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Contraceptive Ruling Becomes Campaign Trail Flashpoint


Democrats in the Senate have unveiled legislation to override the recent Supreme Court decision on contraceptives.


In that decision, the court sided with the owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, ruling that many businesses do not have to pay for health insurance to cover contraceptives if they object on religious grounds.

MONTAGNE: The new legislation is unlikely to pass, but the Hobby Lobby decision has become a flashpoint ahead of the midterm elections. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Most Republican candidates cheered the Hobby Lobby decision while Democrats hoped for a backlash. Stephanie Schriock is the president of Emily's List, which raises money for Democratic women candidates.

STEPHANIE SCHRIOCK: This ruling has just reignited a conversation about women's access to basic health care, and women across the country are realizing it is in real jeopardy. This is going to drive women to the polls in November to vote for Democratic women candidates and against Republicans who believe in making it harder for women to take care of themselves and their families.

LIASSON: Republicans are just as confident.

KIRSTEN KUKOWSKI: I think, you know, specific to the religious freedom aspect - the constitutional overreach aspect of this case - they're very much winning issues for us.

LIASSON: That's Kirsten Kukowski, press secretary for the Republican National Committee, who has this advice for her party's candidates.

KUKOWSKI: They should talk about in terms of religious freedom. They should talk about it in terms of constitutional overreach. They should talk about in terms of dismantling Obamacare and the mandates that are associated with it.

LIASSON: As much as any other issue this year, the Hobby lobby debate captures the clashing visions of the two parties. And it's not clear yet which side benefits more. Republican Bruce Haynes of Purple Strategies says that depends on who wins the battle for what he calls the freedom frame.

BRUCE HAYNES: We're talking about two sides of the freedom coin here. The Democratic view of it and the way they want to talk about it with women is it's the freedom to access contraception. And the Republican view is it's - it's freedom, not just religious freedom and religious liberty, but the government getting involved in private business decisions and - I think whichever party does a better job of framing it in the right terms is going to win.

LIASSON: And the two parties aren't wasting any effort in this fight.

JUSTIN BARASKY: It's a huge motivator. It's a huge motivator for donors just as it's going to be a huge motivator for voters.

LIASSON: That's Justin Barasky with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. His counterpart on the Republican side is Brad Dayspring.

BRAD DAYSPRING: It doesn't shock me to hear that they're raising money off of this or wanting to make this about contraception, but the truth is it's not a decision about contraception. I think, in general, it steers the conversation back to Obamacare.

LIASSON: Which Dayspring points out is still very unpopular. But Democrats point to polls that show majorities support requiring businesses to provide contraceptive coverage. Focusing on contraception was a winning strategy for Democrats in the last two elections, and this year, as they battle steep odds to keep control of the Senate, they're hoping the Supreme Court decision helps them put the focus on this issue again.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Terry Lynn Land would make it a crime to use common forms of birth control.

SENATOR MARK UDALL: My opponent, Congressman Gardner, led a crusade that would make birth control illegal.

LIASSON: That's Colorado incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall. His opponent, Cory Gardner, did once support a law that could have outlawed some forms of birth control, but Gardner has since reconsidered. He is now backing a proposal to make the pill available over-the-counter. Democrats, not surprisingly, have chosen to ignore Garner's change of heart. And the Hobby Lobby decision has given them new ammunition. Katie Packer Gage is a Republican strategist involved in several battleground Senate races. She says Democrats are lying.

KATIE PACKER GAGE: Most women have been led to believe, in the last couple of weeks, that because of this decision - that, you know, women won't have access to the pill. And you and I both know that that's utterly false. And they know it's false, too. But they don't really have anything else to hang their hat on. So Republicans are just going to have to be very aggressive, saying very forcefully that we are in no way interested in removing access to birth control.

LIASSON: Right now, the overall battle for control of the Senate slightly favors Republicans. But on the issue of women's reproductive freedoms, it's the Democrats who are able to play no holds barred offense. On this issue, Republicans have a more complicated task. They can play offense on Obamacare, but they'll have to defend themselves on women's rights. Mare Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to morning edition from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.