Rhode Island voters have sent another progressive Democratic woman to Smith Hill, Dawn Euer, who won a vacant Senate seat in Newport. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says this trend could bring debate over abortion back to the Statehouse.
For decades, Rhode Island was viewed as New England’s toughest challenge for women candidates seeking political office. Since the 17th century founding of the colony, voters have elected just nine women to statewide office and one to the U.S. House.
But the times they are a changin’ (with apologies to Bob Dylan). Gina Raimondo’s election as governor in 2014 gave Rhode Island its first women governor. Since then, the number of women running and winning legislative seats has grown.
The latest was the impressive victory forged in Newport in a special election for a vacant state Senate seat. The easy winner was Dawn Euer, a 38-year old progressive Democratic lawyer and gay rights activist.
Euer says she wore out more than one pair of flip-flop sandals to win the campaign. She knocked on 10,000 doors, harvested $60,000 in contributions and rode the crest of a relentless get-out-the vote effort to defeat a respectable, experienced Republican. The district is comprised of most of Newport and the island of Jamestown.
Massachusetts, another cobalt blue state known as a liberal bastion, also has not been hospitable to women candidates. The Bay State’s first statewide elected woman candidate is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the former Harvard law professor who in 2012 captured the seat once held by Ted Kennedy.
By contrast, Connecticut voted for a woman governor in the 1970s (Ella Grasso) and Vermont in the 1980s (Madeleine Kunin). New Hampshire has had two women governors and Democrats Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, who now hold both U.S. Senate seats in the Granite State. Maine had a woman U.S. senator –Margaret Chase Smith – in the 1950s.
In Rhode Island, the election of Euer comes in the wake of recent victories by progressive women on the Democratic Statehouse side. The biggest upset was Marcia Ranglin-Vassell primary defeat of longtime Statehouse power and majority leader John DeSimone in Providence last year. There have been others –Jeanine Calkin’s in Warwick and Katie Kazarian of East Providence, to name just two.
Massachusetts and Rhode Island both have deep traditions of liberalism and politics as ethnic, tribal contact sport. The male and Roman Catholic-dominated Democratic parties were not welcoming to women candidates. Beginning in the 1980s, Rhode Island Republicans courted women candidates with success. The only woman ever elected to federal office in the Ocean State remains Republican Claudine Schneider, who served in the 1980s. As the Republican Party has veered to the right on social issues, particularly gay rights and abortion, many women have gravitated to the Democrats.
Euer replaces a woman, Teresa Paiva Weed, who rose to become Senate president. She was a liberal on economic and labor issues, but parted ways with the Democratic Party on abortion and gay marriage, which she opposed. Euer won with support from Planned Parenthood, which lobbies for legal abortion.
Euer says she plans to stand up for reproductive rights at a time when abortion is again a hot-button issue. She and other Democratic women are planning to be aggressive in pursuit of measures that would protect abortion rights in Rhode Island even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 1973 Roe V. Wade decision that made the medical procedure legal.
The number of women seeking abortions has dropped dramatically since 2000, but the rhetoric around the issue has only heated up. President Donald Trump wants to send the topic back to the states, which will trigger 50 separate abortion debates.
At the Rhode Island Statehouse, the Democrats who have long led both the House and Senate have long kept the abortion issue under the radar, ensuring lawmakers didn’t have to cast tough votes.
Rhode Island hasn’t had a big abortion joust since the 1980s, when a state Constitutional Convention put an anti-abortion amendment to voters at a statewide referendum. The anti-abortion amendment went down in a landslide after a caustic campaign. If abortion gets sent back to the states, expect a repeat of that campaign on steroids, as digital media and national dark money groups bring this divisive debate to our public square.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org