Planned Parenthood reveals big 2014 game plan
By: Alexander Burns
February 26, 2014 05:36 PM EST
The political arm of Planned Parenthood is preparing to launch its largest campaign offensive ever, targeting more than a dozen states and some of the cycle’s top Senate and gubernatorial races to raise the alarm about the stakes of the 2014 midterms elections for women’s health care and abortion rights.
The cost of the midterm campaign is expected to cross the $18 million mark, including $2.4 million the group spent in 2013 for Virginia’s off-year governor’s race, officials with the group said. That investment would make the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Planned Parenthood Votes – the national federation’s political entities – some of the heaviest outside spenders on the Democratic side, and certainly among the top independent expenditure campaigns focused on reaching women.
With Democrats increasingly reliant on their yawning advantage with women voters in recent years – and state and national Republicans repeatedly taking aim at Planned Parenthood as a prominent abortion services provider – the group has rapidly become a vital part of the roundtable of left-of-center groups plotting the Democratic coalition’s electoral strategy.
Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said the group intends to show that candidates don’t need to campaign defensively on “women’s reproductive health issues,” citing the importance of that message to Democratic victories in the 2012 elections and last year’s Virginia race.
“The bottom line is: many of these races are going to be determined by women and women voters. To the extent that we still have politicians who are running on a platform to repeal women’s access to health care and women’s rights, that’s a losing proposition,” Richards said. “We will absolutely be on the offense on these issues.”
Planned Parenthood officials said the group intends to spend in at least 14 states, with an emphasis on a half-dozen with marquee statewide races. The targets include Senate races in North Carolina, Alaska and Montana and gubernatorial elections in Pennsylvania, Florida and Texas, where the presumptive Democratic nominee is Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis, a hero to abortion-rights supporters.
The Planned Parenthood campaign, which will be formally announced later this week, begins with digital ads in North Carolina, Alaska and Texas. A sample ad from the North Carolina Senate race asks voters, “Who trusts N.C. women to make their own health choices?” over a photo of Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.
The group intends to engage using a range of tactics it previously employed to great effect in Virginia, including a combination of voter-contact efforts like door-knocking and campaign mail, as well as paid advertising on television and online. Democrats involved in the race lauded the group for its role in disqualifying Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli as an option for many women in the state.
“Planned Parenthood is a strong voice for women in Virginia and was a key partner in my run for governor,” said Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who outpaced his GOP opponent last year by 9 points among women, in a statement. “The team at [Planned Parenthood] provided essential support to my campaign and highlighted issues around women’s health that provided a clear contrast between me and my opponent.”
The target list, Planned Parenthood officials said, could grow depending on the trajectory of the 2014 cycle. Senate races in Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire are also on the Planned Parenthood watch list, as is the campaign for governor of Wisconsin. In the targeted Pennsylvania race, the Planned Parenthood state affiliate on Wednesday endorsed Democratic Rep. Allyson Schwartz in her party’s heavily contested primary.
The list of high-priority elections also includes several state legislative races, including campaigns in Arkansas, Iowa and Pennsylvania where control of one or both legislative chambers is at stake. In many instances, state elections are more likely to affect the status of health and abortion policy than federal races, given the gridlock in Washington. In just the past year, Republican leaders in the targeted states of Texas, Pennsylvania and North Carolina have enacted new regulations governing abortion clinics or insurance coverage for abortions.
It is in part thanks to what they view as Republican overreach – for example, pushing bills in swing states to mandate ultrasounds for women seeking abortions – that Democrats have grown more comfortable with a front-and-center abortion rights message on the national level.
Richards, who said she plans to hit the campaign trail herself, predicted that Planned Parenthood would communicate with voters on a range of issues related to health, not exclusively on abortion rights.
“The issues of women’s access to health care, women’s rights, health care as an economic issue, are going to continue to be important,” she said. “We are a health care provider all over the country and we have a base of supporters.”
The unveiling of Planned Parenthood’s 2014 campaign comes at a welcome moment for Democrats, who have been consistently outgunned when it comes to communicating with voters about health policy ahead of the midterm ballot. In the 2010 midterm elections, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund spent $4.2 million in key races. This year’s initiative will dwarf that sum.
It also ups the political pressure on fervent opponents of abortion, who have already been voicing concerns this year about the need to communicate a socially conservative message more effectively.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, head of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, described the conservative challenge for 2014 in blunt terms: “We cannot afford another election cycle of crouching in a fetal position and hoping the attacks go away.”
Democrats have privately singled out Planned Parenthood for praise in recent years, saying it has learned how to play to its strengths in competitive elections. Republicans, meanwhile, have both battled to limit the group’s influence – congressional Republicans have consistently worked to cut off funding to the abortion-providing arm of Planned Parenthood – and watched with dismay as that influence has deepened.
Party strategists point to Richards’s rise as a high-profile political advocate, as well as congressional defunding efforts and the 2012 fiasco in which a former Republican officeholder working at the Susan G. Komen foundation sought to end grants to Planned Parenthood, as essential catalysts in the group’s ascendancy. The Virginia race last year, Democrats say, demonstrated Planned Parenthood’s efficacy at striking down GOP candidates with a history of arguing against abortion rights and access to contraception.
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who worked for McAuliffe last year and the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA in 2012, said the core of Planned Parenthood’s political success is its solid credibility as an issue advocacy group. Mitt Romney’s vow to end Planned Parenthood’s federal funding was “one of the stickiest facts for women voters” in 2012, he said.
“Their targeting is very strong and I think they’ve done a better job than their opponents and the Republicans in framing the fundamental political debate,” Garin said of Planned Parenthood.
The organization’s adversaries on the right don’t dispute its impact as a political force. On the contrary, some conservatives have been especially vocal since the Virginia race in urging the GOP to push back more assertively on Planned Parenthood.
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who vocally criticized the GOP after last year’s election for failing to return fire on abortion-related attacks, said the party’s approach on the subject has been to “ignore it like you’re a pregnant teenager, hoping it’ll go away, and nine months later it’s a really big issue.”
Planned Parenthood has done a “great job” in elections, Conway said, in part because Republicans have failed to stand up for their own views on abortion and hold Democrats to account in places where they oppose popular limitations on the procedure.
“Especially in the states, they just don’t have the majority of the public’s will on their side in Louisiana or Texas,” Conway said, naming two states with competitive statewide 2014 races. “[Republicans] should really go on offense here.”
At least for the time being, Democrats remain confident that they have the upper hand on any issue that can be placed in the broad category of “women’s health” – and that Planned Parenthood’s investment in the 2014 campaign will be a clear net positive for the party.
Tom Lopach, the chief of staff to Montana Sen. Jon Tester and an adviser to the Democrat’s 2012 reelection campaign, said Planned Parenthood had been a ubiquitous presence in that race, “knocking on doors in their pink shirts.
“They were running their own program, but their volunteers were also active, showing up and making calls for us,” Lopach said. “I think people’s minds often go immediately to abortion services, but in reality Planned Parenthood talks about so much more.”