For supporters of abortion rights, the Democratic Party has become the only real option.
But as the party struggles to make inroads in red states, where its economic message may resonate more than its social values, some Democrats think there needs to be more flexibility on that issue.
“We talk about inclusiveness for everyone and yet when it comes to the pro-life issue, we’re told we don’t belong and there’s no place for us,” said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life. “And it’s affecting our numbers.”
There are no longer any Democratic women in Congress who vote against abortion rights, according to Democrats for Life. Illinois Rep. Daniel Lipinski is one of just three Democrats in the House — all men — who voted in January for legislation that would prohibit qualified health care plans from including coverage for abortion.
“There are people who I know in my district who say to me, ‘I was a Democrat but I can’t be a Democrat anymore because I’m pro-life,’” said Lipinski, who’s facing a possible primary threat from the left.
But there’s no easy answer for the Democratic Party. The platform’s narrow focus on abortion rights is borne of a commitment to protect the rights of women to control their own bodies — a self-determination issue from which few Democratic lawmakers in Congress want to back away.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan has changed his position on abortion since coming to Congress. He now supports abortion rights, but he’s been vocal about keeping an open mind on social issues to make gains in regions of the country where Democrats are underrepresented.
“You need pro-life Democrats,” he said. “We’re not going to get home without them.”
Ahead of the midterms, Democrats are trying to harness grass-roots energy against President Donald Trump that was first seen at the women’s marches around the country earlier this year.
But there’s a fear the party is not going after all the voters — and potential candidates — they could.
Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa founded “New Wave Feminists,” one of the anti-abortion groups initially included as an official partner for the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., then promptly excluded as the march took on a more abortion-rights focus.
She recently became an independent, leaving behind the conservative movement that champions opposition to abortion — and opposition to government assistance.
Herndon-De La Rosa isn’t a Democrat; in 2016, she voted for Evan McMullin, who ran for president as an independent. But she feels boxed in.
“It kinda sucks,” Herndon-De La Rosa said in an interview earlier this month. “Because being pro-life is such a big issue to me, I’m kind of always locked into voting Republican.”
For Herndon-De La Rosa, who became pregnant at 16, opposing abortion means supporting policies that would give women the assistance they need to carry a pregnancy to term and raise a child.
“But on Election Day, you’re supposed to vote these same propositions down,” she said, referring to conservatives’ lack of support for many social programs.
Democrats opposed to abortion rights see an opportunity to bring voters who sympathize with Herndon-De La Rosa’s political struggle into their party. And they’re afraid that turning off these voters is hurting the party at the ballot box.
“It’s created a real and unnecessary divide,” Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur said earlier this month when asked if an abortion-rights focus turns off voters who might be otherwise inclined to vote Democratic on economic issues.
“Our party ought to be a very big tent party and welcome people from all persuasions,” she said.
Decline in anti-abortion women
Seven years ago, the infighting over health care was taking place among House Democrats.
Some Blue Dogs were holding out on President Barack Obama’s legislation, demanding language prohibiting federal funding for health insurance plans that covered abortions.
Most of those Democrats are either no longer in Congress or now vote in favor of abortion rights, even if they are personally opposed to the practice.
But during the debate over the 2010 health care law, Kaptur and former Pennsylvania Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper were among 64 Democrats who voted for the Stupak Amendment, which would have prohibited women who receive federal insurance subsidies from buying abortion coverage.
Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak eventually withdrew the amendment, settling for a deal with Obama that he’d issue an executive order to that effect instead. To groups opposed to abortion rights, the anti-abortion Democrats who went ahead and voted for the bill were traitors. The Susan B. Anthony List’s electoral mission is “to elect pro-life women” to Congress, but it changed its criteria for the 2010 cycle, backing anti-abortion men, too.
Kaptur was one of its targets. She survived, but her opposition to federal funding for abortion may have cost her a plum spot in her own party’s leadership. Despite being the most senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, she was passed over for ranking member, losing out to New York Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a more staunchly pro-abortion rights Democrat.
Asked how her stance on abortion affected that leadership race, Kaptur demurred.
“What probably hurt me the most is that I don’t raise millions of dollars and indebt other members to me,” she said earlier this month.
Dahlkemper wasn’t so lucky. She was on the Susan B. Anthony List target and lost in 2010. When anti-abortion groups turned on her over her vote for the 2010 health care law, she responded with an ad telling her story of being an “unmarried pregnant woman who chose life.”
But her spot got little traction. Dahlkemper didn’t have the kind of outside support an EMILY’s List could provide.
The abortion issue helps both sides raise big money — and that’s what bothers Kaptur, who’s voted against recent GOP efforts to curtail abortion rights.
“They’re big coffers that are filled if you can radicalize the issue on both sides,” she said.
But one problem for Democrats who want a bigger tent is that only one side of the issue generates money for their party. EMILY’s List has made supporting abortion rights its litmus test for supporting female candidates, while the groups that support anti-abortion candidates are almost universally on the right.
Democrats for Life’s political action committee spent $14,000 in the 2010 cycle; EMILY’s List’s PAC spent $27 million, according to Open Secrets.
“She is part of our big tent, and we should fight in kind on her behalf,” wrote Margie Omero, Dahlkemper’s campaign consultant and pollster, in a Huffington Post op-ed right before the 2010 election.
Currently the Erie County executive, Dahlkemper declined to be interviewed for this story, as did other federally elected Democratic women like North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and former Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu.
Heitkamp, who faces one of the most competitive re-elections next year, has never sought EMILY’s List’s endorsement. Landrieu, despite initially enjoying the group’s backing when she was first elected in 1996, lost the group’s backing in 1999 after voting for some restrictions on abortion.
Still a big tent?
Omero, herself a supporter of abortion rights who’s worked for and donated to EMILY’s List, doesn’t think the abortion issue sunk Dahlkemper or Landrieu, who lost her Senate seat in 2014.
Dahlkemper ultimately fell in the GOP wave that knocked out 63 House Democrats, and Landrieu lost in a bad year for Senate Democrats.
“I don’t see anything in the data that tells me Democrats are losing ground because of abortion,” Omero said earlier this month.
Abortion is still highly polarizing, with opinions differing depending on how the question is sliced.
Support for abortion has changed little over the past three decades, according to the Pew Research Center; 57 percent of U.S. adults thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases in 2016, compared to 60 percent in 1995. Meanwhile, 39 percent of U.S. adults think abortion should be illegal in most cases.
“A woman’s right to choose and fighting for women’s economic and personal autonomy is one of the core Democratic principles,” Omero said. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t some Democrats who approach that differently.”
Just as there are no anti-abortion Democratic women in the House, there are no pro-abortion rights Republican women in the chamber either. That’s a reflection of increasingly polarized congressional districts, Omero said.
But Democratic strategist Martha McKenna suggested that Democrats still have the bigger tent on the issue, pointing to the success of several anti-abortion senators like Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, who are up for re-election next year and will have plenty of fundraising help from Democratic donors.
“Look at the results rather than the platform,” she said. “Is the Democratic Party welcoming enough to candidates and voters who are on the spectrum who have different points of view? I think, yes.”
Becoming more attuned to those difference is part of the goal of the Democratic National Committee’s “Turnaround Tour,” New York Rep. Grace Meng, a DNC vice chairwoman, said earlier this month.
“What we are doing right now is just learning to be better listeners,” she said.