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As Democrats Look To 2018, Abortion Emerges Divisive


As Democrats lick their wounds from the 2016 election and look ahead to the 2018 midterms, abortion is emerging as a surprisingly divisive issue. Some party members want to make room for Democrats who oppose abortion rights. Others say reproductive freedom is non-negotiable and a core Democratic Party value. NPR's Sarah McCammon has more.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: When the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee told a reporter this week that there would be no litmus test on abortion rights for candidates receiving financial support, it opened up another chapter in an ongoing debate over how to energize the party's base while also broadening its appeal. New Mexico Congressman Ben Ray Lujan said the priority should be finding Democratic candidates who can win their districts. There was quick pushback from abortion rights activists, like NARAL President Ilyse Hogue.

ILYSE HOGUE: Having access to abortion is ground zero for gender equality. It is linked to every other decision that women will ever make in their life.

MCCAMMON: NARAL, Planned Parenthood and several other groups released a joint statement this week arguing that reproductive rights must be part of any conversation about issues like jobs and education. Hogue points to the women's march the day after President Trump's inauguration as a sign that Democrats can't afford to back down on issues important to many of them, like abortion rights.

HOGUE: If there was ever a stronger signal sent that women are looking for leadership who has our backs because equality and justice is more important in the Trump administration than it's ever been, that moment is now.

MCCAMMON: Other Democrats argue that in the wake of their party's losses in 2016, it's time to reach out to voters who have some common ground with Democrats but oppose abortion rights. Polls suggest at least a fifth of Democrats label themselves pro-life. Kristen Day of the group Democrats For Life (ph) says the party should reach out to them.

KRISTEN DAY: When you're looking at campaigns, every vote matters. And we cannot afford to tell these people that they don't belong and they can't vote Democrat if they hold these beliefs.

MCCAMMON: In areas like the Midwest and South, with a large share of religious conservatives, Day says Democrats should run candidates who reflect local values.

DAY: You can't take the values of California and New York and expect to take a candidate and win in the middle America.

MCCAMMON: It's not the first time this issue has come up in recent months. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said she believes it is possible to be a Democrat and oppose abortion. Senator Bernie Sanders, known as a progressive leader, has argued it's more important to win control of Congress and state legislatures than to insist that all Democrats support abortion rights. Meanwhile, Republicans are seizing on this intraparty fight as a sign of a larger problem for Democrats. Lindsay Jancek is with the Republican National Committee.

LINDSAY JANCEK: They really don't have a message, and they're not sure what direction to go. And they're concerned about their races coming up in 2018, that I think, you know, they're going to face a lot of tests and trials and tribulations from voters.

MCCAMMON: Andrea Flynn, a fellow at the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute, says Democrats risk trying too hard to win over white, working-class voters who supported Trump at the expense of the base that turned out twice for President Obama.

ANDREA FLYNN: But I think a bigger question for progressives to be asking right now is, how do we rebuild the progressive coalition? How do we create a narrative and an agenda that speaks to people of color, that speaks to immigrants, that speaks to women who have been the backbone of this party?

MCCAMMON: Flynn says Democrats would do well to focus not only on getting the message right on abortion but also on the economic concerns that mobilize voters across the political spectrum. Sarah McCammon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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