Abortion, gay marriage could be factors in Republican 5th District race
Mark Greenberg, 5th District Congress candidate.
By Jordan Fenster, Staff Reporter
With all five Republican congressional candidates toting the same campaign lines when it comes to jobs and the economy, where they stand on social issues may be the ultimate deciding factor for voters in Connecticut’s 5th congressional district, at least according to Ron Wilcox.
Though he said social issues “tend to fall on the back burner,” Wilcox, co-state coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, said “there’s always a few people who will hang their hat on certain issues.”
On social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, Republican Mark Greenberg is aligned most purely with religious right conservatives in the 2012 race, followed by a slightly more moderate Justin Bernier. Both ran two years ago as well in a race that was won by former state Sen. Sam Caligiuri, who was just as conservative as Greenberg on social issues.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, state Sen. Andrew Roraback, although a fiscal conservative, shares positions on social issues that are similar to many Democrats, while Mike Clark and Lisa Wilson-Foley are somewhere in-between.
The first question is whether someone like Roraback can win a Republican primary. The second question is whether Republicans can win a general election with someone like Greenberg as the nominee.
Caligiuri couldn’t beat incumbent 5th District Congressman Chris Murphy in 2010 in a year where Republicans were sweeping to victory across the country. Some said his strict views against abortion and gay marriage were out of step with Connecticut.
(Incidentally, Caligiuri has endorsed Roraback this year, and Roraback endorsed Caligiuri in the primary in 2010. Their friendship and respect for each other as colleagues in the state Senate has trumped their differences on social issues.)
The more conservative factions of the Republican Party are focused on the primary.
“All things being equal, if everybody is the same on economic issues, that’s where you might see the conservative element voting for a conservative candidate on the right, versus a candidate on the left,” Wilcox said.
According to Peter Wolfgang, president of activist group Family Institute of Connecticut Action, there is a wide range of social belief among the current slate of Republican hopefuls, though Greenberg and Bernier are the only two candidates who have identified as “pro-life.”
Among pro-choice candidates, there is a range of nuance in belief, while on other social issues, such as the death penalty and gay rights, there are fewer shades of gray.
For example, all, except for Roraback, who voted to repeal the death penalty year after year in the Legislature (though not this year), favor maintaining capital punishment.
Roraback voted in favor of gay marriage and repealing the state’s death penalty in 2011, and, in 2008, was endorsed by pro-choice lobbyist organization NARAL.
Clark is in favor of the death penalty, both as a punishment in itself and as a bargaining tool for prosecutors. He’s pro-choice, though he is against both late-term abortions and federal funding for abortions, believing that having an abortion is “a decision that has to be between a woman, her doctor and God.” He also believes that marital rights issues should be decided “on a state-by-state basis,” he said.
Lisa Wilson-Foley’s campaign manager, Chris Healy, former chairman of the state’s Republican party, said his candidate is in favor of civil unions, but believes marriage should be reserved for “one man, one woman.” She spoke in favor of maintaining the death penalty during Judiciary Committee hearings in March and is pro-choice, with some caveats, Healy said — she’s against federal funding for abortions, against late-term abortions and is in favor of parental notification.
Bernier describes himself as pro-life, advocating an overturn of Roe v. Wade. He sees gay marriage as a state issue but has said that he would not have voted in favor of it, had he been a legislator at the time it was approved.But he’s more moderate than Clark in some areas, supporting the right of gay soldiers, for example, to serve openly in the military.
Bernier is in favor of the death penalty and, like Wilson-Foley, hammered Roraback when the state senator linked his vote on repeal to a repeal of previously approved inmate sentence reduction credits.
Greenberg is unabashedly pro-life, likening support for abortion rights to being “pro-death.”
“I’m more against abortion, probably, than any of my competitors,” he said during a recent interview, and is in favor of the death penalty, as well. “Abortion is used mostly in this country as a method of birth control. That’s abhorrent.”
He is seen by some as the most socially conservative candidate in the race, though when it comes to gay marriage, he said he believes the government “should stay out of people’s lives.” Though he said he “can’t sympathize with homosexuality,” “I don’t think it should be legislated.”
“Greenberg and Roraback are polar opposites,” Wolfgang said.
Clark isn’t sure that social issues will define the race, though he acknowledges that a less-than hard-line stance on one issue or another could cost a candidate some votes and that all the GOP hopefuls are similar when it comes to economic concerns, like the dangers of a federal debt load gone unchecked.
“At this stage, the social issues are not the most important topic that we should be focusing on,” he said. “On jobs and the economy, we’re all fairly close. If you’re coming from the Republican party, you’re basically a fiscal conservative.”
State Sen. Kevin Witkos, of Canton, who is supporting Wilson-Foley, said how important social issues are in the race may be a matter of which part of the 5th district a voter comes from.
“You never know what brings people at the ballot box to choose one candidate over another. I don’t know what drives people,” he said. “People from the Cheshire region are so attuned to the death penalty. And the social issues are not as big a player in the Farmington Valley as they are in the bigger cities.”
Counter to conventional wisdom, Wolfgang said social issues could be the Republican party’s downfall in the general election not if Greenberg is the nominee, but rather, Roraback. He said many establishment Republicans are backing Roraback because he is viewed as a socially moderate Republican, which Wolfgang said gives him the appearance of electability.
“The Republican Party will have a big problem if Andrew Roraback is the nominee,” he said. “It’s not just that he’s a social liberal, it’s the extent that he’s a social liberal. He’s socially liberal to the Nth degree. He’s as far left socially as you can be — deeply immersed in Connecticut’s culture of death.”
According to Wolfgang, there are “two types of independent voters” in Connecticut — those who are focused on fiscal concerns, not as interested in social issues, and the “Reagan Democrats” that tend to fly under the radar and vote along socially conservative lines.
Both Clark and Greenberg see abortion as the only social issue that could really sway a swath of voters, either pro-life or pro-choice. “There’s a certain amount of people, that’s their litmus test,” according to Clark.
“They’re a one-issue vote,” Greenberg said. “It is important to a very small percentage, but it’s very important to those folks.”
Though he’s not sure how important abortion or marriage rights will be to the race, Gary Rose, chairman of Sacred Heart University’s Department of Government and Politics, said the death penalty could be the deciding factor.
“It’s still germane in the 5th, and you do have Reagan Democrats in the 5th,” he said.
“You’re going to have a center-right dimension in that primary. If it’s a very close election, that issue could be the swing.”
Email Jordan Fenster at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jordanfenster.