08.25.10

The Tea Party's Abortion Agenda

Tea Partier Joe Miller’s strong showing in Alaska came as voters there passed a pro-life measure. Dana Goldstein on the movement’s tacit endorsement of socially conservative issues, even as it says its focus is elsewhere.

Are abortion politics behind Joe Miller’s surprising GOP Senate primary showing in Alaska? And has the Tea Party, which launched as a grassroots anti-tax movement, embraced a Christian conservative platform on divisive social issues?

With absentee ballots yet to be counted, Miller, an attorney and Sarah Palin-endorsed Tea Party darling, leads his opponent, incumbent Lisa Murkowski, 51 to 49 percent. Though turnout was not particularly high for an Alaska primary, the last weeks of election season were dominated by a contentious debate over Measure 2, a ballot initiative that requires doctors to obtain parental consent before performing an abortion on an unmarried minor, or face felony charges and up to five years in prison.

“I am committed to advocating for innocent life and vigorously opposing the culture of death,” writes Miller.

Measure 2 passed decisively, 55 to 44 percent, drawing support, no doubt, from many of the same socially conservative voters who chose the pro-life Miller over Murkowski, one of only three pro-choice Republicans in the Senate.

The Alaska election results underscore the extent to which the Tea Party movement and its candidates—strongly anti-abortion rights politicians such as Miller, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Marco Rubio in Florida, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Ken Buck in Colorado—have come to be affiliated with Christian conservative ideals, even as Tea Party organizers say they have little interest in social issues.

Tea Party Express spokesman William Owens, a prominent Christian conservative with a history of pro-life activism, said Wednesday in an interview with The Daily Beast that the group steers clear of abortion because it wants to “focus on the most important things. The whole thrust of the Tea Party movement came out of fiscal irresponsibility and government overextending itself.”

But Miller, who received more than $550,000 in donations and on-the-ground support from the California-based Tea Party Express and frequently tweeted about his Tea Party affiliation, made his antiabortion stance a central part of the Alaska Senate primary. In June, he sent a fundraising letter to “pro-life supporters” criticizing Murkowski’s support for Roe v. Wade and stem-cell research, as well as her opposition to the “Mexico City Policy,” which under President George W. Bush prevented American foreign aid dollars from funding abortion services. (President Obama repealed the policy, also known as “Global Gag Rule,” in 2009.)

“I pledge to you that if you send me to Washington D.C., there will be no greater advocate for life in the United States Senate,” Miller wrote in the letter. “I am committed to advocating for innocent life and vigorously opposing the culture of death.”

Although both Miller and Murkowski said they supported the parental-notification ballot initiative, Miller was more involved, co-hosting a July fundraiser for the group behind the measure, Alaskans for Parental Rights.

Miller is one of several candidates prominently endorsed on the website of the Tea Party Express, which also links approvingly to parentalrights.org, a group lobbying for a federal parental rights law even more expansive than the one that passed Tuesday in Alaska.

Another Tea Party Express favorite is Nevada Republican Senate nominee Sharron Angle, who has come under fire for her views on abortion and homosexuality. In a June radio interview, Angle suggested rape victims should avoid abortion, turning “a lemon situation into lemonade.”

Despite the Tea Party Express’ tacit endorsement of far-right positions on social issues, the group’s chairwoman, Amy Kremer, said in an interview on The View in May that “we’re all about fiscal issues.” Asked about abortion, Kremer responded, “It doesn’t matter, we don’t talk about it.”

Elizabeth Shipp, political director of NARAL: Pro-Choice America, told The Daily Beast, “You’re seeing a lot of these crazy Tea Party candidates make it through primaries,” noting that the movement’s increasing anti-abortion rights identity could hamper its ability to appeal to independent voters, more than half of whom support abortion rights, compared to just 26 percent of self-described Tea Partiers.

“These are extreme social conservatives,” Shipp said.

Dana Goldstein is a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University, and a former associate editor at The Daily Beast. Her writing on politics, women's issues, and education has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation, The New Republic, BusinessWeek, and Slate. You can follow her work at www.danagoldstein.net.