WASHINGTON — Having lost the White House, and out of power in Congress and most of the nation’s state legislatures and governorships, the Democratic Party is struggling to redefine its identity and long-term future.
Like the Republicans did after losing presidential elections in 2008 and 2012, the Democratic Party is trying to understand its recent electoral setbacks and decide if the road back to power requires energizing its base or appealing to a wider swathe of voters.
That political calculus includes an internal debate within the party over potential candidates who are pro-life. Party leaders are debating whether they should support pro-life candidates, especially in conservative or moderate districts, or require that all Democrats seeking public office unequivocally support Roe v. Wade and legalized abortion, which is enshrined in the party platform.
For pro-life Democrats, the party’s embrace of legalized abortion dooms it to continued failure at the polls.
“We’re in serious trouble as a party, and the Democratic Party is searching for why — and how do we right this ship? This is one area where we can very easily say, ‘We’re going to be a big tent, and we’re going to look for and support these candidates who best represent their districts,’” said Kristen Day, the executive director of Democrats for Life of America.
Day told the Register that her party’s litmus test on abortion “has proven time and time again to be a failure.”
Said Day, “When we open up the big tent, we win.”
History seems to prove Day’s point. In 2006, the Democrats successfully recruited pro-life candidates to run in culturally conservative districts. That year, six pro-life Democrats won seats in Congress, including Bob Casey, who defeated pro-life Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican, by a wide margin in Pennsylvania.
But pro-life Democrats, targeted by Republicans and the pro-abortion lobby, have since been fading from the scene.
In 2016, only one Democratic senator, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, scored less than a 100% rating with NARAL Pro-Choice America. Only six members of the House’s Democratic caucus voted for a 2013 proposal to ban abortions after 20 weeks in Washington, D.C.
A Possible Opening?
Day said the Democratic Party in recent years has pushed “more toward an abortion extremist position,” but added that she sees an opening. She and other pro-life Democrats recently met with Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez — who in April released a statement asserting it was “not negotiable”: “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health” — and other party leaders to discuss their ideas about a big-tent approach.
“When California Gov. Jerry Brown comes out and says we need to be a big-tent party, you know we’re making some progress,” Day said.
Appearing Aug. 6 on NBC’s Meet the Press, Brown said a Democratic candidate’s views on abortion should not be used as a litmus test. Candidates should instead be judged on their intellect and concern for the common man, he added.
“If we want to be a governing party of a very diverse — and I say diverse ideologically as well as ethnically — country, well, then you have to have a party that rises above the more particular issues to the generic,” Brown said.
Other high-ranking Democrats have made similar comments. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), recently told The Hill that the DCCC’s main priority was focusing on getting more Democrats in office.
“There is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates,” Luján said. “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.”
Millions of Pro-Life Democrats
Charles Camosy, a moral theology professor at Fordham University who is also a board member of Democrats for Life of America, told the Register that pro-life Democrats must have a future if the Democrats are to survive as a major party.
“One in three Democrats identifies as pro-life. That’s over 20 million people,” Camosy said. “The party is in serious trouble and needs pro-life Democrats if they ever hope to have a majority again. For instance, without pro-life Democrats, the signature liberal legislation of the last two generations, the Affordable Care Act, would never have passed.”
Stephen Schneck, a longtime political science professor at The Catholic University of America who served as the co-chairman of Catholics for Obama, told the Register that it is becoming apparent to party leadership that one way to turn around the Democrats’ fortunes is to appeal to pro-life voters, especially in the Midwest and South.
“Those pro-life voters can make all the difference,” said Schneck, who dismissed as “idiocy” the argument that all Democrats must adhere to the party line on abortion.
“If the Democrats don’t want to get back into power, then they should follow the advice of NARAL and Planned Parenthood,” Schneck said.
However, many officials within the Democratic Party, especially the party’s donor base, don’t see it that way.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, told The Huffington Post that she would not support candidates who are against abortion, saying: “All I know is for myself. The party is pro-choice; there may be some exceptions to it, but by and large, I think that’s the case.”
In the midst of that abortion debate, several organizations — such as Emily’s List, the American Federation of Teachers, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Democracy for America — released a joint statement Aug. 2 affirming their commitment to abortion rights as a Democratic Party foundational principle.
“Democrats will fail to retake power in 2018 if we allow ourselves to be forced into a false choice between a populist progressive agenda and reproductive justice,” Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America, said in prepared remarks.
Meanwhile, pro-life Republicans remain skeptical of just how much a factor pro-life Democrats really are. Austin Ruse, the president of the Center for Family and Human Rights, told the Register that he views the debate over pro-life Democrats as little more than a ploy.
“I think it demonstrates that there really isn’t much of a debate within the Democrat Party on the issue of abortion,” said Ruse, who was one of the 34-member council of Catholic advisers to President Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016.
Ruse said the Democratic Party, in its leadership, donor class and voting base, are “all-in” for abortion on demand.
“It is something of a nonnegotiable for them,” Ruse said.
Indeed, questions have been raised about the definition of “pro-life” in the Democrat Party context.
For example, Paul Spencer, an Arkansas teacher, farmer and first-time political candidate who is running to represent his state’s Second Congressional District, described himself as “pro-life” in a recent Fox News interview. Yet, when pressed to explain his stance on Planned Parenthood, Spencer said he would likely not support legislation to defund the nation’s largest abortion provider.
“We see in instances, like Texas, where access to Planned Parenthood has been reduced, the abortion rate has gone up and maternal deaths have gone up,” Spencer argued. “My personal opinion on Planned Parenthood is that I would be hesitant about defunding it at this time until other social ‘safety-net’ programs are in place.”
Spencer, who is Catholic, said in a recent NPR interview that he supports a ban on abortion after 20 weeks.
Geoffrey Layman, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, told the Register that the internal debate within the Democratic Party over abortion is a predictable outcome of a defeat at the polls. He noted that in 2012, after losing two consecutive presidential elections, the Republican Party commissioned a study of the party’s long-term prospects.
For Democrats, Layman said a tension exists between reaching out to centrist voters and so-called Reagan Democrats who lean conservative on social and cultural issues while not alienating the party’s donors and ideological purists. The latter group includes young voters who do not identify with any religion and who supplied much of the energy and zeal behind U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ upstart presidential campaign in 2016.
“You kind of need both in elections,” Layman said. “You need to appeal to the centrists and swing voters, but you need a lot of enthusiasm among your activists and your donors, and so it is a big risk when you move to the center on anything.”
In the short term, party members like Day, of Democrats for Life, expect to see little change in their own status.
“It’s going to take awhile for them to understand that this is a good thing for the party — that you can support abortion rights and be a Democrat, and you can be pro-life and be a Democrat,” Day acknowledged. “But either side saying the other side doesn’t belong just weakens the party.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.