Pro-life? Pro-Choice? Pro-Jobs.

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Yesterday, Sarah Palin said that abortion is an “essential issue” in the midterm elections, representing the choice for voters between a “culture of life” and “a culture of death.” “It’s essential that we use the 2010 midterms to elect a Congress that will make undoing the damage of Obamacare its first priority,” she said at a paid speech to an anti-abortion group in Houston.

I’m not so sure that abortion is that key of an issue. Frankly, I’m guessing jobs and the economy are a little more pressing to more voters right now. Not to mention deficits and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Certainly voters, when asked, don’t rank abortion as their top concern. That said, the role abortion has played in these elections has been an interesting one.

Many of the Tea Party groups have been careful to steer clear of the social wedge issues  — abortion, gay marriage, Terry Schiavo — that so obsessed the last Republican Congress and drove away moderates and fiscal conservatives. At the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville earlier this year, at a panel entitled “How to Organize a Tea Party?” Colorado Tea Partier Lori Christenson talked about how her group avoided meeting in churches. “We are already identified that we are religious right and in our particular Tea Party this is not the identity we would seek to have,” she said. On the whole, the Tea Party movement has been more closely associated with fiscal issues than social ones.

At the same time, there has been a parallel movement within the pro-life world this cycle. Just as Tea Partiers have been purging the GOP ranks of so-called RINOs – Utah’s Bob Bennett, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska come to mind – pro-lifers have been doing some purging of their own. Outraged by the passage of health care reform, which pro-life groups say allows federal funding of abortions (pro-choice groups and the Administration dispute this and point to as presidential proclamation barring funding of abortions – a document that pro-lifers argue can be ripped up at any time and is an weak substitute for settled law). If Americans United for Life and the Susan B. Anthony List have their way, there will be hardly any pro-life Dems left after the elections – at least not any that voted for the health care bill. As I’ve reported before, the so-called Stupak dozen are being heavily targeted and have virtually nowhere to go for help.

From a Politico story out today:

SBA List is engaged in a multimillion-dollar attack on its former allies, replete with bus tours and billboards alleging that members “voted for taxpayer-funded abortion.” The group invested $1.5 million in its “Votes Have Consequences” bus tour in August, targeting anti-abortion Democrats who supported health reform. Just last week, SBA List spent $55,000 on 32 billboards dotting the districts of three vulnerable Democrats.

On the other hand, Democrats for Life of America, the group most fiercely devoted to defending anti-abortion Democrats, has been essentially inactive this election cycle. Its political action committee brought in $2,431 and spent a paltry $308, according to Federal Election Commission filings. DFLA has made no contributions to federal candidates.

That [freshman Pennsylvania Democrat Kathy] Dahlkemper finds herself in a razor-thin race and on the defensive over her abortion rights stance is particularly galling for the freshman congresswoman. 

“It’s been extremely frustrating at times,” Dahlkemper told POLITICO. “All along, I have donated. I have marched. I have been an unmarried pregnant woman who chose life. I have lived this. Now I’m 52, and in the last six months, all of a sudden, people are questioning who I am.”

At a time when Dems are right on the edge of losing the House, the loss of every seat hurts and the pro-life attacks in at least a dozen districts seem to be having an impact. But just how much voters are taking into account members’ votes for health care reform, versus general outrage about the economy is impossible to say. Most of these Dems are from conservative districts that naturally swing in wave elections; Dahlkemper’s district, for example, went for John McCain in 2008 by a margin of just 17 votes. Something tells me that voters in Pennsylvania’s Third CD are far more concerned with the fact that General Electric, International Paper, American Meter, Gunite/EMI and American Sterilizer have all laid off workers and/or closed plants. Local colleges document a brain drain as high as 70% from the region. For single issue and deeply religious voters, yes, abortion is an “essential” issue – but that’s nothing new. For everyone else, “essential” is relative in the face of far greater essential needs.