PHILADELPHIA ― Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) is an anti-abortion Democrat. And in today’s Democratic Party, that makes him a unicorn.
“It’s a bigger challenge than it should be,” Edwards said at a Democrats for Life event in Philadelphia outside the party’s national convention on Wednesday. “It’s hard to remain a big-tent party if you have a very small platform. We have to make our voices heard.”
Edwards said his winning the gubernatorial race in Louisiana against sitting Republican Sen. David Vitter in 2014 “was never supposed to happen”― but he thinks a lot of religious voters in the Deep South might be more inclined to vote Democratic if the party allowed more anti-abortion candidates to rise in the ranks.
“I ran on Medicaid expansion, increasing the minimum wage. I ran on making sure we pay women the same as we pay men. I said our incarceration rate is too high, and we have to do sentencing reform and criminal justice reform ― so, a very progressive platform as it relates to governors running in the South,” Edwards said. “But I never deviated from saying I am pro-life, not because I thought that was the ticket to winning, but because thats how my momma and daddy raised me, and that’s who I am. And the people of Louisiana embraced that approach, and I think that can play out in many more places across the country if we would just have candidates who are more in line with that.”
While the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, have long supported a woman’s right to choose abortion, both have moved pretty far to the left over the past decade. Clinton said in 2008 that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare― and by rare, I mean rare.” Clinton has since dropped the “rare” from her “safe and legal” line, and she is now the first Democratic nominee ever to advocate for Medicaid funding of abortions. And Democrats who oppose abortion are nearly extinct in Congress since Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) switched his position on the issue last year. (In 2011, a bill to defund Planned Parenthood received 11 votes from House Democrats; in 2016, just two voted for a similar measure.)
Some anti-abortion Democratic delegates at the event Wednesday said they feel alienated by the party’s shift.
“I think the party needs to be more respectful of its faith community,” Justin Giboney, a delegate from the fifth district of Georgia, told The Huffington Post. “I think there are so many values that we cherish as a Democratic Party, whether it’s being inclusive, the high value we place on diversity, taking care of the underserved and impoverished, taking care of immigrants ― those are things, as a Christian, I truly value. But at the same time, my faith comes first. So just because the party moves to the left [on abortion] doesn’t mean I move to the left.”
But Democrats like Giboney aren’t ready to abandon their party over the issue. The difference between Democrats who oppose abortion and Republicans who do, according to many delegates at the DFLA event, is that the Democrats recognize the importance of programs and policies that support mothers and their babies post-birth.
“I care about the whole life,” said Louisiana State Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe), who has introduced several abortion restriction during her five years in the state legislature. “So when I get through advocating for a parent to choose life, then my next step is always to implement policy and legislation that would actually care for the child and ensure the child has an opportunity at the American Dream, regardless of his parents’ financial status or social status in America.”
Jackson said she is an enthusiastic supporter of Clinton, despite the nominee’s outspoken support for abortion rights, because she thinks Clinton’s policies will be better for babies and mothers than those of Republican nominee Donald Trump. She said she knows a lot of people in Louisiana who consider themselves anti-abortion Democrats, but they are less able to be open about their views in a party that is so far to the left of them on abortion.
“Sometimes they’d rather not be asked about it,” Jackson said. “But we’re not as few as people think we are.”