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Red State Democrats Tread Lightly On Hobby Lobby Ruling

NPR icon by Frank James
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David Goldman

For the typical Democrat running in 2014, frequent condemnation of the Supreme Court's recent Hobby Lobby decision is a no-brainer as a rallying cry to raise money and energize voters — especially women.

Monday's ruling allows family-owned and other closely held companies to opt out of the federal health law's contraception mandate if they have religious objections.

But some Democrats have to be more constrained than others in their objection to the decision, namely those running for the Senate in more conservative-oriented states.

The large percentages of conservatives and evangelical Christians in those states, as well as church-going Democrats and Latino Catholics, means Democrats campaigning there must tread carefully.

Senate candidates Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, for example, expressed disappointment publicly in the high court's 5-4 ruling.

But it was fairly muted. Go to the websites and social media pages of Nunn, Grimes, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas or Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska and it's hard to tell the Hobby Lobby case even happened.

One red state Democrat — Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina — was an exception, posting a news release that mentioned the Hobby Lobby decision on her campaign website. It used the news of the ruling as a way to contrast her with Republican challenger Thom Tillis, who approved of the Supreme Court ruling and also supported a "personhood" constitutional amendment that would grant legal protection to a fertilized human egg.

"Kay has always stood up for a woman's access to contraceptive care. This is not a new position for her," says Sadie Weiner, Hagan's communications director.

(Requests for comment were made to other Democratic Senate candidates who hadn't responded by the time this was written. We will update with any responses that roll in.)

Hagan has it somewhat easier, of course, than some of the other red state Democratic Senate candidates. While President Obama lost North Carolina in 2012, he won the state in 2008. The state has a Republican governor and a GOP-controlled Legislature, but Democrats have a voter registration edge over Republicans.

The muted response from red state Democrats contrasts with the reaction from New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who has kept up a steady stream of tweets criticizing the decision since the high court ruling.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, whose blue state seat is considered relatively safe, highlights on his website a news report that he will introduce legislation requiring companies that use the Hobby Lobby decision to not pay for their employees' contraceptive coverage to disclose that to workers and applicants.

While the decision inflamed the Democratic base in general — and Democratic women in particular — Democratic political consultant Neil Oxman says the red state Democrats are in "a bit of a conundrum."

"If you're any of those [Senate candidate] women and you disagree with the decision, you're not going to do it on radio; you're not going to do it on TV," Oxman tells It's All Politics. "You're going to do it through a lot of direct mail. You're going to do it in ways where you're going to target households."

The candidates would be wise to wait until late in the campaign to address the issue, he says, in order to keep any backlash before Election Day to a minimum.

And while campaigns would likely use targeted social media to amplify their positions, direct mail would be the preferred route since that allows a campaign to be "a little more incendiary and scary," Oxman says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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