AURORA, Colorado—The anti-abortion movement is riding high in the age of Donald Trump. A fifth conservative justice is likely heading to the Supreme Court with the potential to overturn Roe v. Wade. The White House has rolled back a requirement for employers to provide contraception in health plans. And the president is trying to defund the chief nemesis of abortion opponents, Planned Parenthood.
But not all anti-abortion voters are celebrating. A small slice of the electorate can’t stomach Trump even when he enacts policies they support, and can’t get behind the Republican Party’s positions on other issues like health care and voting rights. At the same time, they feel increasingly unwelcome in a Democratic Party that is moving left on abortion, as it did in 2016, when the party’s platform called, for the first time, for the elimination of the ban on federal funding of abortion.
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During a hot July weekend, a group of these Americans—about 100 grass-roots activists from around the country—met at a nondescript Radisson hotel tucked away in a corporate office park outside Denver. Between the soccer teams and family reunions crowding the lobby, they were holding the first—annual, they hope—Democrats for Life of America convention, titled “I Want My Party Back!”
No, “Democrats for Life” is not an oxymoron. And yes, the group would forgive you if you didn’t know they existed—they represent a dying breed in American politics. Many Democratic lawmakers once took Bill Clinton’s lead in advocating that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” or toed the line between keeping abortion legal but advocating limits on the procedure, even if those limits reduced access. Over time, many of those Democrats lost their seats—several in the 2010 Tea Party wave. Others, such as Representatives Richard Neal of Massachusetts and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, have moved to the left on the issue.
Shortly after Democrats for Life’s founding nearly two decades ago, its website listed as many as 43 House Democrats in the group’s coalition. Today, Democrats for Life endorses two sitting House members and three senators. Its leaders won’t reveal the group’s membership numbers, but in a nod to their scarcity, members jokingly refer to themselves as political “unicorns.”
Many anti-abortion Democratic activists have slid comfortably into their role as political misfits, driven by a deeply held belief that a fetus is perhaps the most vulnerable member of society and warrants protection—but similarly drawn to the Democratic Party’s broader values. But now, as the Democratic Party leans into what it hopes is a 2018 midterm election wave, these Democrats for Life are genuinely hoping to stage a comeback. The group’s leaders argue that the party won’t win majorities in Congress unless Democrats welcome more moderate candidates who don’t want their party to be synonymous with abortion rights—particularly in heavily Roman Catholic or blue-collar states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, and conservative but heavily Hispanic states like Texas.These Democrats also think they can attract moderate Republicans who oppose abortion but are otherwise disenchanted with Trump.
The midterms will be a test of this theory. All three sitting Democratic senators endorsed by Democrats for Life—Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania—are up for reelection and face close races. Democrats for Life is also backing a handful of challengers in gubernatorial and congressional races, including some who have already lost primaries this cycle. (The three House Democrats who consistently vote against abortion rights issues—Representatives Dan Lipinski of Illinois, Collin Peterson of Minnesota and, to a lesser extent, Henry Cuellar of Texas—are considered safe in their upcoming elections.)
The electorate, however, doesn’t appear to be trending in anti-abortion Democrats’ favor. Democrats for Life says as many as 1 in 3 Democrats would call themselves “pro-life,” citing a 2015 CNN poll, but other polling suggests that share could be as small as 6 percent. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that Democrats have become more accepting of abortion even in the past two years, with 68 percent of them saying this summer that they think the procedure should be legal, up from 60 percent in 2016. In general, voters give abortion lower priority compared with issues like the economy, terrorism, health care and immigration.
Still, Michael Wear, a Democrats for Life board member who led faith-based outreach for President Barack Obama, argues the Democrats’ abortion position in their 2016 platform cost them majorities in the election, and that Democrats should widen their tent if they expect to take the House or Senate this year.
“If you’d ask the average Democrat, the average pro-choice Democrat, ‘Would you rather have a party in control of Congress and in control of the White House but not have federal funding of abortion as part of their policy ambitions—would you prefer that to what we have now?’” Wear says. “I think the answer is pretty clear.”
Since the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade and through the early 2000s, it was easy to find a Democrat who opposed abortion or tried to walk a line between personal opposition but support for access to the procedure. Former Senators Harry Reid and Joe Biden found themselves walking that tightrope earlier in their careers. More recently, so did Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. Even as recently as a decade ago, a small but influential group of anti-abortion Democrats could leverage their numbers in Congress. In 2009, Representative Bart Stupak, now retired and a member of the Democrats for Life board, led negotiations over the Affordable Care Act with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi to get a vote on banning taxpayer-funded abortions.
