Politics & Government

Abortion debate is over inside the Democratic Party

Conor Lamb, the Democratic nominee for the March 13th special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, is a pro-choice candidate running in a deep-red district. And he’s not the only vulnerable Democrat who doesn’t oppose abortion rights — none of them do.
Conor Lamb, the Democratic nominee for the March 13th special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, is a pro-choice candidate running in a deep-red district. And he’s not the only vulnerable Democrat who doesn’t oppose abortion rights — none of them do. AP

Conor Lamb is a Marine, talks tough on crime, and sounds downright Republican on an issue like natural gas fracking — exactly the type of politician Democrats have traditionally turned to when contesting elections in deeply conservative areas.

But the Democratic nominee in this right-leaning southwest Pennsylvania House district differs in at least one important way: He supports abortion rights.

Lamb is not an outlier, not anymore. Nine months from Election Day, political veterans eyeing the House landscape struggle to even identify a single Democratic House hopeful — of the hundreds running — who openly opposes abortion rights.

Their absence is a significant development for a party in places such as western Pennsylvania, where Democrats even recently would run self-identified “pro-life” candidates (the state’s Democratic Senator Bob Casey Jr., in fact, opposes abortion rights in some circumstances). And it’s reshaping the cultural agenda of a party that, on everything from immigration to guns, has moved decidedly to the left in the last decade – to the chagrin of some who worry it’s reducing their appeal to some right-leaning voters.

“I’ve been on the job for 15 years,” said Kristen Day, executive director for Democrats for Life, a group that supports Democratic candidates who oppose abortion rights. “And this is the most difficult it’s been.”

Day added: “I don’t know what’s going to happen to pro-life Democrats.”

Lamb isn’t the only recent special election Democratic nominee who supported abortion rights despite running in a deeply conservative area: Doug Jones, running in Alabama, also backed a woman’s right to an abortion. Jones won that race, besting embattled Republican nominee Roy Moore.

Lamb doesn’t make his support of abortion a big part of his campaign. A Roman Catholic, he says he personally opposes abortion.

But he opposes the GOP-proposed 20-week ban on abortions and has seen his views come under attack during the special election. And in an interview, he emphasized that the country was founded on the principle of separating church and state.

“To me, that means we defend the law as it is,” he said.

Lamb’s position might surprise some old-school Democrats, especially in a state where men and women for decades have voted for “pro-life” Democrats such as former Gov. Bob Casey, Sr. or his son, the current senator.

But longtime Democratic officials explain the development as part of the party’s natural evolution, especially as both parties essentially finish a decades-long sorting that left each much more ideologically consistent. (On the Republican side, there are few — if any — candidates who support abortion rights.)

What was controversial within the party 20 years ago, in other words, simply isn’t today.

“For the most part, the things that created real rifts in the party in the 90s are mostly over,” said Matt Bennet, a top official at the center-left Democratic think tank Third Way. “No one disagrees, for example, on basic LGBT rights. No one disagrees, fundamentally, on the need for gun safety reform.”

“The debate has essentially ended,” he continued. “There are matters of small degrees that are tussled over. But it is not causing a rift in the party at all.”

For a party trying to win back the House in 2018, the near-absence of candidates who oppose abortion rights could complicate their path to victory — especially in conservative districts such as Lamb’s.

“Throughout the modern era, Democrats have only controlled Congress when they were willing to tolerate some candidates who were pro-life and pro-gun,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist. “If they are serious about running the Congress, they will have to accept some dissent within their ranks. The parts of the nation that live far from Manhattan and San Francisco will insist on it.”

Privately, officials with Democratic campaigns concede that abortion remains a fraught issue, with voters but also with national donors who will stay away from candidates who oppose abortion rights, even if they’re running in conservative areas.

“Right now, we’re in an environment where there’s not a lot of national money available for pro-life Democrats,” said one Pennsylvania Democratic strategist.

But perhaps surprisingly, many Democrats say they think the importance of running candidates who oppose abortion is overhyped. Jones, for instance, won in Alabama. And polls suggest that Lamb actually leads Republican nominee Rick Saccone despite running in a House district Donald Trump won by 20 points.

Candidates need to separate themselves from the national party, they say, but that doesn’t mean they must tack hard to the right on sensitive cultural issues.

“Quite frankly, people always think of the big issues, like choice or guns,” said Preston Elliot, a former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “But it’s actually easier when they go on smaller issues.”

“You don’t always have to go big. You can go local,” he said.

In Lamb’s case, that means he has backed natural gas drilling — a big driver of the local economy in western Pennsylvania — despite concerns from environmentalists.

Tension over abortion rights boiled over last year, when the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Ben Ray Lujan suggested his committee was open to recruiting candidates who considered themselves pro-life. That drew a sharp rebuke from the head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Ilyse Hogue, who argued the party would only hurt itself by adding members who didn’t give abortion rights their full backing.

Hogue might have reason to worry no more. Tracking down where more than a hundred candidates stand on abortion isn’t easy, even for operatives keeping an eye on the races. But Democrats For Life, for instance, lists on its website just one new House Democratic candidate as an endorsed candidate. (It has also endorsed a handful of incumbents, including Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.)

Some candidates might yet prove to be exceptions: An official with Ken Harbaugh, a Democrat running in a conservative Ohio district, declined to say on the record whether he supported abortion rights. Another candidate, Ben McAdams in Utah’s 4th Congressional District, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The views of some candidates also come in shades of gray: Democrat Brad Ashford in Nebraska says he supports abortion rights but is open to restrictions later in a pregnancy.

The party also has holdovers such as Casey or Manchin running for re-election this year. But with NARAL’s help, liberals have targeted some party incumbents who oppose abortion rights. Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who opposes abortion rights, has been beset by a fierce primary challenge in his district, in a race some activist leaders think they will win next week.

"From the women's marches, to resisting health care repeal, 2017 was the year Americans re-pledged to stand up and be counted or have our rights and our lives robbed from us,” Hogue said in a statement. “So in 2018, it's definitely no surprise to see the volume of candidates — an overwhelmingly number of whom are women — running for office up and down the ballot on a proudly pro-choice, pro-family platform supported by the majority of Americans.

"These values and the candidates that support them,” she said, “are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty