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Stem Cells, Gay Marriage Key Issues in Midterm Elections

October 30, 2006 at 3:31 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: The war in Iraq may be the dominant issue in these midterm elections, but candidates from both parties and President Bush himself are using also social issues to rally voters to the polls.

Democrats, for example, have embraced support for embryonic stem cell research. An independent Democratic group is running this ad against six Republicans, including Congressman James Walsh from upstate New York.

YOUNG MAN: Next summer, I’m going on a camping trip with my friends. On the way home, I’ll be in a car accident and I’ll be paralyzed for the rest of my life.

WOMAN: In 20 years, I’ll have Alzheimer’s. I won’t recognize my husband or my kids.

YOUNG GIRL: Next week, my mommy and daddy are going to find out that I have diabetes.

WOMAN: This is my congressman.

YOUNG GIRL: James Walsh.

YOUNG MAN: He voted against federal funding for stem cell research.

WOMAN: Is he a doctor?

YOUNG MAN: Is he a scientist?

WOMAN: Why did Congressman Walsh bet my life that he knows best?

MARGARET WARNER: Actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, has taken a prominent role by recording ads for two Democratic Senate candidates, Claire McCaskill, running against incumbent Jim Talent in New Jersey.

MICHAEL J. FOX, Actor: But you can elect Claire McCaskill who shares my hope for cures.

MARGARET WARNER: And for Ben Cardin, running against Republican Michael Steele in Maryland.

MICHAEL J. FOX: Stem cell research offers hope to millions of Americans with diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But George Bush and Michael Steele would put limits on the most promising stem cell research.

Fortunately, Marylanders have a chance to vote for Ben Cardin. Cardin fully supports lifesaving stem cell research. It’s why I support Ben Cardin. And with so much at stake, I respectfully ask you to do the same.

MARGARET WARNER: Republican Steele said he, too, supports stem cell research using adult stem cells but not human embryos. He countered the Fox ad with this one.

WOMAN IN AD: Congressman Ben Cardin is attacking Michael Steele with deceptive, tasteless ads. He is using the victim of a terrible disease to fight people, all for his own political gain. Mr. Cardin should be ashamed.

There’s something you should know about Michael Steele. He does support stem cell research, and he cares deeply for those who suffer from disease. How do I know? I’m Michael Steele’s little sister. I have M.S., and I know he cares about me.

Campaigning on social issues

Hubble telescope
Image courtesy of NASA

MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday, Steele and Cardin continued the debate on NBC's "Meet the Press."

BEN CARDIN (D), Maryland Senate Candidate: I support the expansion of embryonic stem cell research; Mr. Steele opposes that. I voted to override the president's veto, a bill that was bipartisan, worked out so that we could advance embryonic stem cell research; Mr. Steele supported the president's veto in that regard.

MICHAEL STEELE (R), Maryland Senate Candidate: I do support stem cell research. Where I have drawn the line is federal funding for research that destroys the embryo. And I've been very much an advocate and supporter of advancing research that will allow us to do what we need to do without destroying that embryo.

MARGARET WARNER: Republicans also are using social issues like gay marriage to get out their vote. In 2004, 11 states approved constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. And some strategists think the issue helped lift Republican turnout among religious conservatives.

Campaigning for Republican Congressman Max Burns in Georgia today, President Bush highlighted last Thursday's New Jersey Supreme Court ruling ordering equal rights for same-sex couples.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Just this last week in New Jersey, another activist court issued a ruling that raises doubt about the institution of marriage. We believe that marriage is a union between a man and woman and should be defended.

Gay marriage and stem cell research

Jim VandeHei
The Washington Post
That's why you see Republicans pushing these issues, because at the end of the day it's these base voters who turn out in these midterm elections and who make the difference in these races.

MARGARET WARNER: This year, anti-gay marriage amendments are on ballots in eight states. Two of those states feature hotly contested Senate races: Republican Bob Corker against Democrat Harold Ford in Tennessee; and Republican Senator George Allen against Democrat James Webb in Virginia.

And for more on how social issues are playing in these campaigns, we're joined by Jim VandeHei, political correspondent for the Washington Post, and Adam Nagourney, chief political correspondent for the New York Times.

MARGARET WARNER: And welcome back to you both.

Jim, in past elections, some past elections, these social or values issues have been pretty potent, mostly to the benefit of Republicans. How much impact are they having this time?