Today, anti-abortion Democrats on Capitol Hill don’t have much of anything to leverage. Many Democratic lawmakers who spoke out against abortion in 2009 lost their seats or retired in the 2010 conservative wave; more disappeared after the 2012 election. Since then, few have taken their place: Manchin—who represents the most anti-abortion state in the country—and Donnelly—who represents No. 9—are the only anti-abortion Democrats to get elected for the first time in the past eight years. In recent years, abortion rights advocates have pushed back hard on elected officials, even close allies, who speak negatively about abortion. In 2016, for instance, NARAL Pro-Choice America dinged Pelosi for saying she did not support “abortion on demand”—a phrase usually wielded by abortion opponents as an attack.
Outside Catholic or Christian strongholds like Louisiana and South Dakota, the anti-abortion Democrat has recently become rare even at the state level. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards is an outlier: He expanded Medicaid—a key priority for Democrats—while also signing into law a 15-week abortion ban, which is currently being held up in court.
Broadly speaking, this trend has been mirrored in the electorate. Abortion is notoriously difficult to poll since people don’t usually identify neatly as “pro-life” or “pro-choice”—it’s not uncommon to oppose abortion but think it should be legal early in a pregnancy, for instance, or to support abortion rights but be less accepting of it later in a pregnancy. But in general, the American electorate appears to be becoming more accepting of the procedure. A Gallup poll conducted every few years for decades has found that roughly 50 percent of Americans believe it should be legal “only under certain circumstances”—a description that would cover everything from legal only if the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or is the result of rape or incest, to legal all the way through the first trimester. That figure has generally gone down since the late 1990s, while there is growing support for having abortion be legal under “any circumstances.”
At the institutional level, abortion rights over time have become deeply ingrained as a core, defining value of the Democratic Party—particularly since the 2010 elections. Abortion rights groups such as NARAL, EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood have become more powerful within the Democratic establishment—as evidenced by the 2016 party platform’s call for the elimination of the long-running ban on federal funding of abortion.
Last summer, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez publicly proclaimed that “every Democrat” should support abortion rights, prompting an outcry that the party was implementing a “litmus test.” Democrats for Life arranged a meeting with Perez shortly after the dust-up but left still feeling like the skunk at the party. Asked about the DNC’s abortion stance in the 2018 midterms, spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said the party’s top goal this year is electing Democrats and “stopping Republican attacks on women’s reproductive rights, workers’ rights and the middle class. There is no doubt that Republicans are the biggest threat to women’s health, and we will work with all Democrats to stop them.”
Anti-abortion Democrats say they—and the voters they represent—aren’t just marginalized on this one issue: They say Democratic pollsters, fundraisers and vendors don’t want to work with anti-abortion candidates for fear of losing favor and business with the rest of the party. “If you’re trying to raise money on the national level, it gets very, very difficult,” Stupak said in an interview during the Democrats for Life convention. “There will be no money. There will be no help.” Email service vendors and pollsters frequently turn down Democrats for Life, according to the Democrats for Life president, Janet Robert.
And there are Democrats who insist that anti-abortion candidates shouldn’t get elected at all even if they have a “D” after their name—or at least that the party’s members should be defined by progressive values, as Representative Luis Gutiérrez said when he endorsed a primary challenger to Lipinski earlier this year (Lipinski prevailed). Outside the Radisson hotel, Colorado state Representative Leslie Herod was among those participating in a small protest led by the liberal group ProgressNow Colorado, which set up a truck with a giant sign calling abortion access a “progressive value.” Democrats for Life’s intentions are “quite nefarious. They’re looking for ways to divide us as a party before the next election cycle,” Herod said. “These aren’t core values that you can just pick and choose.”
In some ways, the Democrats for Life convention was similar to any other anti-abortion gathering: There were candles to honor aborted children; panelists generally (but not universally) knocked Planned Parenthood and physician-assisted suicide; and the whole conference had Christian, particularly Catholic, undertones. The main difference: Any mention of Donald Trump got, at minimum, an eye roll. Along with other non-Republican anti-abortion movements—such as Secular Pro-Life and Pro-Life Humanists—Democrats for Life likes to use the term “whole life” to describe their cause, a label that encompasses support for life from conception to natural death and everything in between, including child care, parental leave, health care and education. They argue that unlike Republican anti-abortion groups, they want to support children and their mothers once babies are outside the womb, too—even if that means they lead a lonely political existence.
“I see it as Jesus and his disciples stood alone,” said Christian Matozzo, the 24-year-old coordinator of the Pennsylvania chapter of Democrats for Life. “If you’re a pro-life Democrat, it doesn’t matter if there are five or 500 or 5,000—you know you’re standing alone.”
“Jesus and his disciples stood alone,” said Christian Matozzo, the coordinator of the Pennsylvania chapter of Democrats for Life. “If you’re a pro-life Democrat, it doesn’t matter if there are 5 or 500 or 5,000—you know you’re standing alone.”
