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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

November 21: About That So-Called “Democratic Litmus Test” on Abortion

There was a brouhaha over a funding decision by the Democratic Attorneys General Association, and I commented on it at New York:

A major part of the vast ideological “sorting out” of the two major parties that’s been underway since the 1960s has been about abortion. Democrats have become the party of abortion rights while Republicans have become the party that wants to re-criminalize abortion (or at least let states do so). There has always been a rump faction of anti-abortion Democratic and pro-choice Republican politicians, supported by a significant percentage of the rank and file, but both numbers have been shrinking for decades.

While there is occasional agonizing in both parties over steps taken, or not taken, to accommodate the abortion policy minority, Republicans seem to worry less about it less than Democrats, who are constantly being accused, or are accusing themselves, of betraying “big tent” principles by being intolerant toward those who would deny women reproductive rights. There’s been a new explosion of fretting this week as a fundraising committee for Democratic attorney general candidates has announced it will only contribute to those who commit to a pro-choice position. The New York Times wrote this up as yet another sign of Democratic “extremism”:

“An association of Democratic state attorneys general will become the first national party committee to impose an explicit abortion litmus test on its candidates, announcing on Monday that it will refuse to endorse anyone who does not support reproductive rights and expanding access to abortion services.

“To win financial and strategic backing from the group, candidates will be required to make a public statement declaring their support of abortion rights. The group, the Democratic Attorneys General Association, recruits candidates and helps their campaigns with financial support, data analysis, messaging and policy positions …

“[O]fficials believe it could have a ripple effect through the Democratic ecosystem, reflecting the changing mores of a national party that has moved sharply to the left in the Trump era and embraced a set of purity tests on divisive social issues.”

That characterization, which pairs the heavily loaded term “purity test” with a claim that the party has shifted in the “Trump era” is at best very misleading. The National Democratic Party has been committed to reproductive rights for at least a quarter-century, and if there’s been any “move,” it would be the deletion of the old Clintonian formula of making abortion “safe, legal and rare” from the party platform. That happened in 2012, well before anyone on the planet imagined Donald Trump might become president. And even that change in messaging had no real impact on Democratic policy.

So why is the Democratic Attorneys General Association making this move? Perhaps they expect that taking a more forthright position will help them raise money from abortion-rights advocates, as it should. But there are two changes in context that indicated a change in positioning.

The huge wave of Republican-generated state legislation restricting access to abortion that has been building since the 2010 GOP landslide, and that has accelerated since Trump’s election and his efforts to reshape the federal courts, has placed state attorneys general on the front lines of the fight for reproductive rights. And while states vary in how much leeway AGs have to resist or at least refuse to defend legislative abortion restrictions, having sympathetic figures in these positions can make a big difference on the margins, as the DAGA indicated:

“The group’s communications director, Lizzie Ulmer, said that the policy change had been in the works for some time, but had become a more serious focus since May, when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed the state’s six-week abortion ban.

“’It ended up being that this was the right timing,’ she told CNN. ‘The AGs really wanted this to happen, and they were really excited that this was something the committee would be able to do.’”

The other thing that happened very recently is that the only sitting Democratic AG who would flunk the litmus test, Mississippi’s Jim Hood, is leaving office. He ran for governor this year, and lost. So the Times and others can talk about purity tests all they want, but it’s not likely the new position will lead to any “purges,” to use the usual terminology. And any Democratic candidate for one of the 12 attorney general gigs up in 2020 who wants to compete on a “principled” platform of denying women control over their bodies is perfectly free to do so without DAGA’s money.

One reason for all the anxiety about litmus tests is coincidental: One of the rare statewide Democratic anti-abortion pols in captivity, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, was just reelected, giving his party some much-needed southern comfort and frustrating Trump’s many efforts on behalf of Republican Eddie Rispone. Aside from being deep-red, Louisiana is one of those states with a critical mass of both conservative Evangelicals and Catholics. It is unsurprisingly an anti-abortion hotbed. In contrast to DAGA’s position, the Democratic Governors’ Association strongly backed Edwards’s campaign, though you have to wonder if DGA might have been pickier had this not been one of just three contested gubernatorial races in the country this year. It’s not likely that any 2020 Democratic gubernatorial nominees will have a similar position.

Looking at the bigger picture, the idea that Democrats are mostly responsible for abortion-policy polarization is just wrong; it’s been an entirely two-way phenomenon. According to a 2017 Pew survey of partisans, there are significantly more pro-choice Republicans (34 percent saying abortion should be legal in most or all cases) than anti-abortion Democrats (22 percent saying abortion should be illegal in most or all cases). Yet in 2019, the last of the pro-choice Republican House members went the way of the dodo bird. The anti-abortion Democrats for Life of America endorsed two winning House members (Dan Lipinski of Illinois and Collin Peterson of Minnesota), and three winning Democratic Senate candidates (Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia). Just two Senate Republicans (Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) self-identify as pro-choice, and Collins’s bona fides on the topic took a big hit when she put Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS confirmation over the finish line last year.

So Democrats have no special responsibility for the sorting-out of the two parties into one that favors reproductive rights and one that doesn’t. And despite all the “big tent” talk of those who oppose Democrats taking a stand, any opportunity costs for alienating the small group of swing voters who themselves make opposition to legal abortion a personal litmus test are surely offset by the college-educated women and younger voters with whom Democrats have been making their biggest recent gains.

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