Campaigns/Elections

Americans Vote Pro-Life

Did stem cells give the Senate to the Democrats?

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The only veto so far wielded by President George W. Bush was against the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act this past July. In something of a rarity over the last six years, the Act passed with bipartisan support. Bush issued his veto in the face of strong public backing for the research. For example, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken shortly after his veto found 68 percent of Americans in favor expanding federal support for human embryonic stem cell research. The president didn't veto the bill because he's against federal funding of scientific research; he vetoed it as a favor to his political following among anti-abortion conservative Christians. That turned out to be a big mistake.

The same July 2006 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll also found that 33 percent of voters said that they would be more likely to vote for their member of Congress if he or she voted in favor of stem cell research while only 19 percent they would be less likely to vote for them. (Forty-four percent said it made no difference.) The rubber met the political tarmac most prominently in Missouri where voters passed an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing that "any stem cell research permitted under federal law may be conducted in Missouri." The margin was an admittedly puny 55,000 votes out of the 2 million cast. But keep in mind that stem cell research supporter Democrat Claire McCaskill beat stem cell initiative opponent incumbent Republican Senator Jim Talent by just 42,000 votes.

How did stem cell supporters fare in other races? Gail Pressberg and Pam Solo, the authors of the forthcoming Stem Cell Research: Promise and Politics, tracked 25 Senate and House races in which stem cell research played a role. In the seven of the eight of the closely contested senatorial races in which the Democrats won, all of them supported embryonic stem cell research. The victors were Bob Menendez in New Jersey, Jon Tester in Montana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Ben Cardin in Maryland, Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota, and Jim Webb in Virginia. The only stem cell loser was Harold Ford in Tennessee. It is true that Democrat Bob Casey, Jr. who opposes embryonic stem cell research on religious grounds beat Republican incumbent Rick Santorum for the Senate in Pennsylvania. Of course, Santorum is against embryonic stem cell research based on his religious beliefs too, so it was a wash in that race.

Pressberg and Solo also note that in the three gubernatorial races in which stem cells played a prominent role, the pro-research Democrats all won: Wisconsin's Jim Doyle, Iowa's Chet Culver and Michigan's Jennifer Granholm. And in the midst of the mid-term slaughter of Republican officeholders, stem cell supporter California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also won handily with nearly 56 percent of the vote.

The result is less clear in the 15 House races tracked by Pressberg and Solo, but so far 8 Democratic stem cell supporters won, 5 lost, and 2 are still up in the air as of Thursday evening. The new Democratic Congressional leadership is expected to reintroduce legislation to expand federal support for embryonic stem cell research in the new session.

Look, if Republicans had opposed embryonic stem cell research on the grounds that dim-witted government bureaucrats haven't a clue about how to choose between scientific boondoggles and scientific brilliance, then perhaps the stem cell issue wouldn't have cut against them. Instead, conservative Republican pandering to the Religious Right on this issue made them look like uncaring anti-progress know-nothings to most voters. In the first post-election salvo of recriminations, Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, Executive Director of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership, noted in a press release: "For the last two years centrist GOPers have warned the leadership of our party of the consequences of pushing a legislative agenda cow-towing (sic) to the far right in our party. Our warnings were ignored, and now our party is paying a devastating price." She's right.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.