These two House Democrats oppose abortion rights. It could cost them their seats

Primary challenges against Dan Lipinski and Henry Cuellar raise questions about future for anti-abortion Democrats

Illinois Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski is once again facing a competitive primary race. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Illinois Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski is once again facing a competitive primary race. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 20, 2020 at 8:21am

Two of the last remaining anti-abortion Democrats in the House are facing competitive primaries next month, raising questions about the future for Democrats who diverge with their party on an issue at the center of the country’s culture wars. 

“More and more the party is sending a message that if you are pro-life you aren’t welcome,” said Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski. “Look, we want to defeat Donald Trump. We can’t keep pushing people out of the party.” 

Lipinski is facing two Democratic primary challengers on March 17: Marie Newman, who came close to defeating him in 2018, and Rush Darwish, a business owner. Both are in favor of abortion rights. 

And on March 3, Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar is facing a challenge from immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros. Both Newman and Cisneros have been endorsed by a range of progressive leaders and organizations including EMILY’s List, which backs women candidates who support abortion rights. 

Anti-abortion groups consider just two other House Democrats potential allies: Minnesota Rep. Collin C. Peterson and Utah Rep. Ben McAdams, both of whom are vulnerable in November. 

Cuellar has more of a mixed abortion record than Lipinski, but both see their primary opponents as products of extreme elements in the party. Their challengers disagree, arguing that both lawmakers are out of step with the constituents, who support access to abortion. 

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Party leaders, meanwhile, insist that there is still room in the party for members who don’t embrace abortion rights.  

“I'll use the cliché, we're a big tent party" that includes Cuellar and Lipinski, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos said at a briefing with reporters last month. “And we'll just see how that all sorts out.”

Top targets

Cuellar and Lipinski are top targets of EMILY’s List in 2020, said the group’s president Stephanie Schriock. Cuellar opposes federal funding for abortion. Lipinski has been consistently anti-abortion, recently signing onto an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to reexamine precedent set by abortion cases including Roe v. Wade

“They are some of the very last anti-choice Democrats in the House of Representatives and we think it’s time for a change,” Schriock said in a recent interview on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program. 

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The group’s independent expenditure arm hasn’t spent yet against Lipinski, with his primary still a few weeks away, but NARAL Pro-Choice America has spent more than $211,000 backing Newman.

NARAL is also supporting Cisneros, but EMILY’s List is responsible for most of the spending against Cuellar, dropping nearly $1.2 million on the race through an affiliated group called Texas Forward. 

Texas Forward launched a TV ad noting Cuellar voted to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Cuellar responded with his own ad, saying Cisneros supports allowing minors to have abortions without parental consent. Cisneros’ campaign said the ad featured “false, Trump-style attacks,” but did not address the specific issues raised in the 30-second spot.

“Abortion is -- I'm not making it an issue,” Cuellar said off the House floor last week. “EMILY's List, when they decided to jump into a South Texas, conservative, Hispanic district, they made it an issue.”

Lipinski said abortion has not played a defining role in his race. 

“I think most people out there are more concerned about everyday issues that impact them,” Lipsinski said off the House floor last week. He cited a range of issues that dovetail with his moderate record, including transportation, prescription drug prices and job security. 

Darwish campaign spokesman Andrew Patinkin also said abortion had not been the “number one” issue. But Newman campaign spokesman Ben Hardin said Lipinski’s anti-abortion record drew national attention that has helped them make their case that Lipinski is out of touch on a range of other issues. 

A similar dynamic helped Newman, who was relatively unknown, come within 2 percentage points of defeating Lipinski in 2018. Newman also has amassed high-profile endorsements, including from progressive presidential candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. 

The primaries are also evidence that the party has moved to the left on abortion since Cuellar and Lipinski were first elected to the House in 2004. The number of anti-abortion Democrats in Congress has dwindled to the low single digits, and the Democratic Party platform now states that the party believes “every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion.”

Lipinski’s 3rd District, which includes working class neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago and less densely populated suburbs in Will County, has also changed since he first took over the seat from his father. Residents of Irish, Eastern European and Italian descent have slowly been replaced by a younger and more diverse population that is less socially conservative. Sanders won the Democratic presidential primary there in 2016 by 9 points, according to The Associated Press. 