Democrats for Life is hoping to host more national conferences—the next could be in Michigan, possibly next year—and use them to bring together anti-abortion Democrats. They want to build a grass-roots movement, which they hope will raise their profile, build relationships with the media, raise money and, eventually, restore their political relevance. “We want our party back. We’re not going to take it over, but we want to be included,” Stupak said. “Mr. Perez has to understand that we’re a valuable part of the party.”
Robert, the group’s president, an attorney who founded a progressive talk radio station in Minnesota, is waging an effort to get high-profile anti-abortion Democrats—she says there are several, including some high-profile media figures—to “out” themselves to prove that anti-abortion Democrats still exist. During the 1992 Democratic convention, a group of anti-abortion Democrats including then-Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, some of whom later became influential in Democrats for Life, published a full-page ad in the New York Times about why they opposed abortion. Robert’s theory is that if more anti-abortion Democrats speak up about their beliefs in a similar manner today, more will follow. And politicians who say abortion should be legal, but personally oppose it—such as Conor Lamb, who won a Pennsylvania special election in a Trump district—might be compelled to actually vote against abortion, too.
“There are many people who are quietly rethinking pro-life, pro-choice, but they’re embarrassed to come out publicly and say so,” Robert says, likening the situation to the days when gay people were closeted. “If it wasn’t for their courage to come out of the closet, they never would have gotten their rights. But pro-life Democrats are afraid to do that mostly because they know they’ll be shunned by their political party, and they care about politics.”
Members of Democrats for Life point to the 2015 CNN poll that found that 33 percent of Democrats believe abortion should be legal under certain circumstances (a definition that leaves a lot of wiggle room). They argue that Democrats will be able to control Congress, and pass legislation addressing a wide variety of issues, only if they win moderate districts, where opposition to abortion is higher than in more solidly Democratic districts.
“It was pro-life Democrats who passed Obamacare,” Stupak says. “And all the other things they wanted” during the first years of Barack Obama’s presidency, such as the stimulus package and the cap-and-trade energy bill.
Abortion rights supporters push back against the idea that the Democratic Party should welcome more opposition to abortion. They say the vast majority of Americans—as many as 7 in 10—support access to abortion and don’t want to see Roe overturned. (Anti-abortion advocates like Robert say the Roe question is misleading in polls, however, because people have different ideas of what overturning the landmark Supreme Court decision would mean.) “When women have access to safe and legal abortion, we are more equal partners in society, and fundamental equality for all people is a value that underscores everything Democrats believe in,” says Amanda Thayer, a spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice America. “Everyone is entitled to their own personal beliefs, of course, however there’s a difference between holding a personal belief and legislating that belief onto others when it comes to some of the most important decisions a person can make in their life in deciding when and with whom to start a family.”
And then there are moderate Republicans who want their party to be more welcoming to candidates who support abortion rights. Some polling suggests they have more of a case to make than Democrats seeking to win over abortion opponents. Tresa Undem, a public opinion researcher at the nonpartisan firm PerryUndem, found that only 6 percent of people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 said they are more likely to vote for a future candidate who opposes abortion rights. By contrast, 27 percent of Trump voters said they would be more likely to vote for a future candidate who supports abortion rights. “By going after the 6 percent, you risk losing the 75 percent” of Democrats who feel strongly about abortion rights, Undem says.
Democrats like Lipinski, who was given Democrats for Life’s award during the conference but couldn’t attend because it was held at the same time as the annual gathering of moderate Blue Dog Democrats, say they expect pressure from outside groups, including abortion rights groups, only to intensify. Lipinski nearly lost his primary this year to a liberal challenger backed by abortion rights groups including NARAL Pro-Choice America. “I don’t get pressure [from congressional leaders on votes], but certainly on the outside,” he says. “No question about it.”
Beyond Lipinski and other sitting lawmakers, Democrats for Life is putting its remaining hope in Billie Sutton, who is running for governor of South Dakota but is considered a long shot. There are a handful of other anti-abortion Democrats facing even tougher roads, including Tim Bjorkman, who is running for an open congressional seat in South Dakota. Robert says other anti-abortion Democrats aren’t willing to air their views unless specifically asked, and that Democrats for Life won’t out them: “They’re not advertising their position—and nobody is asking them. They ask us to not publicize it, and we don’t.”
If Democrats for Life falls short of its midterm goals, it’s unlikely the group’s members will suddenly flock to the Republican Party, as those who traveled to the Colorado convention last month told me almost universally. Former Representative Lincoln Davis, who lost his Tennessee seat in the 2010 midterms, says anti-abortion Democrats are also committed to their beliefs on abortion. If they can’t gain more traction in their party, they are resolved to being political misfits, he says, taking a more pessimistic outlook: “For us Democrats for Life—it’s not an issue we can win with. It’s an issue we can lose with.”