Thousands of anti-abortion protesters walk past the U.S. Capitol building during the 43rd annual March for Life on January 27, 2017 in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Democrats need conservatives to win conservative districts — or at least that’s a frequent rationale for the party’s vaunted big-tent approach to politics, and the reason for its traditional tolerance of pro-life candidates. But neither pro-life nor pro-choice Democrats are happy with the arrangement. “We’re not trusted in our party. We are not appreciated by Republicans, even though nothing can pass without us,” Bart Stupak complained to a Democrats for Life gathering this year. Pro-choice activists, by contrast, frame the presence of pro-life Democrats as an existential threat to an endangered civil right. “When we compromise our values, everyone loses,” Meg Mikolajczyk, public affairs manager for Planned Parenthood Voters of Nebraska, told the Omaha World-Herald in 2017 amid controversy over the party’s candidate for Omaha mayor, who was personally opposed to abortion. “You cannot separate economic rights from reproductive rights; the two are inextricably intertwined,” Mikolajczyk said. “If we want economic security for Nebraskans, we cannot continue to barter away reproductive rights in this state.”
In August, pro-choice activists lamented Democratic senator Joe Donnelly’s opposition to abortion rights as he fought a reelection campaign to represent Indiana in the U.S. Senate. “I am, and have been, disappointed in his continued failure to advocate for Hoosier women and families regarding issues of reproductive justice,” Emily O’Brien, vice-president of the Indiana National Organization for Women, told USA Today at the time.
Last Tuesday, Donnelly lost. His failure not only cost his party a precious Senate seat, but it further shrinks the ranks of pro-life Democrats in national office and encourages his party to reconsider old tactics. After the midterms, is there a future for pro-life Democrats? Never fully in line with the party’s professed values, the few pro-life Democrats left standing now seem even further out of step with their peers. “The list of pro-life Democrats is now notable for more than just its brevity: All of the remaining members of Congress on the list are men,” Ruth Graham wrote for Slate. Graham puts the number of Democrats for Life endorsees in Congress at four, down from 40 in the late 1990s. Congressional pro-life Democrats are also mostly white, meaning that the discrepancy between this group of pro-life Democrats and the party’s increasingly diverse body of elected officials has become especially stark. There will be 123 women in Congress next session, most of them Democrats, and none profess a pro-life point of view.
The recent scarcity of the pro-life Democrat may owe its existence to party polarization. Historically, voters who prioritize abortion restrictions tend to be white Evangelicals, and that demographic remains committed to the GOP. As Vox reported last week, exit polling indicates that at least three-quarters of white Evangelicals voted for Republican candidates in the midterms. Abortion is important to these voters, but it isn’t the only issue that drives their support for the GOP. In June, Pew Research Center reported that 70 percent of white Evangelicals supported an expanded border wall. While a June poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that only 36 percent of white Evangelicals backed the Trump administration’s family-separation policy, that trend didn’t lead to significantly reduced support for either Trump or his party. There isn’t much evidence, in other words, that white Evangelicals are as motivated by abortion as they are by Trump’s white nationalism — which means they aren’t voters Democrats can win unless the party caters to racial prejudice in addition to abortion hostility. The Democratic base, meanwhile, is pro-choice, and steadily so. Between these two poles exists middle ground that does not appear shaped by the abortion politics of those who inhabit it.
If the theory underpinning the party’s big-tent premise were accurate — that Democrats needed them in conservative areas — then a dearth of pro-life Democrats should signal trouble for the party in certain key states and House districts. At Christianity Today, Kate Shellnutt assessed that theory. “Some pro-life Democrats insisted that the only way their party would bring a ‘blue wave’ in the midterms was if it wooed disenchanted Republican voters — including Evangelicals — with candidates who took more moderate positions on abortion,” she wrote. “If 2018 was a test of this theory, as reported by Politico, the results are too few and too mixed to assess whether they were right. Barely any pro-life Democratic candidates emerged in this year’s elections; and in almost every case, they struggled.”
Donnelly wasn’t the only pro-life Democrat to lose a race last week. Dawn Barlow, a pro-life Democratic candidate for Tennessee’s Sixth Congressional District, lost to her Republican opponent by over 40 points. Other pro-life Democrats just eked out victories. Joe Manchin’s brand of pro-life Democratic messaging barely won him reelection; he finished just three points ahead of his Republican challenger, Patrick Morrisey. Pro-choice Beto O’Rourke, meanwhile, lost his Senate race to the vehemently pro-life Ted Cruz by only three points. Of all the Democratic candidates who flipped House seats and gubernatorial offices last week, not a single one ran on a pro-life platform.
As Shellnutt notes in her piece, it’s true that one in five people who support the repeal of Roe v. Wade identify as Democrats. But that’s a small fraction of an already-small demographic, and it doesn’t necessarily follow that the sort of pro-life voter who favors Democrats prioritizes abortion above, say, health care or the economy. There’s still widespread support for Roe. A July Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 71 percent of Americans want to keep Roe; in fact, most Republicans say they oppose repeal. There just doesn’t appear to be a constituency for pro-life Democrats, an observation borne out by electoral results in addition to issue-specific polls. America’s abortion debate isn’t over, and the pro-life Democrat isn’t extinct. Intraparty debates over the exact place pro-life Democrats should or should not occupy will likely continue, but the evidence increasingly favors one conclusion: The party doesn’t need pro-life candidates to win. Democrats achieved a blue wave mostly without them. There’s no reason to think this will change in 2020, or afterward, as the party plots its post-Trump future.