In a GOP version of gender politics, some prominent Republican politicians and women's groups have endorsed Sarah Steelman over two conservative male candidates in Missouri's Aug. 7 Senate primary — despite her past votes opposing tort reform and support from labor and trial lawyers' groups.
Ms. Steelman, a former state treasurer and legislator, is in a tight race with six-term U.S. Rep. W. Todd Akin, who has an American Conservative Union 98 percent lifetime rating, and evangelical Protestant and former St. Louis businessman John Brunner for the right to challenge vulnerable Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill in November.
Some Missouri Republicans and business groups argue Ms. Steelman does not deserve conservative support because she sided with trial lawyer and organized labor interests against fellow Republicans when tort reform and changes to the state's workmen's compensation laws were being debated.
"In 2003, we had a real opportunity to pass comprehensive tort reform," said Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, "and Sarah Steelman made it her personal mission to kill it."
She was also the only Republican to vote against workmen's compensation reform bill, a fact Mr. Akin has pointedly noted on the campaign trail.
Despite that, the 54-year-old Ms. Steelman, an evangelical Christian who calls herself a "constitutionalist conservative," has won an impressive array of valuable conservative endorsements this year, including Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express, a political action committee with close ties to the former Alaska governor. Conservative women's advocacy and funding groups, including Maggie's List, the Susan B. Anthony Candidate Fund, ShePAC and the Value in Electing Women (VIEW) PAC have also endorsed Ms. Steelman over her male rivals.
Sam Steelman, Ms. Steelman's son and deputy campaign manager, countered that his mother had voted for measures such as limiting medical malpractice, banning cities from suing gun makers and denying benefits to workers fired for showing up drunk or high on drugs.
Mr. Steelman also argued the proposed tort bill that his mother opposed was far from perfect.
"The 2003 bill that she voted against contained a provision that would protect drunk drivers from being liable in some instances," he said.
Women make up 17 percent of Congress — 75 in the House and 17 in the Senate, with Democrats outnumbering the GOP by about 2 to 1 —and hold 23 percent of the country's statewide elected offices.
Among the 7,382 state lawmakers, about 24 percent are women, which is five times as many as in 1971, according to the National Foundation for Women Legislators. The NFWL based its findings on a Rutgers University report that also found women make up 17 percent of mayors in cities with populations of 30,000 or more.
Maggie's List, one of the groups backing Ms. Steelman, was founded as the answer to Emily's List, which conservatives long envied for its success in raising money for mostly liberal, pro-choice Democratic women candidates. But sometimes its mission to promote women in elective office clashes with the goal of backing the most conservative candidate in the race.
"The biggest obstacle we face when we engage in gender-specific support groups such as Maggie's List is that our conservative female candidate may be running against a man who has a more conservative record," Republican National Committee member and California Maggie's List Chairwoman Linda Ackerman said.
Some prominent members of Maggie's List expressed surprise on learning of Mrs. Steelman's voting record.
"Our board interviewed women candidates and tried to come up with the fiscally conservatives ones to endorse," said Wyoming Republican National Committee member Jan Larimer. She didn't know of any male candidates being invited, "but none volunteered to show up."
Mrs. Ackerman, Maggie's California chairwoman, said she had no idea Mrs. Steelman was a liberal on tort and workmen's compensation reforms.
"I'm not sure how much they are vetting these women," she said. "But I guess I would give Maggie's List a little leeway if Ms. Steelman was conservative on everything else, because I think we need to start somewhere. On the left, Emily's List has thousands of women who write checks and support their liberal ideas. I suspect some of them are not knowledgeable about how liberal that group is."
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