November 05, 2006

Jim Fossett Election Roundup on States, Bioethics & Stem Cells

So as not to be out of step with other pundits of the season, it seems appropriate to take a closer look at how embryonic stem cell research has fared as an election issue. The flap over Michael J Fox’s pro-stem cell ads has raised the issue’s visibility nationally and in some campaigns, but how it will play out as an electoral force is still very much an open question.

In this election cycle, embryonic stem cell research has been very much a Democratic issue. Democratic voters are typically pro-stem cell by large margins, while both Republican voters and politicians have been very much divided. Significant numbers of Republicans voted for the stem cell bill that President Bush vetoed, and a survey released in August by the Pew Research Center showed a sharp split between moderate Republicans, who support embryonic stem cell research by significant margins, and conservative Republicans, who are strongly opposed. Particularly in the districts we’ve labeled “stem cell suburbs”—traditionally Republican areas where many Republicans are more socially liberal than the Republican party base—Democratic candidates have tried to use embryonic stem cells as a “wedge” issue to attract traditionally Republican voters who are uncomfortable with the national party’s social conservatism. The most common Republican response, though hardly the only one, has been that they’re all for the research, they just don’t want to destroy embryos to do it.

This election is also unusual in that it seems to be much more about national issues than the typical midterm election. Midterms are usually low turnout affairs that are more about local issues than national ones. This time, however, national concerns seem to be more prominent, to the benefit of the Democrats, with stem cell research largely overshadowed by concerns about Iraq, health care, terrorism and the economy. The President is unpopular, the Iraq war is not going well, an unusually large number of Republicans are involved in scandals of one type or another, and people have been much more likely to tell pollsters that they are making voting decisions on the basis of national than local issues. Estimates by the folks at, who have crunched truly awesome amounts of survey data, indicate that these national forces amount to roughly a six point and rising Democratic advantage in the House and slightly less than 5 points and declining in the Senate.

As a result, many Democratic candidates have gone to some lengths to portray their opponents as staunch Bush Administration supporters, while many Republicans have gone to some trouble to distance themselves from the Administration.

With that said, let’s look at the major Congressional races and referenda where embryonic stem cell research has been something of an issue. This list probably isn’t complete---it’s been compiled from several sources and reflects races where a Democrat supporting embryonic stem cell research is running against a Republican who opposes it and the difference has been visible enough to attract the attention of at least one reporter. Summaries of polling data in each race are largely taken from and the election coverage of the Washington Post. Not all races are like this—in a few races, such as the Pennsylvania Senate race, both candidates oppose this research, and in a larger number, both candidates support it. In other races, there may be differences between the candidates, but neither candidate has made embryonic stem cell research an issue.

Constitutional Amendments/Referenda

South Dakota Abortion Ban (Referred Law 6)
This vote isn’t about stem cells, but things seem to have heated up lately. This is a referenda on a state law to ban all abortions except those necessary to prevent the immediate death of the mother. The state legislature explicitly rejected amendments to provide exceptions for rape, incest, and to preserve the health of the mother, but ban supporters are arguing that there are exceptions in the law. The ban has attracted considerable opposition from editorial pages and from the state chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The most recent statewide poll in late October, sponsored by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, showed the ban losing 52 percent to 42 percent.

Missouri Constitutional Amendment (Amendment 2)
This is a vote on an amendment to the Missouri constitution to unambiguously legalize embryonic stem cell research in Missouri. Amendment supporters have outspent detractors better than 10-1. While the amendment has been regularly described in local coverage as “polling well”, the most recent poll I was able to find, sponsored by the St. Louis Post Dispatch, showed the amendment winning 51-35 percent, with an unusually large number of undecideds for this stage of a highly publicized campaign.

Senate Races

The Missouri Senate race between incumbent Republican Jim Talent and State Auditor Claire McCaskill is ground zero for stem cell politics in this election cycle, but this one is too close to call. There’s been a slight movement to McCaskill over the last couple of weeks, but nothing that anybody’s calling decisive. Amendment 2, and the ads Michael J. Fox did for McCaskill, could plausibly help either candidate. Watch this one.

In other contested Senate races, the embryonic stem cell issue has been raised, but seems unlikely to be decisive. Fox made campaign ads for Democrat Benjamin Cardin in Maryland and has made appearance with Democrats Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Jim Webb in Virginia, and Robert Menendez in New Jersey (there may be others), and Democrat Amy Klobucher has been running pro-stem cell ads in Minnesota. There are other issues, however, in these races that seem more likely to be decisive. Klobucher and Brown have been running well ahead for some time, and Menendez seems to be establishing a lead in a solidly Democratic state. Cardin has lost some of his lead recently, as Republican Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, who’s run a very solid campaign, has scored several endorsements from local black politicians, but Cardin is still running ahead in this Democratic state. Virginia’s a dead heat—Republican incumbent George Allen has made several gaffs, and Webb is consistently running a tiny lead based on strong support from the Northern Virginia suburbs around Washington DC.

House Races

Of the dozen or so House races I looked at where there’s a difference in announced position on embryonic stem cell research (there are almost certainly others), seven are what we’ve labeled “stem cell suburbs”—traditionally Republican suburban districts, mostly in the Northeast or Midwest, that are relatively affluent, well educated, and may be more socially liberal than the Republican base. Kerry won or ran strongly in several of these “stem cell” districts in 2004, but five have Republican incumbents and the one open seat election is to replace a retiring Republican. The other seats are demographic mixed bags, containing mixed urban, suburban and rural areas in Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, California, and New York. Despite their recent electoral histories, most of these dozen districts are rated as “toss ups’ or “leaning Democrat” by the gurus—in only a couple of districts do Republicans appear to have a solid advantage. The old political adage is that “undecideds” tend to break for the challenger, so several of these seats may change hands on Tuesday. In most of these districts, however, other issues besides embryonic stem cells—scandals and Iraq, among others-- have occupied most of the candidates’ attention and seem likely to be more decisive.

Bottom Line?

My record as a forecaster is no better than anybody else’s, but I’ll hazard a couple of guesses. One is that this election is unlikely to produce a veto-proof majority in Congress for embryonic stem cell research—the Senate is too close to call, but may not even produce a Democratic majority, and a number of pro-stem cell Republicans, particularly in the Northeast, are seen as being in trouble, so that even a sizeable Democratic majority in the House is unlikely to produce enough new stem cell votes to override a Presidential veto of another attempt to expand federal funding for embryonic research. This means that the initiative for embryonic stem cell research, at least for the next couple of years, is likely to remain with the states.

Second, the “Michael J Fox effect” is difficult to define with any degree of certainty. Following the initial set of ads, several Democratic candidates appear to have concluded that it works to their advantage to underline the differences between themselves and their rivals on this issue by running pro-stem cell ads or making appearances with Fox. How much this will help or hurt is hard to tell—the stem cell issue may get some Democratic voters out, but it may also motivate some conservatives to come out and vote Republican.

As to my bottom line for the entire election, I’ll hazard a guess that the Democrats will pick up 25-30 seats and retake the House, but the Senate will wind up 50-50.

Finally, bioethicists (and anybody else who reads this) should be sure to exercise their responsibilities as a citizen and vote. If you haven’t done so already, check out your local races, either on or somewhere else, and do something about your findings.
Jim Fossett, AMBI/Rockefeller Institute Federalism and Bioethics Initiative

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