Anti-abortion Democrats fading from the scene

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The raging debate among Democrats about whether to support candidates whose views on abortion differ from the national platform obscures a crucial fact: There simply aren’t that many “pro-life” Democrats left.

Only six members of the House Democratic Caucus voted for a 2013 proposal to ban abortions after 20 weeks in the District of Columbia. Of those six, only three — Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) — are still in Congress. Lipinski and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) are the only Democratic members of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. 

In 2016, just one Democratic senator, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, scored less than a 100 percent rating with NARAL Pro-Choice America. Donnelly and Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) are the only three Democratic senators with lifetime scores under 100 percent with Planned Parenthood Action Fund. 

“Back in the early ‘90s, when we had 290 members of the House, we had 100-something pro-life Democrats. Today, we’ve got three or four pro-life Democrats,” said James Zogby, a long-time Democratic National Committee member and a national advisory board member of Democrats for Life of America.

In an interview last week, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) said the party would not impose a litmus test on Democratic candidates running for seats in Congress.

“We’ll need a broad coalition” to win back the majority, Lujan told The Hill. “We have to be a big family in order to win the House back.”

In the days after those comments, progressive groups ranging from NARAL to EMILY’s List to MoveOn Political Action and the American Federation of Teachers issued a statement of principles committing to standing by abortion and reproductive health rights, while castigating Democrats for wavering.

“The Democratic Party cannot and will not win if it turns its back on women and our fundamental rights,” NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue said in a statement. 

But so far, none of the Democratic candidates showing significant potential in Republican-held districts have said they are pro-life.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will defend Donnelly, Manchin and Casey, all of whom are running for reelection this year in states won by President Trump. The DCCC may have to spend money to defend Peterson, a perennial Republican target, though the other anti-abortion rights House Democrats all hold safe seats. 

Lipinski, who represents a district in the Chicago suburbs, faces a spirited primary challenge from Marie Newman, a long-time Democratic activist who said she would contrast her support for abortion rights with Lipinski’s membership in the Pro-Life Caucus. 

“I’m running against a guy who is a crusader for being against women’s health,” Newman said in an interview. “No matter how you feel personally, you have to vote to support the Democratic Party values. We have all looked at the 90-page document that is the Democratic Party platform that was created last year.”

Democratic strategists say the dearth of anti-abortion rights candidates is a reflection of the party’s modern base, and where political enthusiasm is coming from. Millions of protestors turned out for a women’s march in cities across the country the day after President Trump was inaugurated, and groups like EMILY’s List say they have been approached by thousands of women interested in running for office. 

Some party strategists worry, though, that the debate between Democrats in Washington does little to help the party regain ground it has lost in more conservative districts.

“We have not made an effort to cultivate a [Democratic] farm team in the south and rural areas where pro-life Dems used to come from,” said one top party strategist, who asked for anonymity to avoid becoming embroiled in the debate. “After being wiped out in 2010, no one has focused on growing the next generation of leadership from those areas. And [it] doesn’t help when people have purity tests.” 

Several Democrats pointed to 2006 and 2008, when Democrats made big gains on the backs of conservatives in the Blue Dog caucus.  

“We won back the majority in 2006 because the party as a whole, under [DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel’s] leadership, was open to all kinds of different Democrats. Pro-life candidates included,” said Kristen Hawn, a former top Blue Dog aide. “We had a big tent policy not only because we wanted to be inclusive and believed in respecting one another’s personal values, but also because if we didn’t, there was absolutely no way to pick up the seats necessary to take the majority.” 

Those conservative Democrats negotiated for changes to the Affordable Care Act — but in the end, most voted for the bill. 

Still, the Democratic Party as a whole has solidified its support for abortion rights. The 2016 party platform used the most overtly pro-abortion rights language ever — including, for the first time, an explicit call to eliminate the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions. 

Zogby, one of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) appointees to the platform committee, said his efforts to debate the pro-abortion rights language went nowhere.

“We couldn’t even raise the issue. I tried to raise the issue of the language that was used on abortion, that I thought was so alienating to good Democratic voters,” Zogby said. “The outcome was that there was no discussion possible.” 

Tags Bernie Sanders Bob Casey Joe Donnelly Joe Manchin
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