Stories about how badly the Democratic Party has performed in recent years have been so prevalent they hardly bear mentioning.
The coalition put together by Franklin Roosevelt appears to be on its last legs, hemorrhaging an astonishing 1000 legislative seats since 2008. There are now only four U.S. states with a Democratic governor and legislature. Remarkably, the party has approval ratings comparable to that of Donald Trump.
The explanation for this sorry state of affairs is complex, but a big part of it comes from the enforcement of a coastal moral and political orthodoxy that has dramatically shrunk the party in the Midwest and South. This has been particularly true when it comes to abortion policy.
Indeed, when Democrats had a big tent on the most divisive issue of our time, welcoming the one-in-three members of the party who identify as pro-life, it turns out that they actually won majorities. In 2005, for example, then-DNC chair Governor Howard Dean beautifully executed a 50-state strategy in which the party supported pro-life Democrats who could beat Republicans in battleground districts.
This strategy netted, among other things, the seats necessary to pass the Affordable Care Act, the most important piece of Democratic legislation passed in two generations. Let’s be clear about this remarkable and under-reported fact: without pro-life Democrats, the legislation that has forever changed how American culture thinks about its duty to the most vulnerable would not have passed.
In 2009, however, the 50-state strategy went away, replaced with the simplistic abortion orthodoxy of coastal elites. And with it went the Democratic majority. Tellingly, 88 percent of seats formerly occupied by the pro-life Democrats who supported the ACA are now in Republican hands.
Trump’s stunning victories in formerly blue states in the Midwest, subsequent losses in special elections, and the real threat of losing the ACA have caused some rethinking of abortion orthodoxy in the party.
Democrat James Thompson, for instance, ran for a special election seat in Kansas this past April. He cut Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton by 75 percent, but was unable to get over the hump. In a Think Progress interview, Thompson blamed his loss on pro-life activists who were able to tie him to the current Democratic platform which insists that abortion for any reason—including sex-selection—should not only be legal, but paid for by pro-lifers with their tax dollars.
Finally coming to grips with the huge problems that such abortion extremism has been causing the party, Bernie Sanders and DNC chair Tom Perez publicly supported a pro-life Democrat named Heath Mello for mayor of Omaha.
Perez, when interviewed about his support for Mello and others like him, invoked a familiar concept: “In order to execute a 50-state strategy, we need to understand what’s going on in all 50 states, and attract candidates who are consistent with their messages but perhaps not on 100 percent of the issues. If you demand fealty on every single issue, then it’s a challenge.”
The blowback from abortion-rights interest groups responsible for the party ditching this big tent strategy was quick and severe. Mere hours later Perez walked back his remarks, and even Mello—a longtime pro-lifer—was forced to claim that he would only vote for pro-choice legislation.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict what happened next. Like so many pro-choice Democrats before him, Mello lost.
Perhaps all this losing is finally getting to the Democratic leadership, because even after his reversal Perez publicly agreed to meet with Democrats for Life and current and former pro-life Democratic members of Congress.
That meeting took place yesterday. The topic? How Democrats can open the big tent and start winning again.
The meeting featured a number of voices traditionally muted in our public discourse, including those who take a Pope Francis approach to care of, and protection for, the most vulnerable. This approach not only includes the refugee and immigrant, but also the prenatal child and her mother. All these vulnerable populations have the face of Christ as the least among us.
Perhaps most significantly, the meeting saw two “case studies” presented which emphasized the importance of a big tent for the party.
The first was offered by Jonathan Swinton, who ran for the 2016 Democratic nomination for Senate in Utah. He was actually within 10 points of very conservative Republican incumbent Mike Lee, after starting 30 points behind, and easily got the most votes at the Utah Democratic convention. But big abortion-rights money got behind an extremist named Misty Snow, who made the entire race about abortion.
The state party was too afraid to resist, and Snow won the nomination. But in an epic 50-state strategy failure, she lost the general election by an embarrassing 41 points — the second-worst showing of any Democratic candidate running for a statewide seat in Utah in history.
The second case study offered at the meeting provided a happier example. Former Tennessee pro-life Democrat Lincoln Davis explained that he ran for Congress before enforcement of the current abortion orthodoxy. Nancy Pelosi supported him, because she thought he could actually win. And with good reason: Davis had polled his district and a whopping 87 percent of registered Democrats there identified as pro-life. NARAL spent three million dollars to defeat him, but with the support of the party he won the nomination and ultimately his district.
It was a 50-state strategy win.
It would be impossible to listen to the case studies and statistical-demographic writing on the wall offered at this meeting, and not come away with a strong sense that the Democratic Party needs to fundamentally rethink its relationship with NARAL-style abortion orthodoxy. It has killed the party in the past, it is killing the party today, and spells doom for the party’s future with young people as well.
Leadership may not support senators such as Bob Casey of Pennsylvania voting for a (modest) 20-week ban on abortion, but they need tolerance for such votes if they want to keep his seat blue.
Let the dialogue continue. Those of us who want to make government work in protecting and supporting the most vulnerable in our culture must do the hard work of finding a way to honor and tolerate our differences on abortion policy.
Charles C. Camosy is an associate professor at Fordham University, board member of Democrats for Life of America, and author of Beyond the Abortion Wars: a Way Forward for a New Generation.