JIM VANDEHEI, Political Reporter, Washington Post: They have a lot, and this is how. Think about your typical conservative voter. They're very frustrated right now with the size of government; they're frustrated with President Bush's plan for immigration; they're frustrated with the war. So what is it that keeps these Republicans attached to the Republican Party in voting?

It's social issues. They still believe that, when it comes to gay marriage, abortion, gun rights or stem cells, that Republicans are their party and their protector. And that's why you see Republicans pushing these issues, because at the end of the day it's these base voters who turn out in these midterm elections and who make the difference in these races.

That's why President Bush talked about it today in Georgia; that's why he'll talk about it every day until voters vote, because that's what they think will get them to the polls.

Now, what's different here is that typically social issues work to Republican favor. Now, in Missouri and some other races, you see the stem cell debate, which is a little more tricky. It divides the Republican Party and tends to help Democrats with independents.

So, you know, in past elections -- 2004 I think is the best case in point -- clearly worked to the Republican favor. Now it's sort of a mixed bag. And in places like Missouri, and maybe Tennessee, and possibly even Virginia, you start to see it where it could work for Democratic even.

MARGARET WARNER: Adam, how do you see it? Is it working mostly for Republicans or more of a mixed bag this year?

ADAM NAGOURNEY, Chief Political Correspondent, New York Times: Speaking of stem cell, I don't think it's working -- OK, first of all, I agree with Jim. It's key in terms of getting out Republican base voters, and that's at this point the main thing the party has beside the actual get-out-the-vote operation to get them out.

I was in Missouri last week. It's much more complicated there. On one hand, there's no doubt that there's an amendment on the ballot there that would essentially empower further stem cell research. It clearly -- and Talent opposes it -- clearly, that's going to help him get out religious conservative voters who are key to him winning in that state.

On the other hand, this whole dispute with Michael Fox -- and not incidentally Rush Limbaugh -- has, I think, helped Claire McCaskill a lot there, partly because, as you were saying, a lot of independent voters are uncomfortable with restrictions on stem cell research. And also because this whole sort of flurry has, I think, reminded people of some of the -- what some of them see as some of the ideological excesses of some part of the Republican Party.

Strategizing the campaign

Adam Nagourney
The New York Times
If Democrats win back the House or the Senate, the story that everyone will be writing after the election is that the key was that Democrats went out and they recruited a different kind of Democrat.

MARGARET WARNER: And then how potent do you think some of the old tried and true social issues are for Republicans, like abortion, or a fairly new issue, but it was at work in '04, same-sex marriage?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: I mean, same-sex marriage clearly works -- I think, clearly because some people argue this, but I think it clearly worked in Ohio in 2004. There was an amendment, a constitutional -- or, excuse me, a state proposition on the ballot. And, remember, President Bush there did not win by a lot of votes, so I think it did win there.

I think it's much more muddled this year. First of all, there's only two states where it really matters, where there's a race going on, Tennessee and Virginia. In both cases, the candidates have said that they oppose gay marriage.

So I'm not sure it's as sort of volatile and as effective as an issue as it was once. And beyond that, you know, to a certain extent, where President Bush was talking in Georgia today about the ruling in New Jersey, he was talking in that one district, but he is trying to reach voters across the country. I just don't see this as effective as it once was.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that's the case, not as effective as they have been in the past?

JIM VANDEHEI: Not as effective only because it's not on the ballot in as many important states. It's on in, I guess, seven states but not the key states that Republicans really need turnout.

The reason I do think that it is still important is that Republicans need a reason to vote Republican. And it is still the glue that holds them to the Republican Party. So in that respect, it is important.

The problem is, is that it's just not as big of an issue. The war is a much bigger issue this year than it was in 2004. Therefore, all other issues, including gay marriage, including abortion, just aren't -- don't have the same resonance that they had last summer.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Adam pointed out that -- take Virginia, and actually the same is true in Tennessee -- the Democratic candidates aren't endorsing gay marriage, either. What have Democrats done in general in this campaign to try to close that so-called values gap or social issues gap with Republicans?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: I think, if Democrats win back the House or the Senate, the story that everyone will be writing after the election is that the key was that Democrats went out and they recruited a different kind of Democrat, a Democrat that would be really strange to a lot of Democrats here in Washington.

When I traveled through Indiana, or Kentucky, or Ohio, and you listen to candidates like Harold Ford in Tennessee, they sound like Republicans when it comes to social issues. They're pro-life; they're pro-gun; they're pro-family. When it comes to those social issues, they sound like very much Republicans.

