Is the Abortion Litmus Test Hurting Our Party?

In a recent Fox News interview, former Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky said of her primary opponent Brendon Bolye, “He is not pro-choice, and it is a litmus test, and he fails it.” Boyle went on to win the Democratic Primary for Pennsylvania’s 13th Congressional District. Her divisive comments proved not to reflect the sentiment of that district. Yet this desire to purge pro-life members from the Democratic Party continues unabated and has been a major contributing factor to the decline of the Democratic Party.

In 1978, the Democratic Party held a 292-seat majority in the US House with 125 pro-life Democrats. Today, we hold 199 seats in the House and are at risk of losing our majority in the Senate. The number of pro-choice members has remained about 170. It is the number of pro-life members that has changed drastically—largely due to the litmus test.

Democrats held the majority in Congress for decades. But with the ascendancy of abortion activists in the Democratic Party during the 1972 presidential campaign, the abortion litmus test grew stronger and the Democratic majority began to dwindle. A crushing defeat in 1994 sealed the fate when Democrats lost control of the House for the first time in over 40 years.

Political strategists blamed the 1993 gun vote, so Democrats began to moderate on gun issues. The change has neutralized the ability of the Republicans to paint all Democrats as anti-gun, but it has not resulted in major gains for Democrats.

The abortion litmus test is a different story.

Despite NARAL Pro-Choice America’s massive television and print campaign in 2003 to make abortion a key issue in the 2004 elections, the Democrats lost the presidency and more seats in the House and Senate.

Many blamed the 2004 losses on the inability of Democrats to attract values voters. The Democracy Corps, one of the most progressive Democratic groups in Washington, issued a report advising Democrats to reclaim the Catholic vote by addressing abortion in a new way. It found that Democratic defectors were concerned about the “lack of respect for life, including abortion.” Carville and Begala wrote in “Take it Back” that the Democratic Party was on the fringe on abortion and needed to moderate its position if it was to regain a majority.

Howard Dean heeded that advice and opened the DNC to 18 sitting pro-life members. They each were given an opportunity to explain their districts and how the litmus test on abortion affects voting patterns.

Together with the support of the DCCC’s new Chair Rahm Emanuel, the talk of moderation and reaching value voters was put into action. The national party committee created a new electoral math that put several seats in position to win including Reps. Joe Donnelly, Heath Shuler, and Brad Ellsworth, who all defeated Republican incumbents in critical swing districts in 2006. Democrats regained control of the House with a 232-seat majority. The same strategy was used in the 2008 election, and the Democrats gained seats, building their majority to 257.

These moves signaled to pro-life voters that Democrats were serious about expanding the big tent philosophy by allowing individual candidates to craft their unique perspective on abortion rather than having one “pre-approved” message by the national party.

That all changed in 2010 when the pro-choice Democratic leadership became furious with pro-life members for supporting Rep. Bart Stupak’s Amendment to prevent public funding of abortion in the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The sixty-four Democrats who voted against public funding of abortion in healthcare were targeted, tarred and feathered, and left for dead. The Republican message machine used the ACA as a means to tarnish and brand any Democrat as pro-abortion. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party continued to highlight its support for abortion with little regard for the Democrats who were in the election fights of their lives. Even members who voted against the ACA and public funding of abortion were branded with the pro-abortion label. The result? The Democratic majority was lost, with Democratic seats declining from 257 to 193.

So, we can follow Congresswoman Margolies-Merzvinsky’s recommendation and utilize an abortion litmus test, which would mean adjusting to life in the permanent minority and losing pro-life districts. Or we can open up our big tent, regain our majority status, and pass legislation to help the families of our great nation.