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Pro-life Democrats live?

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 14, 2005

Pennsylvania State Treasurer Bob Casey, Jr. hails from a political family that looms large in his state's politics – and the Democratic Party's intramural battles over abortion. In 1992, his late father, then governor of Pennsylvania, was denied a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention to prevent him from discussing his pro-life views from the podium. Casey is his father's son on right-to-life issues, but his campaign for the U.S. Senate has the backing Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other liberal national party leaders.

Why the shift? With just 44 Senate seats, Democrats can no longer afford to allow an abortion litmus test keep them from recruiting the strongest candidates the party can find. A recent poll showed Casey with a 7-point lead over Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), a perennial Democratic target, in the run-up to the 2006 race. Many leading Democrats have rationally calculated that it would be better to have a fighting chance at taking that seat than to insist on lockstep conformity on every issue.

Schumer, in his capacity as chairman of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is also reaching out to pro-life Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) to challenge pro-choice Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) in 2006. This new openness toward pro-life Democrats, even if based on partisan self-interest, isn't pleasing everyone. Democratic consultant and longtime NARAL leader Kate Michelman basically likened these pro-lifers to segregationists: "Can you imagine recruiting people to run for the Senate with a record of opposition to affirmative action or to Brown v. Board of Education?"

It's one of the most divisive debates among Democrats groping for a way out of hole they have found themselves in after the 2004 election. On the one side are pragmatists who argue that it is suicidal for the party to shut out its pro-lifers at the expense of victory. On the other are those of Michelman's ilk who regard Roe v. Wade as the Democrats' Holy Grail.

The pragmatists are having a tough go of it. Shortly after last fall's presidential election, it looked like the Democrats were going to at least try to recast their pro-abortion image. They elected Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), one of just three Democrats currently serving in the Senate who believes Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, to serve as minority leader in the upper house. Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) spoke of the need for "common ground" with pro-lifers. Pro-life former Congressman Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) launched a serious bid to chair the Democratic National Committee.

And there's where the outreach to pro-life Democrats began to fall apart. Roemer's candidacy was bogged down in the controversy over his pro-life congressional voting record. At some forums for the would-be DNC chairmen, pro-choice audience members would boo him when he rose to speak. He frequently found himself under attack.

"One day I received by messenger a dirty and smudged envelope with no return address," wrote the New Republic's Ryan Lizza. "Inside were five pages of anti-Roemer opposition research about his positions on everything from Israel and abortion to labor and Social Security."

These tactics show the limits of Democratic outreach to pro-life voters and party members. During the DNC race, many Democrats had the same misgivings about Howard Dean as a standard-bearer for their party that had proven fatal for the former Vermont governor during last year's presidential race. But this time, there was no stop-Dean candidate for opposition to coalesce around and keep him from the chairmanship. The two logical alternatives were former Congressman Martin Frost (D-Tex.) – who had just lost a reelection bid and had bad relations with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the pro-life Roemer.

So Howard Dean it was. " At the very moment Democrats are claiming to distance themselves from abortion," wrote George Neumayr of the American Spectator, "they run back towards it by making Howard Dean -- a former doctor for Planned Parenthood -- their public face." (The column carried the headline "Dean Aborts Roemer.")

A 2006 Senate race between Casey and Santorum would be yet another test of the Democrats' commitment to abortion-issue inclusiveness. In 2000, pro-life, pro-gun Congressman Ron Klink was Santorum's Democratic challenger. Despite the party's desire to see a Santorum-free Senate, big Democratic donors were not interested in supporting a socially conservative western Pennsylvania Democrat. Klink had difficulty raising the money and gaining the grassroots enthusiasm he needed to be competitive and lost the race.

Casey, of course, is a much bigger name who unlike Klink has won statewide races before. Democratic leaders are hungrier than in 2000, which is why Schumer is willing to give Casey the national support that eluded the last pro-life Democrat to contest that particular seat.

Are Democrats serious about overcoming their Abortion Party baggage? Are Democrats even capable of doing so? Look toward Pennsylvania for the answer.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.


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