While most of last week's election coverage centered on Republicans retaking the U.S. Senate in the 2014 midterms, the GOP also made gains in the House of Representatives as the Democrats' “War on Women” theme fell flat in congressional districts nationwide. In one high-profile race, a female candidate who opposes abortion in most instances took the seat of a congressman who readily supported taxpayer-financed abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy.
Elise Stefanik emerged victorious in New York's 21st Congressional district last week. The 30-year-old Republican defeated Aaron Woolf by 22 points (55-33) to take the seat of retiring Rep. Bill Owens, D-NY.
Stefanik, who will become the youngest woman to serve in Congress, will change more than party affiliation.
Owens – not to be confused with the pro-life former governor of Colorado – had a zero percent voting record from National Right to Life and a 100 percent voting record from NARAL Pro-Choice America. The Catholic congressman voted against bills to restrict abortion to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, against banning abortions provoked by discrimination against the race or sex of the child, and against bills that would end federal funding of abortion. He also filed an amicus brief against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which he hoped to repeal.
Although Stefanik did not focus on abortion during her race, she told the (Glenn Falls, NY) Post-Star, “I’m pro-life with exceptions – rape, incest and life of the mother. That’s my personal belief. I understand abortion is a heartfelt issue, and I respect those that have differing issues. But I'm pro-life.”
She describes herself as a “big tent” Republican. She views same-sex “marriage” as “a state issue. It is legal in New York state, and I think it should be left up to the states.”
Stefanik rode the wave of anti-Obama sentiment into Congress, with help from the pro-life movement. The Susan B. Anthony List’s Women Speak Out PAC launched a $25,000 radio ad campaign on her behalf and bundled more than $34,000 in campaign contributions.
“Political elites once posited that only a pro-abortion Republican could win in the North Country,” said SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser.
Owens won a special election in 2009 after GOP elites backed Dede Scozzafava, a pro-abortion Republican who had been endorsed by NARAL. Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Laura Ingraham, and Tea Party affiliates around the nation instead rallied behind Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. Scozzafava dropped out of the race days before the election and endorsed Owens, who won by a narrow margin.
This time, Hoffman endorsed Stefanik, and Scozzafava considered running for the seat as a Democrat.
“Stefanik’s victory confirms that a candidate who is articulate and willing to defend life can win in the bluest of states,” Dannenfelser said, praising Stefanik's “youth and passion for promoting the dignity of each human life.”
Her crushing victory means a return to Washington for Stefanik, who served on the Domestic Policy Council during the George W. Bush administration. Her close ties to Bush administration insiders proved invaluable in her race.
Karl Rove's American Crossroads supported Stefanik in her primary fight by taking out $800,000 in attack ads against Matt Doheny, a Republican who lost the last two elections to Owens. She easily defeated Doheny and Tea Party favorite Joe Gilbert.
After leaving the Bush-43 administration, the Harvard grad worked for the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neoconservative think tank led by William Kristol and Robert Kagan that “seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy.” She had previously been a fellow for the Foundation of Defense of Democracies, another neoconservative think tank, in 2005.
She then served as policy director for moderate Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign and worked at his Freedom First PAC.
In 2012, she moved to the family vacation home in Lake Champlain and worked for her family business, Premium Plywood Products, which is based outside her district. That gave her the freedom to establish ties with the local community.
Stefanik's blowout election adds “to the growing list of pro-life women in Washington,” Dannenfelser notes. According to Dannenfelser, the next Congress “will have at least 21 pro-life women, breaking a high of 18 following the 2010 elections.” That wave includes Senator-elect Joni Ernst in Iowa, Congresswoman-elect Mia Love in Utah, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and 18-year-old Saira Blair in the West Virginia House of Delegates.
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Democrats have interpreted the election results as a setback for women. As she campaigned against Ernst, Hillary Clinton told a crowd in Iowa, “It's not enough to be a woman. You have to be committed to expand rights and opportunities for all women.”
Yet even some hardcore feminists reject the notion that women must support abortion-on-demand to be authentically female. Jessica Grose – who has called on women to produce “blithe and unapologetic” pro-abortion stories – wrote at Slate magazine, “If you are against everything Joni Ernst or Mia Love stand for, then this election was bad for you, and the policies you care about, not bad for women.”
“It should be obvious, but 'women' – half the population – are not a uniform voting block with uniform ideas about what is best for them,” she wrote. “And even women who do care deeply about reproductive rights don’t necessarily like being treated as one-issue voters.”