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates both Lipinski and Cuellar’s districts Solidly Democratic. Democrats have easily carried Cuellar’s 28th District, which borders Mexico and stretches to the San Antonio suburbs, at the presidential and congressional level. Hillary Clinton won the 28th District by 20 points in 2016. 

But Cuellar noted that his district is nearly 80 percent Hispanic, and can be more socially conservative. Roughly 40 percent of the people in both Cuellar’s and Lipinski’s districts are Catholic, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections, as are the two congressmen.

Can the cavalry ride in?

Lipinski got help in 2018 from the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, which usually backs Republicans. It spent $108,000 and sent 70 canvassers to knock on doors of “pro-life Democrat households,” in the last five days of the race. 

The group plans to support him again in 2020 but is not announcing the details yet, spokeswoman Mallory Quigley said. Cuellar has not sought SBA List’s endorsement, and he has  an “F” on the group’s scorecard. 

Democrats for Life of America have endorsed both Peterson and Lipinski, and the group’s executive director, Kirsten Day, said they liked Cuellar’s record as well, although they haven’t endorsed him. 

But Day noted group has struggled to fundraise. Their super PAC hasn’t raised any money since the 2016 cycle, when it raised less than $1,000, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures. 

When the group tried to create a fundraising page through the Democratic juggernaut ActBlue this cycle, it was denied because it was a pro-life group, Day said. 

A spokesperson for ActBlue declined to comment. ActBlue accepts Democratic candidates and committees, but it does use discretion when listing non-profit arms on its site, depending on whether those groups work for progressive causes. 

For the most part, pro-life groups spend money on Republicans. Only 5 percent of the $222,000 the Susan B. Anthony List PAC spent in 2018 elections went to Democrats. National Right to Life, which calls itself, “the nation’s oldest and largest pro-life movement,” hasn’t given to a Democrat since 2010

In this Congress, National Right to Life has found little to like about even the most pro-life members of the Democratic caucus. Lipinski had the group’s endorsement in 2018, but scores only 40 percent on the group’s ratings. 

The only Democrat with a higher rating was Peterson, who scored 56%. National Right to Life endorsed Peterson’s Republican challenger, Michelle Fishbach, in January, noting that Peterson’s score was not 100%. Fischbach’s mother, Darla St. Martin, is the longtime co-executive director of the National Right to Life Committee. 

The scorecard is meant to rate members on key abortion-related votes. But anti-abortion Democrats say these scores favor Republicans because they include party-line votes on issues that are not clearly related to abortion, such as the House Democrats’ signature campaign finance overhaul, or sweeping government spending bills. 

“They don’t go out of their way to advocate for pro-life Democrats at all,” said Day, of Democrats for Life. “But they find ways to tear them down.” 

National Right to Life did not return requests for comment. 

A ‘big tent?’

Anti-abortion Democrats view their decline in Congress as a broader problem for the party. They argue a “big tent” party that allows for nuances on abortion can better appeal to independents and moderate Republicans, who are critical voting blocs in competitive races.

”The fastest way back to minority status is to start kicking people out of the tent,” said Colin Strother, a spokesperson for Cuellar’s campaign. 

Jacob Lupfer, a consultant who has worked with groups backing anti-abortion Democrats, said the key to bolstering their numbers in Congress is for anti-abortion groups to support Democrats. 

“If the pro-life movement wants to get a pro-life majority back in the House, it can’t be done on the backs of an aging, white, Christian party that is toxic to nonwhites and young people,” Lupfer said.

Lupfer suggested recruiting more diverse, female candidates who oppose abortion rights to run for Congress. 

“They need to find 15 to 25 female Dan Lipinskis,” Lupfer said. 

Groups that support abortion rights say the argument that anti-abortion Democrats are necessary to win in competitive races is a misnomer, pointing Democrats’ success in the midterms. 

Planned Parenthood Action Fund executive director Kelley Robinson said in a statement that 2018 was “a sweeping mandate that ushered in a new House majority that supports access to abortion.” The group is backing Newman and Cisneros.

Groups that support abortion rights also say that allowing access to abortion is a “big tent” position in itself. A 2019 Pew Research survey found that 70 percent of Americans do not think Roe v. Wade should be completely overturned, and 61 percent said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 

"Reproductive freedom is a political winner with an overwhelming number of Democrats, Independents, and moderate Republicans,” NARAL president Ilyse Hogue said in a statement. “Inching away from this unifying position isn't a smart strategy: You win no one and you upset a lot of people."

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