Many on this week’s conference call were stunned on learning the news, making urgent pleas for the group to remain neutral until after the June 3 Democratic primaries.
“It’s created a firestorm,” said NARAL Pro-Choice New York President Kelli Conlin, who was on the conference call. “Everyone was mystified ... saying, ‘What is the upside for the organization? And, frankly, [there was] a lot of concern about the donor base. ... There was real concern there would be a backlash.”
There was a backlash, and it was swift, starting with NARAL’s own website. At last count, there were more than 3,300 comments in an electronic chat about the endorsement, the overwhelming majority of them negative. “Shame shame shame!” read one, with many correspondents threatening never to support NARAL financially again. “No more donations from me!!!” wrote another.
In Washington, two dozen women members of Congress who support Clinton held a quickly organized press conference to tout her abortion-rights record Wednesday night. Ellen Malcolm, founder of the abortion-rights women’s fundraising group EMILY’s List, sharply rebuked NARAL for its endorsement. Two former members of Congress (and Clinton supporters) — Geraldine Ferraro and Pat Schroeder — jabbed at NARAL for endorsing before the general election. “Looks like some higher ups at NARAL are trying to get jobs in the new administration ... nothing else makes sense to us,” they wrote in a joint letter.
A number of feminist donors — including several Obama supporters — were shaking their heads at the timing, said a source who has worked on women’s health and reproductive rights issues for 25 years and meets routinely with top contributors to the cause. “Without exception, the response was, 'It’s a really stupid thing to do,'” said the source.
And even former NARAL Pro-Choice America President Kate Michelman, who is working on behalf of Obama, was taken by surprise, saying she learned of the endorsement only when a reporter called her. Although she wouldn’t comment on the timing, she was clearly worried about damage to the larger cause of women’s rights. “I don’t think there’s any question that there are strong Obama supporters who are pro-choice who are surprised by the decision, and probably some are upset by the decision, because NARAL’s mission is of course to protect women’s liberty — especially reproductive rights, but women’s liberty in general.”
Things moved equally fast at the grass-roots level. A day after the endorsement, Laura Taylor, political director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, had heard from more than 100 people, including some from out of state. “They’re frustrated; they’re angry; they don’t understand why this decision was made or why it was now,” she said. (Oregon’s Democratic primary is next Tuesday; Obama enjoys a 14 percent lead, according to the RealClearPolitics average.)
Taylor, Conlin and their counterparts in eight of NARAL’s 25 state affiliates — Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Texas, Oregon and Washington — posted statements on their websites rejecting the national endorsement. They explain that the state affiliates will remain neutral until the general election and that the national endorsement was made without consulting the state affiliates.
“Since we posted [it], we’ve gotten pretty good response frm people saying they’ll support the Oregon affiliate but not national,” Taylor said. “I think people recognize the fact that [the endorsement] was not done in consultation with any of the affiliates, and we were as stunned to hear about it as anyone else.”
NARAL officials in Washington didn’t consult with state affiliates because they are prohibited from doing so by federal law, explained Beth Shipp, NARAL’s national political director. “I appreciate why some of the affiliates were upset by the endorsement, but legally we can’t coordinate or consult with them about federal endorsements,” she said.
In an interview with Politico, NARAL President Nancy Keenan said the group’s nine-member political action committee chose Obama after extensive deliberation that included studying the two Democratic candidates’ delegate counts (both pledged and superdelegates), their viability in a matchup against the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, and their cash on hand.
Keenan noted it’s not the first time the national organization has endorsed early in the Democratic primary process. NARAL endorsed Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts when former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was still in the race in 2004, she said, and chose former Vice President Al Gore over former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey in 2000.
But what about the two candidates’ records on women’s reproductive health issues? Did Obama’s voting record give him an edge with NARAL’s PAC? Most people contacted for this story said no, that both Obama and Clinton solidly support abortion rights. In fact, many contend Clinton wins on the issues, both for her longer record and the intensity of support. They especially cite her work on over-the-counter sales of the so-called “morning after” pill. In 2005, she and Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray together blocked the nomination of Lester Crawford as a commissioner on the Federal Drug Administration until the FDA ruled that emergency contraception pill could be dispensed over the counter to adult women without a prescription.
“The real differential, in my book, is her tremendous work on getting emergency contraception approved,” said Conlin, calling the FDA’s eventual approval the “most important advance for reproductive rights in a decade.”
But there was something larger at work in this endorsement, Keenan said. “Right now, when you have the mobilization of a new generation of people coming and participating in this democracy, there’s a moment when they are listening, and in my judgment, they are listening now.”
When asked about affiliate directors’ concerns about losing donors, Keenan was reflective. “We did not go into this not knowing that there are consequences. Politics are about choices. ... What is missing here is, this is not a spectator sport. When you’re involved in politics, not everybody is happy, and you just have to recognize that.”
Schroeder, a longtime Clinton supporter, remains skeptical about the timing. “If you really thought one was better than the other, you endorse on Day One,” she said.
Even some Obama supporters, while ultimately believing that their candidate is the strongest on these issues, were unhappy with its handling, said Conlin. “The supporters of Obama that I know on our board and in our membership thought it was ill-timed and ill-advised and really antithetical to people coming together in common purpose to beat John McCain,” she said.
Given the “massive healing” needed to keep Clinton’s staunchest women supporters in the fold should Obama become the nominee, Conlin said, the endorsement was like “throwing a flaming spear into a tinderbox of raw emotion.”
The Obama endorsement is not the first controversy Keenan has faced as resident of NARAL. In 2005, her group withdrew an ad accusing then-Supreme Court nominee John Roberts of “supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted bomber” following protests from abortions rights supporters and opponents alike. At the time, Keenan said the ad had become “a distraction from the serious discussion” the group hoped to have with the American public.
In response to the current controversy, Keenan says people will get over their “broken hearts.”
“At the end of the day, the heart heals and you get on with the business of politics and what’s doing right by the country,” she said. “It’s the old Montana saying: You dust yourself off, and you get back in the saddle.”