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Originally published Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Pro-choice attacks on state Sen. Steve Litzow off the mark

Mercer Island Republican state Sen. Steve Litzow is pro-choice, writes Lynne K. Varner. Political ads painting him as a hard-line conservative hostile to women are flat-out wrong.

Times editorial columnist

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Political campaigns are tricky. It can be tough to distinguish moderate Democrats from moderate Republicans, who can be more reasonable and progressive within their political parties.

But that’s no excuse for the gross exaggeration and half-truths pushed by pro-choice groups looking to unseat state Sen. Steve Litzow in the 41st Legislative District.

The Mercer Island Republican is pro-choice with miles of progressive street cred. Political ads and mailers painting him as a hard-line conservative hostile to women are flat-out wrong.

The problem is not that Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington and the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington have endorsed Litzow’s opponent, Democrat Maureen Judge. But they’re pushing a line of reasoning built on distorted truths.

At issue is a vote Litzow took in the wee hours of a legislative session as three Democrats joined with Republicans to take over the Senate floor to pass a budget. As majority Democrats desperately tried to regain control, they trotted out bills to tempt lawmakers to break the coalition. One of them was the Reproductive Parity Act, a bill requiring insurers who cover maternity care to also cover abortions. Left unsaid by the women's’ groups is that this was a political football that turned into a failed “Hail, Mary” pass.

Litzow, who has been clear about his support for the women’s health-care bill, resisted the temptation and stuck with the coalition that eventually led to several key reforms and a path to a sustainable budget.

This nuance is critical because too often politics is reduced to code words. Telling voters, about half of whom are female, that Litzow is anti-choice is essentially telling them he does not care about the same issues women care about.

That big lie morphs into a broader narrative in which voters are encouraged to extrapolate that, if Litzow would deny women the right to make choices about what happens to their bodies, he might also deny gays the right to marry and hold similar inflexible views on progressive issues.

Of course, this narrative is contradicted by the facts: Litzow was the first Republican in the state Senate to break with his party and publicly support gay marriage. But the tightness of Litzow’s race shows the staying power of false narratives.

The politically constricting image of Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” meets the equally restrictive notion that women voters are concerned only about their reproductive rights. I and plenty of other women would beg to differ with both depictions.

Maybe pro-choice groups opposing Litzow are simply doing the arithmetic. As Linda Mitchell of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington points out, with 10 women leaving public office this year, backing Judge becomes critical for some.

This approach may come with unintended consequences. Pro-choice groups need moderate Republicans, a growing group locally that includes not just Litzow but state Sens. Joe Fain of Auburn and Andy Hill of Redmond. Lawmakers may think twice next time about bucking their party to join a team that might bite them next election.

Fear tactics in politics work best when voters are already feeling anxious about the economy and worried that they’re not getting ahead, says Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington assistant professor and historian.

O’Mara notes that throughout the history of American politics, economic downturns have coincided with political elections cast around gender politics, such as abortion rights and pay equity. Before women could vote, Teddy Roosevelt was shifting from speeches about conservation to appeals for women’s suffrage — meant to attract progressives and reform-minded voters of that day.

These days, both Republicans and Democrats are using abortion to score points with the extremes in their political parties.

“Choice becomes the boogeyman used to scare voters away from voting for someone,” O’Mara says.

In Litzow’s case, voters should not be fooled.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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