POLITICS
01/22/2013 10:22 am ET | Updated Jan 22, 2013

On Roe v. Wade's 40th Anniversary, EMILY's List Recruits Female Candidates To Defend It

In the small, fluorescent-lit conference room of a Marriott hotel in Northern Virginia, 16 women of varying ages gathered around a slide projector. Some just recently graduated from college; others are retired and have several grown children. One is in the middle of planning two weddings for her daughter and son. They had all driven up to Alexandria from different corners of Virginia on Friday morning for the same reason: to learn how to run for office.

The all-day candidate boot camp, run by the progressive women's advocacy group EMILY's List, began at 8:30 a.m. on Friday with a motivational slideshow about the accomplishments of Democratic women in politics. Heather Kashner, the East Coast regional director of EMILY's List's Political Opportunity Program, then started with the basics of launching a campaign.

"Have a conversation with your husband about who's going to cook dinner. Ask your partner who will pick up the dry-cleaning," Kashner told the women. "Running a campaign requires a huge amount of stamina and commitment, not just from you, but from all of your friends and family."

The training session in Virginia was only one of about 60 the group plans to run throughout the country between now and November 2014. EMILY's List's mission is not only to elect more women to office, but also to build a small army of female candidates who will reliably defend women's legal right to abortion.

As Roe v. Wade turns 40 on Tuesday, public support for the 1973 Supreme Court decision is at its highest level since polls began to measure it in 1989. Seven in 10 Americans do not believe the case should be overturned, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted in October of 2012 found 27 percent of respondents said they believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances, 22 percent said that it should generally be legal but with some restrictions, and 30 percent said it should be illegal except in special circumstances, while only 15 percent said it should always be illegal.

But Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed a record number of abortion restrictions since 2011, and they continue to do so into the first weeks of 2013.

EMILY's List's strategy to combat these efforts is to get more pro-choice women in seats at the table. The organization had a banner year in 2012, winning 80 percent of the races it backed, more than quintupling the size of its national membership and helping to elect 16 new Democratic women to Congress.

"I don't even have legs, and I ran," said Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), the Iraq war veteran who defeated Republican incumbent Joe Walsh, at the EMILY's List inaugural brunch.

"This election was a mandate for women's leadership," said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY's List, at the brunch. "Our rights were under attack. Our candidates ran and won across the country."

Women currently make up only 18 percent of Congress and 24.1 percent of state legislators nationwide, and there is only one pro-choice female governor in the country. Twenty-one states currently have two GOP-controlled chambers and a Republican governor, and in the first few weeks of 2013 lawmakers in those states have pursued dozens of new laws that would aggressively limit the circumstances under which women can have an abortion. Ohio lawmakers, for instance, are planning to reintroduce a controversial "heartbeat bill" this year that would prevent abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

While EMILY's List builds trains political operatives in small hotel conference rooms around the country, conservative leaders are trying to come up with new ways to frame the opposition to abortion and relate to moderate female voters. They are well aware of the 10-point gender gap that propelled Obama to victory in November and contributed to the defeat of Republican candidates like Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who damaged his campaign with extreme comments on rape and abortion.

"We have some problematic allies," Christina Hoff Sommers, a conservative American Enterprise Institute fellow, told a panel at the Independent Women's Forum. "Conservative leaders and funders, they don't take women's issues seriously."

"I'm not sure what's worse: conservatives ignoring women's issues, or conservatives addressing them," she added.

The president of Susan B. Anthony List, a conservative, pro-life advocacy organization, told Slate that she was going to help GOP candidates talk about their opposition to abortion in cases of rape without alienating voters.

"One of the things we really can do is to help march candidates through all the tough questions, hear what they have to say, help them formulate the best response, the most articulate, compassionate response they can, and then memorize it. That's what most candidates do on issues that are not sensitive," Dannenfelser said. "They need to do it on the ones that are most sensitive, because those are the ones they get flat-footed on."

As the women in the Alexandria Marriott took turns introducing themselves around the table, many of them made it clear that their motivation to learn how to run a campaign is a direct reaction to some of the anti-abortion laws that their representatives have supported and passed over the past couple of years.

These women have an obligation to protect Roe v. Wade, Schriock says, because reproductive rights have played a huge role in empowering women to advance in their careers and into politics.

"Giving women the ultimate say over their health care decisions starting with the legalization of birth control and abortion was followed by a series of changes -- Title IX, The Family Medical Leave Act and fair pay laws -- that set the stage for women to pursue the same opportunities that men had," Schriock said in a statement.

Kathleen Murphy, a mother of six who is challenging Virginia Del. Barbara Comstock (R-McLean) in November, said her decision to run "has everything to do with [the issue of] choice." Comstock, she pointed out, supported the GOP-sponsored fetal personhood and mandatory ultrasound bills in Virginia, despite the fact that her district has a Democratic majority.

When another attendee, Elizabeth Nathanson, announced she is running the campaign of a Democratic challenger to Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas), the staunchest anti-abortion advocate in the state legislature, the room erupted with groans and applause.

Kashner, the trainer, went through slide after slide of her presentation, giving the women basic tips on how to be good candidates: Check your Facebook page for inappropriate photos! Set up a Google alert for yourself! Don't spend money that's not in your budget! But her most insightful advice was that candidates should ask potential donors and constituents what they care about and what they want in a representative.

"Some men wake up, look in the mirror and say, 'I am so awesome, and I need to share this awesomeness with everyone,'" she said. "You are here to listen."

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