WASHINGTON — Recent Senate primary victories for pro-life GOP women may signal a sea change that could boost anti-abortion efforts on Capitol Hill and across the country.

Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO, now will challenge Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer for the California Senate seat. Sharron Angle, a Tea Party activist and a former home-schooling mother, will fight for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Nevada seat.

Two more pro-life women, who await gubernatorial primaries in Colorado and New Hampshire, could further expand anti-abortion ranks in the party’s top tier — a dramatic shift from a status quo that includes no pro-life women in the Senate and only 13 in the House. Jane Norton, the former lieutenant governor of Colorado, has made opposition to abortion a central element of campaign ads that tout her accomplishments: “She cut government spending, eliminated waste and defunded Planned Parenthood.”

In some political contests, abortion has been a secondary issue amid voter worries about high unemployment and the rising federal deficit. But pro-life activists are buoyed by the string of primary victories for abortion opponents, pointing to additional battles for governor in New Mexico, where Susana Martinez won the GOP’s nomination, and in South Carolina, where pollsters predict a win for Nikki Haley.

“The pro-life issue has been framed in a more positive way, and people have begun to embrace the pro-life message. We’ve seen a corresponding increase in people who identity themselves as pro-life,” said Angle, the Republican candidate for the Senate in Nevada, who will target Reid’s pro-abortion voting record in an ad campaign.

“This could be a tipping-point moment,” agreed Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which promotes, endorses and funds pro-life women for national political office and played a strategic role in the recent primary wins. The first pro-life organization to endorse Fiorina for the Senate, the Susan B. Anthony List spent $215,000 on campaign ads touting the candidate’s leadership qualities and pro-life commitment.

“The impetus for the Susan B. Anthony List was the 1992 ‘Year of the Woman,’ when Barbara Boxer became a U.S. senator,” said Dannenfelser. “This year has all the ingredients to be the ‘Year of the Pro-Life Woman.’ The most compelling example of that is the contest between Carly Fiorina and Barbara Boxer. Fiorina has unabashedly challenged what Boxer represents — that strong women must be for abortion rights.”

Finding Common Ground

While Fiorina possesses a limited public record on pro-life issues, Dannenfelser is confident that the candidate will not only be a pro-life vote in the Senate, but an outspoken advocate: “When Fiorina was challenged on this before the primary, she said, ‘The life issue is who I am. If I lose, so be it.’”

California’s Republican Party has been divided on social issues, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, supports abortion rights. Still, the Susan B. Anthony endorsement boosted Fiorina’s popularity with the party’s base, and exit polls suggested that the liberal stance of her rival, Tom Campbell, directly contributed to his defeat.

Fiorina has her own explanation for why she appealed to a cross section of Republicans, despite her newcomer status — and why she has the capacity to unseat Boxer, a liberal Democrat and fervent supporter of abortion rights.

“The main political issue in California is the economy — jobs and out-of-control spending. In an odd kind of way, [concerns about the economy] may lead people to put aside their emotional reaction to these [social] issues and find common ground,” said Fiorina during an interview squeezed in between campaign events.

“There are many women in California that disagree with me on the sanctity of life, and yet they are not single-issue voters — though Boxer presents them that way,” Fiorina added.

Angle, who initially found her way into politics after a run-in with a local judge over home schooling, believes that American women, like other voters, are most preoccupied with economic concerns.

“Abortion will not be the most prominent issue in Nevada’s Senate race — homes and the economy are what people care about most. But my campaign will show voters the difference between Reid and me on abortion: He flip-flops on the issues,” said Angle, who was in Washington to meet with Republican Party leaders.

Despite Angle’s minimalist campaign style — she traveled to the nation’s capital with her husband, Ted, and one assistant — the nominee is already attracting a flood of donations from across the country.

Meanwhile, a recent Rasmussen poll suggests that she has pulled ahead of Reid by 11 points — 50% to 39%.

Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life Action, is not surprised by Fiorina’s and Angle’s success.

“The truth is that American women have always been pro-life, but they are the kind of women that, in many cases, have chosen to care for their families and haven’t been able to pursue public office,” suggested Yoest, who credits the Susan B. Anthony List with fostering this development.

But Yoest also contends that Republicans are responding, in part, to the Obama administration’s aggressive advancement on abortion rights. “After this administration came into power, they overestimated their mandate for a pro-abortion agenda,” said Yoest. “When you don’t have public support for the kind of effort in an open political system like ours, people are going to be mobilized.”

Palin’s Impact

Pro-life activists like Yoest have reason to be optimistic, but they are far from complacent. With the exception of Sarah Palin, the most prominent women in the Republican Party — from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to former first lady Laura Bush — support abortion rights.

Palin’s role in the last election remains a flash point for the party faithful, but insiders contend her candidacy changed the party’s culture on life issues. Angle, for one, was impressed that Palin’s tough personal choices exemplified pro-life values, suggesting that “Sarah Palin’s decision for life — bringing Trig into the world — had the greatest impact on the pro-life movement.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Washington.