The last time Nebraskans elected a statewide candidate who supported abortion rights was in 1994, with the re-election of Democrat Bob Kerrey to the U.S. Senate.
Democrat Chuck Hassebrook is hoping to repeat Kerrey's success.
Hassebrook is the only candidate in a crowded field of 2014 governor candidates — five Republicans and two Democrats — who supports a woman's right to choose an abortion.
His campaign sent out a blast email on Tuesday, touting his endorsement from Planned Parenthood Voters of Nebraska, a group affiliated with Planned Parenthood of the Heartland.
Planned Parenthood operates health care clinics in Nebraska that provide women's reproductive health care and family-planning services, including abortion at some locations.
Hassebrook was emphatic Wednesday that the endorsement was about much more than abortion rights.
He said he sought the group's endorsement because of its work in providing a variety of health services to women, including access to birth control.
“It's something I feel strongly about. I think women should have access to birth control and family planning services,” Hassebrook said.
His stance on abortion and the endorsement almost guarantee that abortion will be an issue in both the primary and general elections.
Hassebrook's Democratic rival, Annette Dubas, is an abortion opponent. She was opposed to abortion even in cases of rape or incest. She made that declaration in 2010, when she sought and received the endorsement of Nebraska Right to Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group.
Since then, Dubas said, she has modified her views. She now supports exceptions for women in cases of rape and incest, a change that came about, she said, after engaging in and listening to debates within the Nebraska Legislature.
“I just believe the physical and mental traumas experienced by these victims, we have to provide those exceptions,” Dubas said.
Hassebrook noted that he supports all of Nebraska's current laws that restrict or regulate abortion, including a provision that bans all abortions after 20 weeks.
“I do not support politicians putting further restrictions on abortion, (more) than we already have,” he said. “Certainly, within the first 20 weeks, that decision should be left up to a woman, her family and consultations with her physician.”
Hassebrook and Dubas said they do not plan to make abortion a key issue in the Democratic primary, but Dubas said that she expects it will come up.
“I expect we'll be asked about it. Chuck and I have different views,” she said.
Republicans made it clear that if Hassebrook wins the nomination, then they plan to make his abortion stance and the Planned Parenthood endorsement an issue.
“Planned Parenthood is the country's largest abortion provider, and Nebraska is a strong pro-life state. Chuck Hassebrook has set himself up for a key contrast in the general election that doesn't bode in his favor,” said Jessica Moenning, a political consultant working for Pete Ricketts' campaign.
Ricketts is one of five anti-abortion Republicans running for governor. The others: State Auditor Mike Foley and State Sens. Charlie Janssen, Beau McCoy and Tom Carlson.
It has been a long time since Nebraskans embraced a candidate who supported women's abortion rights.
All five members of the state's congressional delegation strongly oppose abortion. All of the state's constitutional officers oppose abortion.
Paul Johnson, Kerrey's former campaign manager, said he believes an abortion-rights candidate can win, especially in the general election when single-issue voters — those who vote strictly on a candidate's abortion views — have less sway.
“It's always been my belief that in order for a Democrat to win in Nebraska, you have to establish your fiscal credentials, and people are more forgiving on the social issues,” Johnson said.
Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, said the success of anti-abortion candidates speaks for itself.
She said many candidates — both Republican and Democrat — aggressively pursue the endorsement of her group, which includes those endorsements in its election guide.
In contrast, some candidates who receive an endorsement from Planned Parenthood Voters of Nebraska choose to keep it confidential. The organization will release the endorsement only if the candidate approves, said Shauna Benjamin, a spokeswoman for the group.
“Sometimes a candidate prefers a private endorsement. Sometimes they prefer a public endorsement,” Benjamin said.
Hassebrook is one of the few statewide candidates in recent memory to publicly announce his Planned Parenthood endorsement.
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