Last week, I wrote about a startling pro-abortion bill in Oregon that supports abortion on demand for any reason and forces the taxpayers to cover it. Oregon Democrats might be cheering such a win but national Democrats are cringing at the message it sends to swing voters in purple states and districts nationwide.
Back in May, when the Democratic Party was splitting on abortion because they were supporting a pro-life candidate in the Omaha Mayoral race, Nancy Pelosi came out and said “This is not a rubber-stamp party,” she told the Washington Post. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed. DNC Chairman Tom Perez disagreed.
That disagreement continues to carry on today. In July, DCCC Chair Ben Ray Lujan, said he was open to supporting pro-life candidates. California Governor Jerry Brown has stated abortion should not be a reason for a candidate or candidates exclusion.
Democrats love to state their party is one of acceptance and inclusion. They are the party of diversity, minorities, women, etc. Maybe so. But they certainly are not the party of pro-lifers. At the height of Democratic dominance in 2009 the Democratic House Caucus boasted over 30 openly pro-life members. Today, that number stands at three and Dan Lipinski in Illinois probably won’t survive a primary from his left (thanks Daily Kos). In the Senate, Democrats have three openly pro-life members but out of 48 that is a pretty sub-par faction.
Last year, Democrats went all in on accepting pro-choice positions. Clinton campaigned on abortion on demand and taxpayers funding it (Oregon Democrats had to get their idea from somewhere). NARAL called it the greatest expansion of reproductive rights in history. In fact, Clinton is the only candidate to have ever campaigned on overturning the Hyde Amendment which does not allow Medicaid to cover abortions.
Enter Donald Trump. Trump took unorthodox positions on a number of issues for a Republican but in the third debate he took Clinton to task for her stance on abortion. A poll by the Voter Study Group found Trump actually found support with many economically liberal voters on this issue. Indeed, the vote shift from Obama to Trump easily gave Trump his margins in PA, MI and WI (states the GOP had not won in a generation).
These states are not just significant in the Electoral College but they also boast a number of purple to red leaning Republican held districts with culturally conservative electorates. As a result, even the diehard progressive, like Pelosi, recognizes to win the House the Caucus will need to accept some pro-lifers in their ranks.
Two problems. The debate in the party about its direction (ideology vs. pragmatism) is unlikely to quiet just because leadership says so. While Democrats are more likely to acquiesce to elite requests than Republicans on some things the base won’t bend. And fealty to abortion appears to be one.
Howard Dean (we’re gonna take back the White House, yaaah) pledged not to support a Campaign Committee that spends a penny on pro-life candidates. NARAL and Planned Parenthood, massive financial backers of the party, expressed dismay.
Like in Nebraska before, the argument spread to the states. Missouri Democratic Chairman Stephen Webber, expressed support for finding good candidates, pro-life or no. State Rep. Stacey Newman, who heads a group called ProgressWomen, said Mr. Webber was wrong. But John Gibson, Chairman of the Kansas Democratic, echoed Webber’s sentiments with good reason. Have you seen the legislative numbers in both states? Democrats are an endangered species in both outside urban Kansas City or St. Louis.
At a time when Democrats are trying to pivot to a positive agenda and offer voters a fresh, appealing economic agenda a battle over economics stinks. Democrats for Life, a pro-life group of Democrats tried to work with the DCCC. In turn, the DCCC responded by saying, “The DCCC has no interest in working with Democrats for Life of America, despite their attempts.” This at a time when Democrats could use the vote of every non-urban American right now.
A bitter divide and debate is not the only problem the party faces. The other problem is the political landscape. It’s shifted, and significantly. Ever since the 90’s Democrats have bashed Republicans with the abortion issue. For example, in 2012, Democrats arguably won an Indiana Senate seat and held Claire McCaskill’s seat because of it. In 2014, Republicans ran away from the issue as fast as they could. Even in red states.
But, after last year, the roles seem reversed. Democrats gave into their base last year and they were handed a humiliating loss. Far from dominating the debate the party could not win back any state legislatures on the issue.
Now, the pro-life movement is on offense. With Republicans in firm control of 32 state legislatures and 26 Governorships and a veto-proof majority in another (North Carolina) the movement is in a strong position to enact favorable policies. Arugably, since 2010, the movement has already achieved considerable success. In Ohio, the movement is looking to ban abortions based on down syndrome (suck it Oregon). Further, it helps almost every Republican is pro-life or at least favors that mindset over the alternative.
Republicans have partially become more pro-life because the movement has evolved from a group of religious voters to a series of organizations dedicated to holding legislators accountable. No Republican wants to mess with the NRA. Neither do they want to challenge, for example, the Susan B Anthony organization. Likewise, Democrats fear opposing NARAL or Planned Parenthood.
Democrats running to hold their Senate seats will have to explain to their culturally conservative voters why they should retain them. For example, in Missouri and North Dakota, the state legislatures passed partial birth abortion bans at five months. The idea is popular with voters. Yet, Senators McCaskill (MO) and Heidi Heitkamp (ND) voted against it in Congress.
Even red state Democrats have little leeway to break from their party on the issue. As a coalition of liberal identity groups and organizations, Democrats have few options. Any interest group is likely to erupt or sit out an election if their interests are threatened. Republicans are certainly split on national and class lines but identity does not divide the mostly white party. Democrats know they need to moderate on abortion and should but they cannot. The reward is high but the risk, due to identity politics, is even higher.