WASHINGTON — In an election year in which the economy and federal spending have eclipsed the debate over social issues in much of the country, abortion has emerged as a divisive factor in Alaska's U.S. Senate race.
It's an issue that perfectly defines all three, with Republican Joe Miller the anti-abortion candidate, Democrat Scott McAdams the pro-choice one and Sen. Lisa Murkowski straddling the middle.
Murkowski, who does not oppose abortion but also declines to describe herself as pro-choice, lost the Republican primary in part because anti-abortion voters turned out in great numbers to support a voter initiative requiring parents to be notified before their teen receives an abortion. Miller came out strongly for the proposal, known as Measure 2.
Since she launched her write-in bid, Murkowski has been targeted by anti-abortion groups with television and radio advertising. The most visible is a television commercial from the Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee run by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a Miller backer.
The television ad takes aim at both Murkowski and Democrat McAdams, saying they've refused to sign a pledge saying they'll vote against federal funding for abortion and calling Miller the sole choice "to defend the unborn."
Murkowksi is also taking hits on abortion from McAdams, who described himself in a Daily News candidate questionnaire as pro-choice and "proud to have the endorsement of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and support of the Alaska Women's Political Caucus."
One McAdams campaign radio ad suggests Murkowski's voting record shifted to the right when she joined the Senate Republican leadership ranks in 2009. It features a woman saying "Lisa's changed" and points out Murkowski's low ratings by two prominent reproductive rights groups, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood.
NARAL gave Murkowski a 25 percent rating, compared with 100 percent for Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and a zero for Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. Planned Parenthood in 2008 described Murkowski as voting with its interests 31 percent of the time.
NO LABELS FOR MURKOWSKI
Murkowski's position on abortion has long been difficult to define. In her first appointed Senate term, she voted for a nonbinding "sense of the Senate" that supported the Roe v. Wade decision. However, she also has voted against federal funding for abortion and has supported a ban on late-term abortions. She has said she believes abortions should be allowed in the case of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk.
Although Murkowski also supported the parental notification ballot question known as Measure 2, she did not do so as loudly or publicly as Miller. In her candidate questionnaire, Murkowski said she believes "abortions should occur as infrequently as possible and federal funds should not be used to pay for an abortion." She also points to an amendment she offered last year that would have clarified that abortion is not a preventative service.
She said in a recent interview that she dislikes labels when it comes to abortion, which is a position she said she believes is held by most Americans.
"The labels have never been clean or neat," Murkowski said. "The pro-life people don't think I'm pro-life enough, the pro-choice people don't think I'm pro-choice enough. I think I probably represent the vast majority in the middle."
That hasn't kept anti-abortion groups from targeting her, including a $10,000 radio campaign from the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group with close ties to former Gov. Sarah Palin.
Surprisingly, though, the SBA List ad doesn't actually focus on abortion. To avoid paying production costs, they bought a commercial that someone else had already produced for the race, said the SBA List's executive director, Emily Buchanan.
Buchanan wouldn't disclose who conceived the commercial, which suggest Murkowski "didn't get the message" from voters in the primary and shouldn't have launched a write-in campaign.
But Buchanan said they were pleased that DeMint's group chose to focus specifically on Murkowski's record on abortion. They like their own commercial, Buchanan said, but as an anti-abortion group they want to make sure there's no confusion in voters' minds that Miller is the anti-abortion candidate in the race.
"We're very excited to see the Senate Conservative's Fund do a pro-life television ad, because the voters of Alaska need to know she has an extremely mixed record in the Senate," Buchanan said.
MILLER TAKES ANTI-ABORTION STAND
Anti-abortion groups like Alaska Family Council said they realize they won't have the energy of the primary election, when anti-abortion voters were motivated to turn out for the parental notification ballot measure. They haven't officially endorsed one candidate over the other in the Senate race, said council president Jim Minnery. But he acknowledged that a close reading of their voter guide would suggest that Miller is more aligned with the group's point of view than Murkowski.
"We're doing what we can through our voter guide, as far and wide as we can, to remind folks of the difference between Murkowski and Miller on our issue," he said.
Miller describes himself as "unequivocally pro-life" in the candidate questionnaire he answered for the Anchorage Daily News. When asked whether he believes abortions should be allowed in the case of rape or incest or when the life of the mother is at risk, he had this answer: "They should be allowed when the life of the mother is at risk." In a questionnaire for Project Vote Smart, he said he did not believe abortions should be allowed in cases of rape or incest.