Dems face abortion divide in debate over party’s future

Dems face abortion divide in debate over party’s future
© Greg Nash

A debate over whether to embrace candidates who diverge from party orthodoxy on abortion rights is setting some of the Democratic Party’s closest allies against each other.

On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — an unabashed backer of abortion rights during her nearly three decades in Congress — irritated some allies when she said Democrats should not impose a party line on abortion rights on candidates.

“I grew up Nancy D’Alesandro, in Baltimore, Maryland, in Little Italy, in a very devout Catholic family, fiercely patriotic, proud of our town and heritage, and staunchly Democratic,” Pelosi said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Most of those people — my family, extended family — are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?” 

Pelosi added in that interview that abortion is “kind of fading as an issue” within the Democratic Party.

Her comments sparked some private grumbling Wednesday among attendees of an EMILY’s List conference.

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In a speech to donors and supporters, EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said supporting abortion rights did not preclude Democrats from appealing to the white, working-class voters the party lost in 2016, as Pelosi implied in her Post interview.

“Republicans want us fighting amongst ourselves instead of organizing to beat them. They want us arguing about whether we’re a party focused on elevating diverse voices or a party focused on appealing to the white working class,” Schriock said Wednesday. “And, from what I can tell, a lot of people in the Democratic Party are happy to have that argument.”

It is not the first time in recent weeks that abortion rights groups have been angered by Democratic leadership. Last month, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez had to reaffirm the party’s support for abortion rights after Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a DNC vice chairman, and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSchumer: Franken should resign Franken resignation could upend Minnesota races Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE (I-Vt.) appeared at a campaign rally with Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello, who opposes abortion rights. 

Ellison and Sanders have pro-abortion rights voting records, but their appearance with Mello nonetheless angered abortion rights groups enough that Perez had to step in.

“If Democrats think the path forward following the 2016 election is to support candidates who substitute their own judgment and ideology for that of their female constituents, they have learned all the wrong lessons and are bound to lose,” NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said after the DNC flap.

The emerging feud opens a new front in a very old battle, one that long divided conservative Democrats in Southern and Rust Belt states from their more liberal urban and coastal colleagues. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyThe Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Dems look to use Moore against GOP MORE, the father of Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyThe Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Dems look to use Moore against GOP MORE (D), claimed he was denied an opportunity to speak at the 1992 Democratic National Convention over his opposition to abortion rights, though Democrats in charge of planning that convention said it was Casey’s refusal to endorse the Clinton-Gore ticket that kept him off stage.

But the fight takes on new relevance as Democrats search for candidates who can compete in conservative districts that would otherwise be skeptical of down-the-line liberal candidates.

“I think we are a party of a big tent, and that means we need to welcome all voices,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) said in an interview on the sidelines of the EMILY’s List event. “Personally, this issue is very important to me. I believe that women need to have access to the full compliment of reproductive services, and to deny women that access is discrimination, plain and simple.”

The political entities that exist to elect Democrats to office say they do not plan to use support for abortion rights as a way to evaluate which candidates to back. Spokespeople for the DNC, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee all said they have no litmus tests when it comes to investing in races.

“We are a political committee and not in the business of pushing or deciding policy,” DCCC spokeswoman Meredith Kelly said in an email. “The DCCC is working to beat House Republicans in an expanded battlefield in 2018 and we need candidates that fit a wide variety of districts and connect with those voters.”

The last time Democrats won control of the House, in 2006, party strategists recruited candidates from across the ideological spectrum, including several who opposed abortion rights, such as Reps. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyTrump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE (D-Ind.).

“You have to be able to win centrist and conservative seats, and you have to field competitive candidates,” said former Rep. Jason Altmire, a Democrat who represented a conservative district in western Pennsylvania. Altmire, who supported some abortion rights measures and opposed others, said he would not have won his district in 2006, when he beat Republican Rep. Melissa Hart, if he had not been able to appeal to anti-abortion rights voters.

“If [those voters] weren’t comfortable that you could at least hear their point of view on the issue, they wouldn’t listen to you,” Altmire said. “It wasn’t the defining issue, but it was the issue that allowed you to gain access.”