CHICAGO—It's been a while since pro-life voters in Illinois had a pro-life candidate for governor, let alone a pro-life Democratic candidate for governor. Yet when voters head to the polls across the state this fall, the Democratic candidate, Congressman Glenn Poshard, will have a stronger pro-life position than his Republican opponent, Secretary of State George Ryan.
This new development has left many pro-life voters like Mary Jane Stephan in an unfamiliar situation. Stephan, a teacher's aide from Rockton, says she doesn't remember the last time she voted for a Democrat. In fact, she can't remember ever doing so.
“I honestly have no recollection of ever voting for a Democrat,” Stephan, a Catholic who has been active in various pro-life organizations for the last two decades, said. “Whenever I think of the Democratic Party, I think of liberal Democrats like [Massachusetts Sen.] Ted Kennedy.”
Yet Stephan will be voting for Poshard this fall. A member of Congress since 1988, Poshard survived a heated Democratic primary where other candidates attacked him for his opposition to abortion. Despite attacks from traditional liberal wings of the party and threats by abortion advocates to withhold their votes in the governor's race, Poshard has stood firm, maintaining his support for legal protection of unborn children—including those conceived in rape or incest.
Stephan cites Republican candidate George Ryan's recently altered position on abortion and his selection of a pro-abortion state representative for lieutenant governor as reasons why she won't be voting Republican in the governor's race. Ryan had been considered a strong pro-life supporter during his tenure in the state legislature, as lieutenant governor, and as secretary of state. After announcing his candidacy for governor, however, he added rape and incest exceptions to his abortion position and selected Corrine Wood, an abortion supporter, as his running mate.
“After he did those things, I could not vote for George Ryan,” Stephan said.
She isn't the only pro-life voter who is switching her vote from the Republican candidate. Some voters were so disillusioned, in fact, that although they usually voted in the Republican primary, they requested a Democratic ballot for the March primary election. One of those voters is Bob Carpenter, a 28-year-old law student from Libertyville. Carpenter voted for Poshard in the primary to ensure that pro-lifers had a strong pro-life candidate in the November election. Ryan, according to Carpenter, hasn't earned the support of pro-lifers.
“The way Ryan has watered down his anti-abortion stance makes it clear that he does not care about the issue,” Carpenter said. “Once in office, he will do nothing for the unborn.”
While Ryan's position may match Carpenter's conservative views on other issues, it's not enough to win his vote.
“It is true that Ryan is more conservative on other issues that are important to me, but if you don't have life, you don't have anything.”
Illinois pro-life leaders like Ralph Rivera say they're hearing similar sentiments from pro-life voters across the state. Rivera, who is president of Illinois Citizens for Life PAC (political action committee), said it's too early to tell what impact the pro-life issue will have on the November election. However, he said, he hasn't encountered many pro-lifers who plan to vote for Ryan in the fall.
“In talking to people around the state—people who are strong Republican-type pro-lifers who are steeped in the Republican Party, they're talking about voting for Glenn Poshard,” Rivera, whose PAC endorsed Poshard in the Democratic primary, said. “But in politics, April is a long way from the November elections.”
Rivera said his group has repeatedly requested a meeting with Ryan, but they have not received a response. Rivera said he will continue attempting to talk with the Republican candidate.
“I'm hoping George Ryan will come back our way to a full pro-life position,” he said. “I'd like to see all candidates be pro-life.”
Rivera said he understands why grassroots pro-life voters are frustrated with Ryan's handling of the abortion issue in the campaign. In addition to adding rape and incest exceptions to his stand, Ryan also recently announced his support for public funding of abortion in cases of rape and incest.
Wood, Ryan's running mate, also voted against a bill to restrict so-called “partial-birth abortions” when it initially came before the legislature last session. After Ryan issued an amendatory veto of the bill—and after Wood was selected as his running mate—Wood switched her vote and supported the bill.
The facts, according to Rivera, clearly reveal that pro-life voters sent a message to Ryan in the March primary. In addition to the pro-life crossover voters who voted Democratic to support Poshard, almost 14% of Republican-primary voters voted for a relatively unknown and under-funded Republican candidate who ran on a strong pro-life platform. This “protest vote” and the fact that Poshard captured the Democratic nomination with support from thousands of pro-life voters, should worry Ryan and Republican strategists, according to Rivera.
“I'd be concerned if I was George Ryan and the people in his campaign,” he said.
The fact that a pro-life Democrat is leading a statewide ticket is encouraging news for other pro-life Democrats as well. The traditional view of the Democratic Party operatives in Illinois, Rivera said, has been clear: Pro-life Democrats need not apply. Poshard's primary victory sent many party leaders reeling.
“That taboo has been broken, and if Glenn Poshard wins in November it changes the playing field,” Rivera said.
Illinois pro-life voters like Stephan and Carpenter plan on being a part of permanently breaking that taboo this November. In the meantime, they hope Republican candidates like Ryan and leaders of the party will hear the message they're trying to send.
“Unless pro-life Republicans cross over in this election, the Republican Party will continue to produce pro-choice candidates like [former Republican Gov.] Jim Thompson, [outgoing Republican Gov.] Jim Edgar, and George Ryan,” Carpenter said. “Only if we hold them responsible for cowardly stances on abortion will we ever see a principled candidate in the future.”
For Stephan, the decision to vote for a Democrat for governor hasn't been easy. She said she worries “what we'll get with that package.” Still, she says, it's time for pro-life voters to send a message to politicians.
“It's time to start standing for the total truth and stop compromising,” she said. “I'm going to vote for the man who is 100% pro-life, even if he is a Democrat.”
Greg Chesmore writes from Bloomington, Indiana.