How Planned Parenthood Funding Became the Centerpiece of the N.H. Governor's Race

Oct 4, 2016

Battles over funding for Planned Parenthood have become a familiar political drama over the past several years.

In this year’s gubernatorial election, Democrat Colin Van Ostern is hoping to use his opponent Republican Chris Sununu’s history on the issue against him. But the history can get complicated.

For Van Ostern, Planned Parenthood funding isn’t just another issue. According to him, it’s a central part of his origin story as a public figure.

Here he is describing his first run for office at a recent campaign event.

“I also ran for Executive Council in large part because three men on the state Executive Council shut off funding for Planned Parenthood health centers.”

That vote was back in 2011. The complicated saga of state funding for Planned Parenthood that followed has helped to define Van Ostern’s career in office.

Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund PAC endorsed Van Ostern in the midst of the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

The state contracts with Planned Parenthood to provide family planning and other health services, not abortions. But the fact that Planned Parenthood provides privately funded abortions has given the organization plenty of political opponents.

Since Van Ostern was sworn in as an executive councilor in 2013, the council has voted three times on state contracts with Planned Parenthood. Two passed and one failed. Each time, Van Ostern cast himself as a leader of the push to protect the funding.

“I’ve had to work hard twice to get Planned Parenthood funding restored in New Hampshire, and it worked both times, but we need a governor who is going to support this 100% of the time," he said earlier this year.

In his primary campaign for governor, Van Ostern kept up his focus on Planned Parenthood. So much so, that the group’s political arm took the unprecedented step of endorsing Van Ostern in a Democratic primary with two other pro-choice candidates.

Jennifer Frizzell is chair of the Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund. Here she is explaining why they chose Van Ostern at an event in August.

“Colin Van Ostern stands out uniquely as a champion as we look to the last 4 or 5 years and that’s really been effective and made a difference in our survival and so there is something worthy and unique about his trajectory.”

That endorsement drew criticism from some within the state’s pro-choice community who felt the group was becoming too politically aggressive.

Now in the general election, the group is continuing to support Van Ostern with a media campaign aimed at discrediting Sununu’s record on women’s health.

Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund calls Sununu "anti-women's health."

But Chris Sununu’s history with Planned Parenthood is more complicated than a single vote to end state funding.

More recently, he voted in favor of a contract with the organization that included payments for those months it didn’t receive state funds.

And remember that vote back in 2011 that inspired Van Ostern to run for the Executive Council? Sununu was one of two Republicans on the council that year who voted in favor of Planned Parenthood funding.

Sununu says Democratic attacks on this issue will ring hollow with voters.

“They’ve won elections in the past trying to bash Republicans on social issues," he said in an interview. "But, you know, I’m much more in tune and in line with where a lot of the voting electorate is. So they’re grasping. They’re grasping at anything they can.”

When asked to describe his position on abortion, Sununu says he’s a pro-choice Republican with a caveat for so-called late-term abortions.

As a candidate for governor, Sununu usually doesn’t bring up the issue unless asked, and he hasn’t proposed any policy changes on the matter.

He has said that his vote to end Planned Parenthood’s state contract in 2015 had nothing to do with his stance on abortion rights or women’s health, and everything to do with undercover videos released that year by conservative activists. Those videos purported to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the illegal sale of fetal tissue.

“And I said, 'Well, let’s just take a pause. Let’s do an investigation. Let’s look into what’s happening.' Because no matter what your business is, whether it’s in healthcare or snow-plowing, we have to be sure who we’re doing with business with in the state.”

Several investigations into Planned Parenthood in other states turned up no evidence to support the claims made by the video’s makers.

But even after that, Sununu told reporters that New Hampshire shouldn’t do business with Planned Parenthood. He cited what he called the aggressive political rhetoric of some Planned Parenthood activists.

But by this June, Sununu changed his tune and bucked his party with a vote to restore funding for Planned Parenthood.

Sununu and Van Ostern sit next to each other at an Executive Council meeting in June of 2016. Sununu joined Van Ostern in voting to approve the Planned Parenthood contract at this meeting.
Credit Casey McDermott for NHPR

Then, only two months later, Sununu said he was open to the idea of a further investigation into Planned Parenthood activities in New Hampshire.

So Sununu’s record with Planned Parenthood doesn’t exactly follow a straight path. And that’s precisely what Van Ostern is hoping to highlight for voters.

“There’s a very clear contrast between someone who is supporting women’s health 100% of the time and someone who voted successfully to shut off funding,” Van Ostern told voters at a recent event.  

Whether voters will see it as a clear contrast or a muddying of the waters on a pro-choice Republican is unclear. The answer may help determine the outcome of the election.