(RNS) — I want to be clear at the outset: No candidate who favors ending abortion in the U.S. can win the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Party leaders are more stridently supportive of unrestricted abortion rights than they have ever been.
Abortion-rights activists exert unprecedented power over the party, and as a result even abortion-skeptical Democrats have been decimated over the past generation. Fewer than a handful of anti-abortion Democrats remain in Congress, and the party signals its disdain for candidates like them at every turn, forcing any Democrat who dares present a nuanced position to repudiate the heresy.
What’s more, as the contest for the Democrats’ 2020 presidential nomination heats up, the party seems to be rehashing the 2016 contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, wherein progressives felt shunted aside by an establishment cabal favoring Clinton. The left is not feeling generous, and even moderates in what promises to be a comically large field of candidates will be out to prove their liberal bona fides.
Which is exactly why 2020 opens up an amazing opportunity for a pro-life Democrat.
Suggesting that the Democrats could benefit from a pro-life voice in their ranks is different from saying they should on moral grounds — although there’s a case for that too: Such a candidacy would do more than anything else to resurrect a discussion that reflects Americans’ ambivalent views on abortion — largely unchanged over 45 years. It would enliven a national debate that has poisoned our politics without doing much to help children (born and unborn) or families.
But the best argument for a Democrat pro-lifer is rather a statistical one: About a quarter of Democrats believe abortion should be generally illegal, according to Gallup. Nonwhite Democrats, a group that is already rumbling about being taken for granted, are more opposed to legal abortion than white Democrats.
The presence of a pro-life Democrat in the 2020 race would give voice to these 21 million disaffected Democrats — not least in the devoutly Christian precincts in Iowa, where such a candidate would likely dramatically outperform expectations in the February 2020 caucuses, instantly becoming a national story just as the media are looking to see who will come out of the outsized Democratic pack.
Some may object that white Christian Iowans are all in the Republican caucuses, but it’s worth testing empirically a charge that’s been made anecdotally for years: that many anti-abortion voters would defect from the Republican Party (especially one run by Trump) if offered another pro-life choice.
A good showing there could give them legs enough to make it to South Carolina, where only a third of Democratic primary voters are white.
After that, the elite’s determination to defeat them would only get worse, and the money game would turn against them. There is a marked paucity of pro-life donors on the Democratic side, and the anti-abortion fundraising machine, now essentially an arm of the Republican Party, excludes Democrats by definition. In the recent midterms, the Susan B. Anthony List spent $785,000 (unsuccessfully) to unseat Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia, despite his pro-life stance.
But even if the candidate dropped out shortly after, his or her presence would have been the most significant reckoning of elite Democrats with their anti-abortion voters since 1992, when the party famously denied Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey a prime-time speaking slot for refusing to abandon his convictions about the sanctity of life.
The question is not whether a pro-life Democrat could make some noise, but who would make it?
The Dems have two top-tier candidates in Manchin and Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, the son of the governor, who reportedly wants to run.
But it’s unclear if Casey would run toward or away from his legacy. Fresh off election to a third term in the Senate, he so far has touted only his electoral success in his key home state as a reason to pick him.
Not to be overlooked, however, is Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana. A Catholic Southerner who resembles a Republican when it comes to abortion (and guns), Edwards ran an ad in his 2016 campaign about his family’s decision not to abort after their daughter was diagnosed with spina bifida in the womb. Yet he rejected calls for Planned Parenthood to be blocked from Medicaid funding without further investigation and not before other resources for women could be secured.
Edwards, or former Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, another pro-life Democrat from a conservative state, could capitalize on the disgust — evident in the election of our current outsider president — that Americans feel toward both parties, not least the stale abortion politics that benefits only party bosses and politicians.
There will be no shortage of faith angles in the 2020 election. So far, however, religion is being deployed to divide the electorate further, with Republicans pandering to the evangelical right and Democrats like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker appealing to mainstream Protestant liberals.
A pro-life Democratic candidate would instead unify religious people, overwhelming Democrats who affirm abortion on demand as an article of faith and churchgoing Republicans who want to criminalize abortion but are apparently untroubled by policies that demonize and harm vulnerable people throughout American society. Faith leaders on both sides squander their credibility and integrity at election time as they contort their holy texts and social teachings to line up with 100 percent of their party’s platform.
In the middle are millions of people of faith who are torn over the way abortion colors political partisanship.
Indeed, a broad theological consensus exists, articulated most thoughtfully in Catholic social teaching but present in most streams of religious thought, that politics should uphold the dignity of all people, affirm the sanctity of life and prioritize concern for the most vulnerable people.
The party that offers a coherent ethic reflecting these values would capture a majority and do right by all Americans — born and unborn.
(Jacob Lupfer, a frequent commentator on religion and politics, is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)