So they've got Democrats who are conservative socially, so that neutralizes the issue. And that was the idea going in. They need to neutralize those social issues and try to bring some of those voters back into the Republican -- back into the Democratic fold. Otherwise they know they can't compete in the South. That's why they've been wiped out in the south for years.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Adam, wasn't this a deliberate strategy on the part of Howard Dean and other people in the party to try to close the gap on some of those issues?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Particularly on abortion. If you go back to the beginning of the year, Howard Dean, when he first became elected chairman, and also Senator Hillary Clinton in New York, talked about the importance of Democrats approaching abortion in a different way, because there was a feeling that Senator John Kerry, during his presidential campaign, had sort of presented the argument in a way that made it easy for Republicans to use it against them.

Hillary Clinton is much more likely now to talk about, you know, abortion as the last resort, you know, safe but rare. And I think that that's generally part of this effort of the Democratic Party to be more elusive targets than they have been in the past.

The other thing I think is very important here is that Democrats want to win. So that, for example -- great example -- in Pennsylvania, Senator Charles Schumer, who's the head of the Senate Campaign Committee, recruited Bob Casey, a Democrat who was against abortion rights, to run in that race against Santorum.

Casey is probably going to win. And because of his position on abortion rights, that's a big part of it. Activists in the party, liberal activists in the party, I think, simply wanted to win, gain party recruiters, like Rahm Emanuel and Charles Schumer, more flexibility, more ideological flexibility, in terms of recruiting the kind of candidates Jim was just talking about that he ran into in Indiana, who are more moderate and more conservative.

That's a major factor in what's going on this year, in my opinion.

Attracting the voters

Jim VandeHei
The Washington Post
If you have an infusion of so many conservative, moderate Democrats, and you look at those, and you line them up against committee chairs in a Democratic leadership that are very liberal, that's where there's going to be an ideological clash.

MARGARET WARNER: But then -- and, Jim, I'll turn to you on this -- if we take, say, Pennsylvania as an example, Democrats -- John Kerry was able to attract the moderate Republican, suburban voters, in part because of differences on social issues. So if the Democrats also move to the right, do they then put at risk the ability to carve into the Republican suburban vote?

JIM VANDEHEI: I don't think so, because this year they've got the Iraq war that's got their Democratic base so fired up. And I think that that has given them a ton of leeway. They're able to recruit candidates who just don't necessarily look like the Democratic leadership in Washington, but they want to win. They're frustrated about the war.

I think the showdown comes after the election. If you have an infusion of so many conservative, moderate Democrats, and you look at those, and you line them up against committee chairs in a Democratic leadership that are very liberal, that's where there's going to be an ideological clash. Do you take the party in the direction that Clinton tried to take the party? Or do you take the party in the direction that Nancy Pelosi has wanted to take the party? That will be the fight; they're hoping to win, and then have that fight later.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Adam, more broadly even than the issues we just talked about, what are Republicans banking on? What are they hitting on in these final eight days to try to stem the anti-Iraq war tide, which is helping Democrats? Is there any rabbit in the hat there?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Well, the president -- well, there is a rabbit in the hat, in my opinion. It's always been turnout. And they've created an environment where enough races are close -- I think about 20 races are close -- where their turnout operation really is better than the Democratic turnout operation. And I realize turnout operation sounds really boring -- it is -- but it's really important.

And that can make a difference. I think that is their rabbit in the hat. I'm not saying that I think it's going to work; I'm just saying that's what they hope their rabbit in the hat is.

And everything that Bush is talking about now, I think, is part of that. So the issues you'll hear him talking about mostly are taxes and terrorism, because they are both issues that appeal to the party's base. But now, whether or not people are still listening, you know, as Jim was saying before, I think the Iraq war is just trumping everything, so whether he can break through or not remains to be seen.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see any rabbit in the hat, Jim?

JIM VANDEHEI: The turnout machine. But also to get to that turnout machine, it's about rallying the base, by saying, "Yes, you may not like us, yes, you may be sick of the Republican brand, but, boy, look at what we're about to give you. If you want Pelosi Democrats, if you want liberals, if you want your taxes raised, then vote for them."

And I think it's that broader contrast. It isn't the very specifics like gay marriage. It is saying, "It's us versus them. You don't like us, but you're going to like them a heck of a lot worst."

MARGARET WARNER: Jim VandeHei, Adam Nagourney, thank you both.