MADISON, Wis. - Just last year, the views of Wisconsin Right to Life and Sen. John McCain clashed in the Supreme Court — over McCain's signature campaign finance law, not abortion.
The powerful anti-abortion group won the argument when the Supreme Court ruled that free speech trumps restrictions on political advertising. Now, with the anti-abortion McCain competing against an abortion-rights Democrat, Wisconsin Right to Life is backing McCain's bid for the White House.
"McCain supports our position on the issues and that's what matters now," said Dan Pilon, the president of the group's board of directors. "I've learned that once you have a fight, it's over and done and you forget about it. You don't go around holding grudges."
Political observers say the group, credited with driving the Wisconsin GOP to the right by helping anti-abortion conservatives win primaries, could help persuade conservatives uneasy with McCain to vote for him.
"If they are behind him, the party is likely to be able to mobilize its core supporters behind McCain," said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist.
The group's members were reliable volunteers for the Bush campaign in 2004 and a major influence in state politics, said Mark Graul, a Republican consultant who ran President Bush's Wisconsin campaign. Bush narrowly lost Wisconsin to John Kerry by 49.7 percent to 49.3 percent, or 11,384 votes.
For this election, Wisconsin Right to Life's effort to educate voters about McCain and his anti-abortion views should be larger than those for Bush in 2000 and 2004, said Barbara Lyons, the group's executive director. Its employees and volunteers plan to contact 500,000 Wisconsin households it has identified as sympathetic to their cause, using direct mail, Internet advocacy and telephone calls.
In 2004 the group's attention turned to the 2002 McCain-Feingold law, which it claimed stifled free speech. The group filed a lawsuit after it was prohibited from running ads telling voters to urge Wisconsin's two senators not to filibuster Bush's judicial nominees.
The ads were not allowed because one of the senators, Sen. Russ Feingold, McCain's partner in writing the campaign finance law, was up for re-election. The law banned corporations and unions from paying for ads that mentioned a candidate within 60 days of an election and 30 days of a primary.
McCain and a group of lawmakers urged courts to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the ad's intent was to influence the election because Wisconsin Right to Life supported Feingold's Republican challengers.
When the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 in favor of the group, its decision opened a door for interest groups to become an influential voice in the closing days of an election.
Lyons said the law remains murky and she's unsure whether her group will be allowed to run television and radio ads mentioning McCain. "Our advice has been, 'See your lawyer,'" she said.
The group's political action committee endorsed McCain in April. Lyons said she was not happy about the court fight over the campaign finance law, but she said it was an easy call to endorse a candidate with a 25-year record of voting against abortion rights.
"Obviously, we were very concerned about our free speech rights and we went to court to protect them," she said. "But in terms of the endorsement, what we had to look at is, what is the record of McCain in comparison to Obama? The difference is incredibly stark."