Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign
Dem campaign chief vows no litmus test on abortion
Democrats will not withhold financial support for candidates who oppose abortion rights, the chairman of the party's campaign arm in the House said in an interview with The Hill.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) said there will be no litmus tests for candidates as Democrats seek to find a winning roster to regain the House majority in 2018.
"There is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates," said Luján, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman. "As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America."
In taking the position, Luján and Democrats risk alienating liberals, as well as groups dedicated to promoting access to abortion and reproductive health services that represent the core of the party's base.
"Throwing weight behind anti-choice candidates is bad politics that will lead to worse policy," said Mitchell Stille, who oversees campaigns for NARAL Pro-Choice America. "The idea that jettisoning this issue wins elections for Democrats is folly contradicted by all available data."
Luján, serving his second term as the DCCC's chairman, has cast a wide net for candidates. A map on his office wall highlights districts held by dozens of Republican that he hopes to oust in the 2018 midterm elections.
"To pick up 24 [seats] and get to 218, that is the job. We'll need a broad coalition to get that done," Luján said. "We are going to need all of that, we have to be a big family in order to win the House back."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have both argued against party litmus tests, saying there's room for people with different opinions on abortion. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), another influential voice, has echoed that argument.
Democrats are unlikely to win the 24 seats they need to recapture control without contesting more conservative districts. The last time Democrats won control, in the 2006 midterm elections, the party recruited - and supported financially - a significant number of Democrats who did not entirely support abortion rights, including former Reps. Brad Ellsworth (Ind.), Baron Hill (Ind.), Heath Shuler (N.C.) and Jason Altmire (Pa.).
"Both [then-DCCC Chairman] Rahm Emanuel and [then-Democratic National Committee Chairman] Howard Dean with his 50 state strategy understood that in order to win districts that had eluded Democrats in previous cycles, they were going to have to field candidates who didn't look like national Democrats," Altmire told The Hill. "People understood the class of '06 was driven largely by the centrist candidates."
Luján said he had spoken with Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago, about Democratic efforts to retake the House.
The fight over abortion and what it means to be a Democrat has boiled over in recent months. Prominent national Democrats, including Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Tom Perez and Sanders, campaigned with Heath Mello, a candidate running to serve as mayor of Omaha who did not support abortion rights.
Perez said at the time the DNC's job is "to help Democrats who have garnered support from voters in their community cross the finish line and win." In a statement days later, Perez said the party's support for abortion rights were "non-negotiable."
A DNC aide told The Hill at the time that Perez was not establishing a litmus test in that subsequent statement.
Abortion rights were notably absent from the party's new policy push announced last week, meant to unify the party around an agenda outside of opposition to Trump. That plan, called "A Better Deal," focused on economic policy largely related to jobs, wages and reducing the burden on families.
After the dispute over the Omaha mayoral race, party leaders worked behind the scenes to mend fences with those outside groups that back abortion rights. Senior DCCC officials have met with groups like EMILY's List and NARAL, both to maintain relations and to coordinate on the party's "Better Deal" platform.
Pro-abortion rights groups cast reproductive health issues as an economic concern.
"At the core of the Democratic Party is our commitment to a better economic future for the working people of our country. Reproductive choice is fundamental to our platform. One of the most important financial decisions a woman makes is when and how to start a family. It's also why we recruit pro-choice Democratic women and work tirelessly to elect them - because they stand up for that critical choice," Leila McDowell, a spokeswoman with EMILY's List, told The Hill.
"Democrats don't need to choose between coal miners in Ohio, nurses in Georgia, or home healthcare workers in Arizona. This isn't a choice Democrats need to make. It's a coalition we need to win."
They also argue the advantage gained by backing candidates who oppose abortion rights is negligible.
"Anyone who actually thinks that Donald Trump and the GOP candidates won in 2016 because of their opposition to abortion rights is sorely mistaken," NARAL's Stille said.
"A small minority of voters vote strictly on an anti-choice platform. Those same voters just aren't going to vote for Democrats anyway - they fundamentally disagree with just about everything Democrats stand for."
Luján, a close ally of Pelosi, would not rule out supporting a candidate who does not back Pelosi's bid to become Speaker.
"We want to win back the House. Once we win back the House we can have the conversation as to who we're going to elect as the new Speaker of the House," Luján said. "The only way that we're able to have that real conversation is if we're able to put the majority in play and win it back."
Democrats feel the political winds are there for the party to take back the House.
More than 200 Democratic candidates running for Republican-held seats have reported raising more than $5,000 for their campaigns so far, according to an analysis by University of Albany political scientist Michael Malbin, an unprecedented pace so far. At this point in 2009, the year before Republicans won control, 78 Republican candidates had raised more than $5,000 for their campaigns.