Sarah Steelman, Missouri GOP Senate Candidate, 'Not Sure' What Violence Against Women Act Is

WASHINGTON -- The "war on women" is making its way into the Missouri U.S. Senate race, where GOP candidate Sarah Steelman was dinged by Missouri Democrats on Monday for saying she didn't know what the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was in response to a voter's question about it.

The exchange happened last weekend, according to the Springfield News-Leader, and was posted online by the Missouri Democratic Party. Below is an excerpt from the conversation between Steelman and the man who approached her about the issue (as well as a woman standing nearby who jumps in with the correct name of the law):

MAN: Have you heard about the woman's violence act or something like that is working through the House?

STEELMAN: I'm not sure what that is because I'm not serving right now. ...

WOMAN: Violence Against Women Act. ...

MAN: You haven't really heard about it?

STEELMAN: No. Not really.

Caitlin Legacki, spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party, said the exchange "underscores how ill-equipped [Steelman] is to serve in public office."

Steelman, the former state treasurer of Missouri, is running against Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) and businessman John Brunner in the Republican Senate primary. The winner will face off against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

Steelman's campaign quickly put out a statement, clarifying that the candidate is open to the Republican version of the law's reauthorization.

"Everyday, President Obama and Senator McCaskill are making it harder for working mothers and women of all ages to find a good paying job. They continue to dictate to our families how they should live, stripping them of opportunities and freedom," said Steelman.

"Of course I am for stopping violence against women," she added. "It is unfortunate that the Senate Democrats are making the current re-authorization of Violence Against Women bill into a political football. The Republicans are offering an improved version of the reauthorization bill and I want to review it."

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 2 approved S. 1925 reauthorizing VAWA, which aims to increase the reporting and prosecution of violence against women. The bill was sponsored by Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who is not a member of the committee. Nevertheless, the legislation attracted no GOP support among Judiciary Committee members and was approved by the committee on a party-line vote of 10-8. The act has been reauthorized twice before and Leahy's office said this was the first time it didn't receive bipartisan backing from the committee.

The measure now has a total of 61 cosponsors, including eight Republicans.

The Leahy-Crapo reauthorization would increase the emphasis on reducing domestic homicides and sexual assault, strengthen housing protections for domestic violence victims and focus more on the high rates of violence among teens and young adults. Some Republicans are objecting to it, however, because it extends protections to LGBT individuals who have been victims of domestic violence, allows more battered undocumented immigrants to obtain visas and expands the authority of Native American tribes to prosecute crimes.

A group of Republicans in the House and Senate is working to write a GOP alternative reauthorization bill.

VAWA's reauthorization has taken center stage as Democrats try to portray Republicans as out of touch with the concerns of female voters. Four years ago, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, like Steelman, said he wasn't "familiar with" VAWA, but he recently said he supports it and "hopes it can be reauthorized without turning it into a political football."

UPDATE: 5:30 p.m. -- Spokesmen for both Akin and Brunner, Steelman's GOP rivals, told The Huffington Post the candidates would support some version of VAWA's reauthorization.

Brunner's campaign said he is in favor of an alternative Republican version of the bill.

"John supports reauthorizing the original act, yes," said spokesman Jon Seaton. "Our understanding is that Senator [Kay Bailey] Hutchison will be offering legislation to this effect, and John supports that initiative."

Akin voted for a previous reauthorization of VAWA, said his communications director, Steve Taylor.

"Congressman Akin voted for HR 3402 in Dec 2005 which included a reauthorization of the act, which I believe was signed by the President in 2006," Taylor said. "That said this version caries new and different provisions which will have to be looked at closely, including compliance with DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act] and issues of specialty visas."

Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed reporting.