Politico: Health vote haunts anti-abortion Democrats

This article originally ran in Politico on October 6, 2010.


Health vote haunts anti-abortion Democrats

By Sarah Kliff

On a chilly January morning in Erie, Pa., members of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List stood outside Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper’s office to thank her for opposing a health care bill that didn’t include stringent abortion restrictions.

Ten months later, Dahlkemper and other anti-abortion Democrats are at risk of becoming an endangered species in the House.

She and others eventually signed on to the health reform law, endorsing an executive order that barred federal funding of abortions. But SBA List and other anti-abortion groups opposed the executive order, contending it was too weak.

Now, SBA List is engaged in a multimillion-dollar attack on its former allies, replete with bus tours and billboards alleging that members “voted for taxpayer-funded abortion.” The group invested $1.5 million in its “Votes Have Consequences” bus tour in August, targeting anti-abortion Democrats who supported health reform. Just last week, SBA List spent $55,000 on 32 billboards dotting the districts of three vulnerable Democrats.

On the other hand, Democrats for Life of America, the group most fiercely devoted to defending anti-abortion Democrats, has been essentially inactive this election cycle. Its political action committee brought in $2,431 and spent a paltry $308, according to Federal Election Commission filings. DFLA has made no contributions to federal candidates.

That Dahlkemper finds herself in a razor-thin race and on the defensive over her abortion rights stance is particularly galling for the freshman congresswoman.

“It’s been extremely frustrating at times,” Dahlkemper told POLITICO. “All along, I have donated. I have marched. I have been an unmarried pregnant woman who chose life. I have lived this. Now I’m 52, and in the last six months, all of a sudden, people are questioning who I am.”

If the previous decade saw the rise of the anti-abortion Democrats, the next few years could well be their demise. Abortion rights opponents triumphed in socially conservative and traditionally Republican districts, helping solidify Democratic control of Congress.

In the 43 districts held by Democrats with mixed or complete anti-abortion voting records, as scored by the National Right to Life Committee, the outlook is bleak: four lean Republican, 12 are tossups and nine lean just slightly Democratic, according to The Cook Political Report.

Just 12 anti-abortion Democrats’ seats are considered safe.

“We’re hoping to hold our members, but I’m afraid we may lose some,” said Kristen Day, executive director of DFLA. “It’s partly the political climate and then the health care bill definitely being used against these members.”

Many of the anti-abortion Democrats are campaigning in an uneasy no-man’s land: out of line with the party platform but with little support from the country’s most influential anti-abortion groups.

They are newer members in districts that Democrats barely held in 2008 and that are already likely to flip without the barrage of anti-abortion attacks under anti-incumbent sentiment.  Their ranks read like a “Who’s Who” of endangered Democratic lawmakers: Reps. Tom Perriello of Virginia, Steve Driehaus of Ohio, Chris Carney of Pennsylvania and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota.

“I fully expect they will be in decline,” said SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, who previously worked for anti-abortion Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia. “Not only with their decision making but because the Democratic Party has not been overly enthusiastic about protecting them.”

Even prior to November, the caucus had already lost some of its most stalwart leaders.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, announced in April that he would retire at the end of his term after becoming a polarizing figure in the health care reform debate. Mollohan, a previous NRLC “Pursuit of Life” awardee, lost his primary after losing the group’s endorsement.

Others have moved onto Senate races that they are far from likely to win. Rep. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana lags in his challenge to Republican Sen. David Vitter. Rep. Brad Ellsworth from Indiana, who fell out of favor with anti-abortion groups after supporting the health reform law, is far from a shoo-in in his race against Republican Dan Coats for retiring Sen. Evan Bayh’s seat.

Day said DFLA’s next FEC filing will show $2,500 spread over 10 candidates. Still, compared with the SBA List’s multimillion-dollar campaign, Day admitted that “it’s a bit of a David versus Goliath situation.”

Anti-abortion groups, while expressing some reluctance to see the ranks of Democratic colleagues decline, in some ways see such members as a liability, too susceptible to leadership’s demands.

“The takeaway [from health reform] is twofold,” said Dannenfelser. “Never underestimate the will of the real pro-life Democrats, but never underestimate the will of Harry Waxman. His deftness in getting members in line is not to be taken for granted and, obviously, a force to be reckoned with.”

“I fundamentally reject the idea that the life issue is the full providence of any one party,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life Action, which this week launched a $600,000 “Life Counts” campaign against six anti-abortion Democrats. “That being said, the fact that [the] Democratic Party advanced the biggest expansion of abortion with health care is something they have to answer for.”

But from where Dahlkemper and Day sit, they see the groups as targeting Democrats specifically; that the groups would prefer Republicans to hold the anti-abortion mantle. FEC filings bolster that claim: SBA List, for example, has given exclusively to Republican candidates in the 2010 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“I’m afraid for the pro-life movement and the future of it when you’re saying there is no such thing as a pro-life Democrat,” said Day. “It’s not a smart strategy for the pro-life movement but a great strategy for Republicans.”

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