Dakota races after the Legislature this session passed a ban that sets the stage for a direct challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized the procedure. Max Wentz, a spokesman for the state Republican Party, said the abortion ban was certainly one of the issues that motivated voters in the South Dakota primary.
"South Dakota's a red state, and on Election Day, voters weren't afraid to vote conservative and vote Republican," Wentz said.
T he senators who were defeated were among eight Republicans in the GOP-dominated state Senate who voted against the measure. While a majority of South Dakota lawmakers are opposed to abortion, some say a total ban is too restrictive. One of the state senators who lost, for example, Stan Adelstein of Rapid City, had said he could not vote for the abortion ban because it allowed no exceptions for rape or incest or the health of women, according to the Associated Press.
Both Wentz and Donald Carr, spokesman for the South Dakota Democratic Party, said they expect abortion to play less of a role in November's General Election, superseded by issues such as education, health care, taxes and economic development.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America , told Stateline.org in an e-mail: "There's very little evidence that choice was a principal factor in those races." She noted that in t he neighboring state of Iowa, pro-choice Secretary of State Chet Culver won the Democratic primary for governor and that pro-choice candidate Bruce Braley defeated "two vocally anti-choice opponents" in the primary for the 1st Congressional district.
Daniel McConchie, vice president at the Americans United for Life, said he doubts abortion will be a big issue in a dozen or so other state where similar abortion bans were proposed because none have passed. The only bill that won approval was in Louisiana, where the legislature June 5 sent to the governor a bill that would ban abortion if Roe v. Wade were overturned. However, neither the governor nor state lawmakers are up for re-election this year. "I don't suspect there will be lots and lots of turnout only on this issue," McConchie said.
David Webber, a political science professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia who specializes in state legislatures, said gay marriage still appears to be a bigger issue for states than abortion. "In Missouri, [abortion] has been a perennial issue, but I don't know if it will be a factor in the election. … It's not as controversial as it has been in years past," Webber said.
Abortion bans, however, could play a role in the Ohio governor race. State Secretary Ken Blackwell, the Republican candidate to replace retiring Gov. Bob Taft (R), already has indicated that he would sign legislation banning abortion. The Democratic candidate, Ted Strickland, is pro-choice but as a member of Congress voted in 2003 for a bill to ban partial-birth abortions.
In addition to Louisiana, Missouri and Ohio, other states that had abortion ban proposals this year include Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee. Of those states, all except Louisiana and Mississippi have legislative elections this fall.
Of the 38 state legislators nationwide to be booted out in primaries, 31 are Republican and seven are Democrats. Seventeen lawmakers were ousted May 16 in Pennsylvania, where a combination of voter anger over a legislative pay raise, grassroots political activism and Republican intra-party fighting led to the defeat of the state Senate's top two Republican leaders and 12 other GOP legislators. A legislative leader had not lost re-election in the Keystone State since 1964.
High-ranking Republicans also were defeated May 2 in Indiana and North Carolina, while powerful Democratic incumbents lost re-election bids in Kentucky May 16 and West Virginia May 9.
The results could have an impact on party control of statehouses after November's election, especially in Iowa and Montana, which are the most closely divided legislatures in the nation.
Republicans and Democrats each hold 25 seats in the Iowa Senate, and the GOP has a 51 to 49 majority in the Iowa House. The Montana House is tied at 50-50 between the parties, and the Democrats have a 27-23 majority in the state Senate.
About 84 percent of the seats in 46 state legislatures are up for election this year, along with 36 governors, 33 U.S. Senate seats and the entire U.S. House of Representatives.
Stateline.org Staff Writer Christine Vestal contributed to this report.