“Friends, abortion rights are under attack in the states,” the missive from the Democratic Governors Association began, in the urgent tone familiar to anyone who has ever been on a political email list. It explained that Republicans in Ohio, Georgia and Alabama had passed strict abortion bans in recent weeks designed to challenge Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision guaranteeing abortion access.
“We can’t stand for this,” the email concluded. “If Republicans have their way, they’ll water down Roe until it’s meaningless... or overturn it altogether. With [Brett] Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, we must fight harder than ever for a woman’s right to choose.”
But even as the group was warning of the dangers of Republican legislators threatening abortion rights, the Democratic Governors Association is preparing to potentially spend millions of dollars backing two Democratic candidates who share that position: Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has indicated he plans to sign a “heartbeat” bill that would effectively ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, the all-but-certain gubernatorial candidate in Mississippi who is defending a similar law in court.
The assault from Republican state legislators on abortion rights in recent weeks has set off massive protests across the country and drawn condemnation from national progressive groups, but it’s also exposed a still-existing fault line within the Democratic Party. While the number of elected Democrats who oppose abortion is at or near an all-time low, operatives still argue that running candidates who oppose abortion is necessary to pick up rare wins in ruby red states like Mississippi and Louisiana. The DGA has said in the past that it views gubernatorial races as fundamentally local matters and doesn’t force candidates to adopt the party line.
But abortion-rights activists and progressives argue making that allowance for red-state candidates undermines the party’s message and undercuts its supporters. NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said the national Democratic committees ― not only the DGA, but also its Senate and House counterparts ― should stop funding candidates who don’t support abortion rights.
“This is an ethical fight. It’s a political fight,” Hogue told HuffPost in an interview, noting polling shows 7 in 10 Americans support abortion access. “The country’s decided on this. People who are not on the right side of history erode the confidence in the Democratic Party that they have our backs at a time when it’s really crucial that women know they have a home.”
Planned Parenthood Action Fund is a major donor to the DGA, sending hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years to back gubernatorial candidates around the country. The group stipulates that its donations can’t go toward electing candidates who oppose abortion, but it wouldn’t specifically say that the party committees should shun such candidates.
“Being able to have control over your own body is a human right, and the Democratic platform is crystal clear about supporting women’s ability to access full reproductive health care, including abortion,” said Melanie Newman, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s senior vice president for communications and culture. “Now, when we’re seeing a rash of abortion bans sweeping the country with the goal of challenging Roe v. Wade, the work of electing pro-reproductive health officials is more important than ever.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who has focused the most on abortion rights, recently said the party should “be 100 percent pro-choice, and it should be nonnegotiable,” but her campaign declined to say whether that meant national party committees should cease their support for candidates who disagree.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who attended a protest against the recent Alabama, Georgia and Ohio abortion laws in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday, suggested the party needs to remain open to dissenting views on the issue.
“We’ve always been a big tent party. I’m not going to tell [national Democratic organizations] what to do. What I know is that my responsibility as a candidate is to stand up for women’s reproductive rights,” the 2020 Democratic presidential contender told HuffPost in an interview, adding: “I think the center of gravity of our party will always be defending these rights.”
The dispute over how the DGA spends its money mirrors an ongoing battle over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s decision to help Illinois Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski, who opposes abortion, hold on to his seat in Congress. But there’s a crucial difference: While there is relatively little doubt a Democrat who supports abortion rights could win Lipinski’s seat in the western suburbs of Chicago, the same can’t be said of Mississippi and Louisiana.
Abortion is a famously tricky subject to poll on, but a 2014 Pew Research Center survey found 57% of Louisianans thought abortion should be illegal in most or all instances and 59% of Mississippians said the same. Both totals were among the highest in the country. (Nationally, a recent Quinnipiac University poll found just 35% of registered voters said abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.)
Democrats also struggle in both states, with President Donald Trump having won each state by more than 15 percentage points in 2016. Edwards and Hood are the only Democrats elected statewide in their home states.
The fact that the DGA finds itself supporting Hood and Edwards simultaneously is mostly due to a quirk of political timing. Only three states ― Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky ― are set to hold gubernatorial elections in 2019. Of the 25 Democratic candidates for governor the group backed during the 2018 midterm elections, only one ― South Dakota’s Billie Sutton ― opposed abortion.
Both men are in tough but winnable races: Edwards is expected to face GOP Rep. Ralph Abraham, though some Republicans (including Trump) continue to look for a different candidate. Edwards has a significant financial advantage over the congressman.
Hood is expected to face Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and released an internal poll earlier this month showing he has a slender lead over the Republican. Hood, in a statement this week, cited a Bible verse to explain why he would defend the so-called heartbeat bill in court.
“The Bible states that God knows us in the womb (Jeremiah 1:4-5), and that’s why I’m firmly pro-life,” he told Mississippi Today. “I have defended in court every single law passed protecting the unborn, including the 15-week ban and the most recent ‘heartbeat bill.’ As governor, I will defend the unborn and the laws of Mississippi.”
Edwards, who upset then-Sen. David Vitter (R) to become Louisiana’s governor in 2015, has always been opposed to abortion and ran an ad during his first gubernatorial bid highlighting he and his wife’s decision not to have an abortion after a doctor recommended one. He told a Chamber of Commerce gathering in his home state earlier this month that signing the “heartbeat” bill would be “consistent with my unblemished pro-life record in my years as a legislator and governor.”
Edwards’ supporters note he’s a mainstream Democrat on economic issues: His first act as governor was to expand Medicaid in the state, and he’s also pushed for a minimum wage hike, equal pay legislation and increased funding for K-12 education. And he’s far from the only Democrat in the state to oppose abortion. When the “heartbeat” legislation he’s set to sign was up for a vote in the state Senate, six Democratic senators supported it, while only five opposed it and three opted not to cast a vote.
“Gov. Edwards has been succeeding on many issues that Democrats care about and fight for,” said Trey Ourso, a Democratic consultant in Louisiana who ran an outside group that backed Edwards’ bid in 2015. “This is one issue where he disagrees with some, but there are a lot of Democrats in Louisiana who do agree with him.”
Former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a moderate Democrat who lost reelection in 2018 and was typically supportive of abortion rights, said it would be “ill-advised” for the party to close itself off to pro-life candidates who agree with it on other issues.
“This is a firmly held belief, that life begins at conception. Not everyone in this country shares that belief,” she said during a wide-ranging interview Tuesday on the sidelines of a conference in Jackson, Wyoming. “But you need to look at the entire body of legislative work and not just one vote and one person.”
Alexander Kaufman contributed reporting.