AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican Charlie Summers built up a reputation as a moderate who supports abortion rights during his tenure in the state Senate and during three runs to represent Maine’s First District in the U.S. House.
But independent Senate candidate Angus King’s campaign has gone after the Republican Senate nominee this week for what the campaign has called a flip-flop on the abortion issue, citing differing answers Summers gave to the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald this spring in response to survey questions about abortion.
Summers’ campaign says the candidate’s position hasn’t changed, he’s always supported abortion rights.
In May, as Summers faced five rivals in the Republican Senate primary, a Bangor Daily News survey asked, “Do you support a woman’s right to an abortion?” Summers answered, “I support a woman’s right to an abortion in the case of rape, incest and life of the mother.”
A pre-primary survey from the Portland Press Herald asked, “Do you support legal access to abortion?” Summers answered, “Yes, but not with government funds.”
“I think, at best, Charlie is confused where he stands,” said King campaign spokeswoman Crystal Canney. “You can’t have it both ways. You should know where you stand on an issue like that.”
But Summers’ position on abortion access has never changed, said spokesman Drew Brandewie.
“He’s pro-choice. He’s always been pro-choice. His record shows that he’s pro-choice,” he said. “He doesn’t believe that Mainers’ taxpayer dollars should be used to fund [abortions].”
Brandewie attributed the survey flap to “a staff error,” though the campaign hasn’t requested that the BDN change the answer. Jen Webber, who was working as Summers’ communications consultant at the time, said she couldn’t remember the circumstances surrounding the answers to the abortion survey questions.
“There were so many surveys that came into the campaign during the primary,” she said. “We had about 20 or more surveys from different organizations that we worked on.”
News clips detailing Summers’ first congressional run in 1994 frequently referred to the then-state senator as “moderate” and “pro-choice.”
In 1992, Summers attended the Republican National Convention and unsuccessfully fought to remove an anti-abortion plank from the party’s official platform, the Portland Press Herald reported. The Associated Press quoted Summers calling the anti-abortion faction of the Republican party “wackos,” though he later clarified that he was referring only to a few members of the Republicans’ party platform committee.
In 2008, he checked off a box on a Project VoteSmart survey indicating he agreed with the statement, “Abortions should always be legal.” He didn’t indicate he agreed with the statement that, “Medicare, Medicaid, and federal subsidies should be prohibited from being used on abortion procedures.”
But Summers has said multiple times during his 2012 Senate run that he opposes any federal funding for abortion services. And his responses to questions about his position on abortion rights this year have grown to include explanations indicating he supports abortion access in cases of rape and incest and when the life of the mother is in danger. Summers hasn’t said that he supports limiting abortion access to those circumstances, however.
A Summers victory hinges on a strong turnout among Republican voters, said Mark Brewer, who teaches political science at the University of Maine.
“In many ways, Summers doesn’t have much of a choice but to change how he presents himself on this,” he said. “The Republican Party has changed in Maine. In the last few years, it’s moved to the right pretty significantly, in my view.”
If Summers had come out clearly pro-choice with no qualifications during the GOP primary, Brewer said, it’s unlikely he would have won. “You’d have to do that in a primary, particularly when there are conservative choices, and there were here,” he said.
At a town hall forum in Lewiston in May, moderator Carol Weston asked the six Republican primary candidates to indicate whether they were pro-life or pro-choice.
“I believe that there are times in a woman’s life, like rape, incest or life of the mother when an abortion may be necessary, which is why I voted pro-choice,” he said.
In an April interview with Maine Public Radio, Summers said, “I’ve always voted pro-choice because I think there are times such as the life of the mother or incest or rape when abortion may have to be something that would be considered.”
He clarified that answer Thursday during a call-in program on Maine Public Radio.
“I am pro-choice specifically for three reasons: rape, incest, life of the mother,” he said. “I think that those are instances that, among others, when something like that may be necessary. I think all one needs to do is look at my voting record in the Maine Legislature, and I have a solidly pro-choice voting record.”