Planned Politics

'Planned Parenthood had the highest percentage of wins among national organizations that offered support and endorsements.'


When the clock struck midnight, ringing in 2012, Planned Parenthood had plenty to worry about: President Barack Obama, shackled to lousy job numbers, was sinking fast in the polls and his signature piece of legislation was about to be challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court.

"And a fair amount of Idaho legislators thought we'd be preparing, right about now, for Mitt Romney to be sworn in as president of the United States," said Hannah Brass Greer, legislative director and Idaho team lead for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest. "But the more and more we talked to voters, the more our organization felt confident."

Eleven months later, Greer's concern evolved into what she called "cautious optimism" on Election Night.

"You saw some pretty big names make some pretty negative comments--many of them offensive--and none of those candidates won," she said.

In particular, Republican U.S. Senate candidates who made controversial remarks about rape and/or abortion lost on Nov. 6: Missouri's Todd Akin, who argued that if women experience a "legitimate rape," their bodies can avert unwanted pregnancies; in Indiana, Richard Mourdock insisted that pregnancies from rape were something "God intended."

When the new U.S. Congress convenes in January 2013, there will be 20 female U.S. senators, a new record. And in the U.S. House, women and minorities will rule the roost in the Democratic Caucus.

Meanwhile, Idaho's Legislature remains very male (74 percent) and very Republican (81 percent).

"It's going to take some time in Idaho," said Greer. But people are paying attention. "Little by little, one-by-one, legislators are going to be held accountable."

Greer took note of one particular legislative district, Idaho 18 (BW, News, "Turning 18," September 5, 2012), where voters decided to make a change: Democratic challenger Janie Ward-Engelking unseated incumbent Republican Rep. Julie Ellsworth and Democratic challenger Branden Durst turned out incumbent Republican Sen. Mitch Toryanski.

"The ultrasound bill definitely played a role in District 18," said Greer, referring to the controversial measure that would have required Idaho women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound procedure, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The proposed legislation passed through the Idaho Senate but stalled in the Idaho House.

"That especially impacted Durst's victory over Toryanski," said Greer. "[Toryanski] didn't just vote for the bill. He was very outspoken about his support."

The ultrasound bill helped define the 2012 legislative session and despite its ultimate defeat, Greer said she wouldn't be terribly surprised if it resurfaces in 2013 with altered language (see Page 19).

But Greer also looked back at other Statehouse races, where she said her organization would have made a difference but could only watch from the sidelines.

"I think it's fair to say that some candidates were overly cautious about getting an endorsement from us," said Greer. "For example, we didn't participate in District 15 races."

In two open seats, one in the House and another in the Senate, Democrats lost by margins that ranged from 762 to 1,137 votes. But neither Democrat sought out support from Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest.

"Maybe a candidate doesn't want a full-throated endorsement because, quite possibly, that person may have had a record of past anti-choice votes. But we can still make a recommendation," said Greer. "We have a questionnaire, a series of yes or no questions that trigger that endorsement."

The endorsement process, according to Greer, proved to be very successful in close races in 2012, even in conservative states.

"A lot of candidates across the nation understand that Planned Parenthood is the most trusted messenger on women's health issues," she said. "But in Idaho, we have some work to do."

Some of that work will include some myth-busting, such as dealing with the often-repeated falsehood that Planned Parenthood only performs abortions. In fact, of the more than 6,000 clients served in 2011 at Planned Parenthood's two Idaho offices--one in Boise, another in Twin Falls--only 12 percent of the services involved abortions, while the overwhelming majority of care-giving included contraception, screenings for sexually transmitted diseases and breast cancer screenings.

"And perhaps, most important of all, we're the only health-care provider for many of our patients," said Greer. "When a state legislature attacks funding to Planned Parenthood, the funding that is being attacked is not abortion care, it's an attack on cancer screenings and breast exams."

Changing misconceptions will keep Greer busy in the coming weeks, meeting new lawmakers and shoring up working relationships with the Legislature's old guard.

"Starting in January and going through the session, I'll be having one-on-one meetings with legislators and candidates from both parties. Believe me, we're nonpartisan," she said. "I would love nothing more than to be involved with Republican races."

Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest's electoral efforts in Idaho were something new.

"This was the first year we did political work here in Idaho in earnest," said Greer. "We were conservative in scope and dollars compared to our other Northwest states. But we proved this year that Planned Parenthood had the highest percentage of wins among national organizations that offered support and endorsements. We can turn out the votes."