Encouraged by President Trump's abysmal approval ratings and dysfunction in the Republican-controlled Congress, Democrats are entertaining scenarios of recapturing control of Capitol Hill in 2018 — and key to that scenario is coaxing back voters who supported Trump in 2016.
Part of that strategy is a message heavy on economics and light on identity politics, but it also involves recruiting candidates in swing districts who might depart from liberal orthodoxy on social issues.
This week Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, created a minor sensation when he told the Hill that the committee wouldn't withhold funding from candidates who opposed abortion rights.
"There is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates," Lujan said. "As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America."
This would seem to be common sense. It also echoes comments by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer.
Yet Lujan's comments brought immediate denunciations from pro-choice groups and some prominent Democrats. The Hill reported that former Democratic national chairman Howard Dean threatened to withhold support for the campaign committee if it funded candidates who opposed abortion rights, though Dean later clarified that there were "degrees of pro-life" and that he wouldn't want to contribute to candidates who "oppose all abortion rights."
Mitchell Stille, who oversees campaigns for NARAL Pro-Choice America, said: "Throwing weight behind anti-choice candidates is bad politics that will lead to worse policy. The idea that jettisoning this issue wins elections for Democrats is folly contradicted by all available data."
The Planned Parenthood Action Fund challenged the notion that abortion rights could be separated from the Democrats' emphasis on economic issues. "Supporting reproductive rights, including abortion, is central to expanding economic opportunity to all Americans," spokeswoman Erica Sackin said in a statement. "They are fundamental to women's economic security, health and well-being."
Maybe so. But many Democrats who support the party's positions on a higher minimum wage or strong labor unions or the Affordable Care Act also consider themselves "pro-life" — and Dean is correct in saying that the concept has a range of meanings.
It might mean support for overturning Roe vs. Wade, but it might mean something much less extreme in policy terms — say, support for waiting periods or the restrictions on federal funding for abortion contained in the Hyde Amendment. (Sen. Tim Kaine, the 2016 Democratic nominee for vice president, maintained his support for the amendment even though the party platform pledged to overturn it.)
Alternatively, a "pro-life" candidate for Congress might associate herself with the position enunciated by Hillary Clinton in 2008 that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare, and by rare, I mean rare." (Clinton seemed to forget about the "rare" part of that formulation in her 2016 race.) That position might not translate into support for any legal restrictions on abortion at all — perhaps just for funding for adoptions or for sex education and contraceptive services.
Most Democratic congressional candidates will happily declare themselves pro-choice (even if they hedge by adding that they are "personally pro-life"). But suppose a Democratic candidate is "pro-life" to the point of opposing legal abortion but agrees with the party's other priorities? Should that candidate be denied funding — and the party a potential majority — for the sake of pro-choice purity? The party's strategists seem to think not. It's hard to disagree.