03.17.10

Making Stupak Pay

Democrat Bart Stupak drove the left nuts by restricting abortion funding in the health-care bill. Benjamin Sarlin talks to his primary foe, Connie Saltonstall, who just declared her candidacy and is already garnering big money from the left.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) managed to drag his traditionally pro-choice party to the right when the House voted on a health-care bill in November that included provisions he authored restricting funding for abortion. Now he’s making noise about taking down the final legislation unless he gets his way, a threat that House leaders seem content to ignore.

Health care may pass without Stupak’s vote, but his opposition is making him a top target for progressives around the country. And now with a primary challenger in the wings, Connie Saltonstall, they finally have a place to focus their efforts.

“His behavior surrounding the health-care issue has crossed the line,” Saltonstall says.

Saltonstall, a former Charlevoix County commissioner and unsuccessful candidate for state representative in 2008, is firmly pro-choice and says Stupak’s behavior during the health-care debate was her prime motivation for running.

“One of the main reasons I’m active in politics is because I believe health-care reform has been necessary for over 20 years,” she told The Daily Beast. “When Bart threatened to vote against reform and there was no other candidate standing up against him, I felt I had to do it.”

Her candidacy is attracting the left’s attention. Progressive groups like Democracy for America and Blue America PAC have lined up behind her, and Saltonstall said she expected a national women’s group to announce its support within days. A special fund set up by MoveOn.org for primary challengers against anti-health-care Democrats has raised over $1 million since Monday, and Saltonstall could be a prime candidate for its support. The site has separately raised over $1 million for Bill Halter, who is running against Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) on health care as well, suggesting that Saltonstall might be able to pull in big bucks quickly.

"Frankly, many of the constituents here think [Stupak] should run as a Republican," Saltonstall said. “Many Democrats here swallowed hard when they voted for him because of his pro-life position because they felt the alternative was worse. But his behavior surrounding the health-care issue has crossed the line.”

Stupak has raised his profile to new heights in the health-care debate, publicly warning Democrats that his coalition of pro-life representatives could veto any legislation that didn’t meet its standards. Saltonstall believes that his press coverage could provide an opening for attack.

"Democrats in his district are outraged at the grandstanding he's been doing,” she said. “They really feel he's doing this for his own personal agenda rather than because he's representing them."

Stupak could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman pointed to unscientific straw polls on two local news sites, The Mining Journal and UpperMichigansSource.com,showing support for Stupak’s abortion position as evidence he was on firm ground.

In an interview Tuesday with the local Petoskey News-Review, the congressman suggested he wouldn’t let the primary affect his approach to health care.

"There is no doubt, I'm having opposition because of health care and my votes, but it doesn't bother me," Stupak told the News-Review. "I'm not even focused on it. I'm going to take care of health care and we'll go from there."

While Stupak’s congressional district leans conservative, he’s been able to win by comfortable margins since his election in 1992; Democrats have held the seat for decades. Saltonstall noted that Republicans have not produced top-flight candidates for the current race; so far, only one candidate, a physician without electoral experience, Daniel Benishek, has filed to run. That means a primary win is likely tantamount to victory in Michigan’s 1st District, covering all of the state’s Upper Peninsula and then some. “I don’t think [Republicans] were anticipating he would have trouble this time,” Saltonstall said. “But things change.”

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.