Abortion-rights groups are planning to spend unprecedented sums on voter outreach and education in this fall's elections, as they broaden their electoral targets in an effort to change the make-up of the House and Senate.
The Planned Parenthood Action Fund is promising to spend $10 million this election cycle — three times more than the organization has spent in any previous election.
NARAL Pro-Choice America has also budgeted $10 million for the 2008 election campaign — the most it has spent in any election year since 2000.
Both groups are expanding their strategies beyond the presidential race and gubernatorial elections, where they have spent the bulk of their money in previous years.
Planned Parenthood is targeting a series of critical Senate races, while NARAL is making plans to spend heavily in nearly three dozen House races nation-wide.
"This is a big step for Planned Parenthood," said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the organization's lobbying arm. "We have a tremendous interest in who the next president is, for a whole variety of reasons. But there are also critical congressional races, and races at the statehouse level."
NARAL political director Elizabeth Shipp said her organization will seek to link congressional candidates to presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain, a strong abortion opponent.
"We are going to be going hard against McCain," Shipp said. "We're going to tie him to some anti-choice incumbents that we're looking to take out in the fall."
Conservative Organizations Concerned
The promise of heavy spending by abortion-rights groups has prompted scrutiny from conservative organizations.
Planned Parenthood is defending itself against a range of civil and criminal complaints in several states, and critics charge that the organization is trying to buy influence in Congress.
"It's very obvious that they feel like they're on the defensive right now," said Jenn Giroux, president of Women Influencing the Nation, an advocacy group that opposes abortion rights.
"They're going to need elected officials that support them," Giroux. "It's amazing that they would come out and admit that they're pumping more money in [to campaigns], when it looks like they're just protecting themselves."
Johnson County, Kan., District Attorney Phill Kline — who is pursuing more than 100 criminal counts against Planned Parenthood on allegations of falsifying documents and other charges — said he believes the organization is investing in congressional races to protect its federal grants.
"They're trying to influence public policy in a way that allows them to continue what they're doing," said Kline, who was ousted from his seat as attorney general of Kansas in 2006 in an election where Planned Parenthood supported his opponent.
With health clinics in all 50 states, Planned Parenthood is often described as the nation's largest abortion provider.
Richards said Planned Parenthood has been unfairly targeted by conservative groups, and said the money spent on politics is simply necessary in that environment.
"We do politics because we have to, to serve the clients that we see," she said.
Single Vote Margin in Senate, Supreme Court Appointments May Loom
Richards said her organization's focus on the Senate is in part meant to influence judicial confirmations.
Democrats hold a narrow 51-49 edge in the Senate, and the next president could have several Supreme Court vacancies to fill, with many observers believing that there is currently a 5-4 majority on the court to uphold Roe v. Wade.
Shipp, NARAL's political director, said her organization is focusing on Republican and independent women who support abortion rights. NARAL is planning phone, mail, and possibly cable TV buys to reach voters in targeted House races, she said.
"It would be great to have a pro-choice president," Shipp added. "But you've still got to have the legislation move through the House."