Democrats are grappling over whether support for abortion rights should be a litmus test for candidates as the party seeks to rebuild from its devastating 2016 defeat.
The internal debate spilled out into the open last week when the Democratic National Committee (DNC) faced a firestorm of criticism from women’s rights groups for inviting a Nebraska mayoral candidate who supported an anti-abortion measure in the past to a Democratic unity tour event.
“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,” said NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue.
Democrats are trying to strike a balance that embraces the party’s 2016 platform, which says the party “unequivocally” believes women should have access to “safe and legal” abortions, but also keeps its doors open to anti-abortion lawmakers and candidates who could be more successful in red states.
Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants MORE (I-Vt.), who appeared at an event last week with Omaha mayoral hopeful Heath Mello, defended his support for the Nebraska Democrat with the anti-abortion voting record, arguing that not all Democratic candidates will share the same views.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) echoed that sentiment, saying someone can be part of the Democratic Party and also be anti-abortion rights. Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden MORE (D-N.Y.) sounded a similar tone, saying Democrats are a “big-tent party.”
DNC Chairman Tom Perez has sent confusing signals on whether candidates need to be in lockstep with the party on abortion rights.
In response to the controversy, Perez first issued a statement saying that he stands by the party’s platform, while also noting that it’s his job to back candidates who will win support from voters in their areas.
He followed up with another statement last week, saying that every Democrat should be pro-abortion rights — a stance Perez said is “not negotiable” and shouldn’t vary by city or state, according to The Huffington Post. Hogue applauded Perez’s comment, which was viewed by some as a reversal from his earlier statement.
“Kudos to Chair Tom Perez and the DNC for recognizing that we are a stronger party when we stand for our core values,” Hogue said in a statement provided to The Huffington Post.
But a DNC aide told The Hill Thursday that Perez doesn’t think there should be a litmus test on this issue for Democrats who want to run for office, and he won’t abandon support for anti-abortion candidates.
“Tom doesn’t believe in litmus tests and never said he doesn't support pro-life candidates,” the DNC aide said.
Former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) told The Hill that Democrats shouldn’t dismiss anti-abortion lawmakers or candidates, especially if they want to make inroads with voters in more rural and conservative areas.
Stupak, who served in Congress for nearly two decades, co-authored the Stupak-Pitts amendment that would have prohibited insurance providers participating in the ObamaCare exchanges from getting federal funds to cover abortions.
“The party has always discouraged right-to-life Democrats, including myself,” said Stupak, who faced a tough primary from a pro-abortion rights candidate when he first ran for office in 1992.
“We’re this unique little bloc of voters. When it comes right down to it, both sides need us, but both sides want to disown us. It’s really a little frustrating.”
The debate over abortion comes as Democrats prepare to defend a handful of red-state Senate incumbents up for reelection in 2018. Ten Democratic senators are running in states President Trump won last year.
Several of those vulnerable incumbents consider themselves to be anti-abortion rights or have taken votes opposed by abortion rights activists, including Sens. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyDemocratic senators request probe into Amazon's treatment of pregnant employees Abortion rights groups want Biden to use bully pulpit after Texas law Overnight Health Care: Democrats plot response to Texas abortion law MORE (Pa.), Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Biden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week MORE (W.Va.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyRepublicans may regret restricting reproductive rights Sanders traveling to Iowa, Indiana to pitch Biden's spending package Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda MORE (Ind.).
Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampProgressives prepare to launch counterattack in tax fight Business groups aim to divide Democrats on .5T spending bill On The Money: Powell signals Fed will soon cut stimulus MORE (D-N.D.) supports a woman's right to choose and opposed defunding Planned Parenthood, but she supports the Hyde Amendment.
Those four senators rebuked Democrats’ decision last year to insert language into the party’s platform about repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion services.
“I think we’re a broad and diverse party, and I think we demonstrated that throughout the last 10 or so years, so I’m sure we’ll be able to work through this,” Casey said.
Casey, who’s served in the Senate since 2007, already has a number of Republican challengers looking to unseat him next year.
Manchin voiced a similar sentiment, saying Democrats shouldn’t have to fit a certain mold.
“West Virginia Democrats are different from Washington Democrats,” Manchin said. “These are personal issues. I’m pro-life. I respect other people’s opinions on that.
“But with that being said, saying you have to fit in one silo in order to be in the party — that doesn’t make any sense to me or any West Virginia Democrat.”
Manchin shrugged off the prospect of a challenge from the left, even though some progressive groups have threatened to run a primary candidate against Manchin and any other Democrats who don’t fully oppose Trump’s agenda. Manchin has supported some of Trump’s Cabinet nominees and was one of the few Democrats to help Republicans advance Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch.
“I run hard. I’m not afraid to go to town halls. I’m not afraid to stand up and talk about what I believe in and explain my policies,” Manchin said. “And I think people respect that.”
While these senators aren’t in lockstep with the party on this issue, it seems unlikely that the party will pull its support, even in the face of criticism from abortion rights activists. Senate Democrats will largely play defense in 2018, with a best-case scenario likely to involve preventing the GOP from gaining a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an interview that the committee will “strongly support” the incumbents up for reelection.
“We’re going to support our incumbents, so that is my focus right now,” Van Hollen said.
“I would encourage our candidates to be pro-choice candidates, but it’s also important that we have a big tent. I think we actually can do both.”
In the lower chamber, there are several anti-abortion House Democrats. That list includes vulnerable Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who won reelection last year even though Trump won his district by 30 points.
Peterson, along with Reps. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), joined Republicans earlier this year to vote in support of making the Hyde Amendment permanent.
“I always felt that if you want to grow the majority, you add and you don’t subtract,” said Cuellar, who’s part of the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate Democrats.
“When you want to subtract and start using a purity test, that’s not good for the party,” he added. “So you grow a majority by adding and not subtracting pro-life Democrats.”
Cuellar and Lipinski represent safe seats, but the Illinois Democrat has already drawn a primary challenger from the left. Marie Newman, a marketing consultant, is looking to unseat Lipinski in the suburban Chicago seat he’s held since 2005.
Even as top Democrats look to back their party’s anti-abortion rights incumbents, an overwhelming majority of Democrats — 70 percent — believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a Pew Research survey from April 2016.
But with a little over a quarter of Democrats believing that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, some argue that the party shouldn’t write off those voters as it tries to rebuild after 2016.“Democrats have to stop pretending like this isn’t a big deal to people. It is,” Stupak said. “So we’re saying open the big tent.”