Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Often the art of politics isn’t just about winning voters over to your side, but also peeling them away from your opponent.
In two key races here, Nevada Democrats believe they’ve found the issue that will do just that — and with a somewhat unlikely assist from a faction of the GOP’s base to boot.
As a nationally connected group of anti-abortion operatives seeks to qualify the so-called “personhood amendment” for the Nevada ballot, Democrats are working to use it as a wedge to drive conservative voters away from U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and their top target in the presidential primary, Mitt Romney.
The personhood amendment, which activists are trying to qualify for ballots across the nation, would eliminate access to abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or endangerment to the life of the mother. A question similar to that being pursued in Nevada was defeated in Mississippi this month.
Today, Heller’s opponent, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, will take one of the first moves to inject the personhood debate into the campaign here by sending an email to her supporters urging them to sign an online petition opposing the personhood amendment.
“Their so-called ‘personhood amendment’ is designed to get around Roe v. Wade by making abortion murder — even in cases of rape and incest,” the email says. “This is how anti-choice radicals in Washington think they can end reproductive rights once and for all: one state at a time.”
The issue offers Berkley a simple way to energize her base of supporters without antagonizing independent voters who would likely see the personhood amendment as extreme.
Heller doesn’t support the initiative, his spokesman Stewart Bybee said.
“Sen. Heller is focused on creating jobs in Nevada, not divisive social issues,” he said.
But even with Heller opposed to the initiative, Berkley’s campaign sees an opportunity not only to invigorate her base but call into question Heller’s record on abortion, which has evolved since he was elected to Congress.
In 2006, Heller told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he supported a “woman’s right to choose abortion,” describing it as a conservative position because she shouldn’t have to consult her congressman before making the decision. Once in Congress, however, he’s maintained a pro-life voting record.
“Shelley Berkley has been very clear on this issue but no one really knows where Dean Heller stands,” said her campaign manager, Jessica Mackler. “This is just about highlighting a clear contrast between the two candidates.”
Nationally, and in Nevada, Democrats are also using the personhood issue to go after Romney, the front-runner in the race in Nevada.
Like Heller, Romney’s had an evolving position on abortion. Since running for president, he’s adopted an increasingly conservative position on it. Democrats have accused him of favoring the personhood amendment, although he has never voiced explicit support for it.
“Mitt Romney is pro-life, and as he has said previously, he is supportive of efforts to ensure recognition that life begins at conception,” said his spokeswoman, Andrea Saul. “He believes these matters should be left up to the states to decide.
“The very last thing the Democrats want to do is run against Mitt Romney. That is why they are focused on Mitt Romney and not the economy.”
Using ballot initiatives to gin up excitement for a candidate isn’t a new strategy.
“This is a switch on that old strategy,” said UNLV political scientist David Damore. “This is a conservative group putting it on the ballot and you have conservative politicians saying this is just a distraction and we don’t want it.”
The personhood movement has even split anti-abortion advocates, however, with many believing the ballot questions will further set back their effort to whittle away at Roe v. Wade protections.
Indeed, some Nevada anti-abortion advocates opposed the personhood amendment for the exact reason that Democrats would use it to help defeat otherwise pro-life candidates.
“My personal opinion is that there is that chance that it will hurt (efforts to elect pro-life candidates),” said Melissa Clement, president of Nevada Right to Life. “There’s going to be a small portion of people who might actually make a decision on whether someone is pro-life based on their support of personhood rather than years of positive votes that have saved babies.”