The Future of the Pro-Life Democrat

John Murdock

Winter 2020

As more than a dozen Democrats jockey for their party's nomination, the conventional wisdom is that there are only a few political "lanes," and each important sub-segment of the electorate will eventually coalesce around a chosen candidate. Thus, there is tough competition for the progressive lane, the moderate lane, the black lane, and the woman lane. But no one is jostling for the pro-life lane.

One could argue that there is not a pro-life lane in the Democratic Party anymore. There is plenty of evidence to back up that assertion. In November, the Democratic Attorneys General Association announced it was requiring support for abortion rights or it would not endorse candidates or provide them financial assistance. DAGA trumpeted this explicit litmus test as "the first-of-its-kind for any Democratic campaign committee," but it seems unlikely to be the last. Kirsten Gillibrand declared in May 2019 that the Democratic Party should "be 100 percent pro-choice, and it should be nonnegotiable." She eventually left the presidential race not because her abortion absolutism was too radical but because it was too common.

Cory Booker is promising a "White House Office of Reproductive Freedom" and calls abortion rights "sacrosanct." At a June debate, Elizabeth Warren, when asked directly by NBC's Lester Holt if she would put "any limits on abortion," declined to identify a single one. Only Tulsi Gabbard has articulated any checks on abortion rights from the debate stage; in October, she tepidly noted her opposition to some third-trimester abortions. While that position may be supported by the vast majority of Americans, and even a majority of Democrats, it is an outlier among the leadership of the party. With only a few exceptions — Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana being the most notable — the vast majority of Democratic office holders are solidly on board the abortion bandwagon.

On the related issue of public funding for abortions, early frontrunner Joe Biden made news when he flipped and flopped and flipped again. Congressional freshman firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez soon thereafter declared that opposition to the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for most abortions, is a "base level where all candidates need to be." No candidates have dared to disagree.

But while the current party alignment of pro-choice Democrats and pro-life Republicans seems solid, it has not been that way for long. Just a few decades ago, it was not at all clear that one party or the other was the party of life or of abortion rights. Americans, Democrats included, have not followed the leaders of the Democratic Party on their quest to sanctify abortion rights. By leaving the pro-life lane empty in 2020, Democratic presidential hopefuls may be passing up an opportunity — and leaving voters on the right and the left holding their noses again come November.


As historian Daniel Williams bluntly states in his worthwhile book God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, "Prior to the mid-1970s, no one would have associated the GOP with opposition to abortion." Initially, the pro-life movement was largely responding to liberalizing state abortion laws, several signed by Republican governors including Ronald Reagan of California. Catholics were often at the forefront of this nascent right-to-life movement, and most Catholics voted for Democrats.

In 1972, the early frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination was Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, a Catholic who spoke of the "sanctity" of unborn life. Even though Muskie would lose the nomination to the socially liberal George McGovern, the vice-presidential nod went to a Catholic pro-lifer, Sargent Shriver. Further, an effort from the party's feminist wing to insert an abortion-rights plank into the 1972 platform was soundly defeated, with 59% of the delegates voting against it.

In the early 1970s, abortion was still something of a second-tier national issue, with Americans focused more on the war in Vietnam, civil rights, crime, and the economy. In 1973, however, Roe v. Wade nationalized abortion policy and largely removed the power of state legislatures to address it. The self-sorting of voters motivated by the issue began in earnest in 1976, but the party lines were not immediately obvious and were quite soft at first. 

The nation's bicentennial saw the privately pro-life Jimmy Carter sitting atop a Democratic Party with a platform that declared it "undesirable to attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court decision in this area." Carter ran against the personally pro-choice President Ford who led a Republican Party that surprisingly emerged with a platform that noted a range of opinion within the party but ultimately supported a constitutional right-to-life amendment.

There is a case to be made that the GOP went on to become the party of life because of scheduling. The Republican National Convention was held a month after the Democratic convention, from whence a sizable pro-life contingent had emerged deeply upset by the pro-Roe platform. Ford also was going into his own convention with Ronald Reagan still a threat. Reagan had renounced the abortion bill he had previously signed and was courting the anti-abortion elements within the GOP. The pragmatic Ford saw the opportunity in a pro-life stance, which would help him both seal the nomination and peel off Catholic votes for the general election to come.

Ford's tactical shift, however, was a jolt to many in his party. The New York governor who had championed a permissive pre-Roe abortion statute in 1970 (and vetoed an effort to repeal it in 1972) was one Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican. The liberal laws turned New York City into an abortion destination, with thousands coming from out of state. In response, New York also became a hotbed of pro-life activism.

After Richard Nixon's resignation, Rockefeller had been appointed vice president in 1974 by the newly elevated President Ford. In 1976, however, Ford dropped Rockefeller from the ticket in an effort to shore up his right flank. In a bit of cross-pollination that epitomized these formative times, Bob Dole, who ultimately became the Republican vice-presidential nominee, consulted with the campaign of a pro-life Democratic presidential candidate. Ellen McCormack was a New York right-to-life activist who, without prior political experience, had run a single-issue candidacy that drew up to 9% of the vote in several Democratic state primaries. Dole and the GOP followed McCormack's advice and went on record officially, if a bit indirectly, as "support[ing] the efforts of those who seek enactment of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children."

However disingenuous it may have been, the strategy worked. Before the conventions, Ford had been seen as anything but socially conservative. He had, after all, put the man synonymous with liberal Republicanism a heartbeat away from the presidency. Now, he was getting both the nomination and the nod from pro-life activists.

An endorsement from the right-to-life movement was significant for Ford, but not as significant as one might think. Decades later, when social scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell would run the numbers for their 2010 work, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, they would call abortion the primary "glue" that binds religiosity and partisanship together. That simply was not yet the case in the mid-1970s.

It would be a few years before the influential pastor, author, and filmmaker Francis Schaeffer and Dr. C. Everett Koop would produce Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, their 1979 book and film series. Their work did much to catalyze an evangelical Protestant subculture that was not yet fully engaged with the pro-life cause. Schaeffer and company would also help inspire Reverend Jerry Falwell, Sr., to form the Moral Majority, which boosted the GOP to victory in the 1980 presidential election cycle.

In 1976, though, the political cement that would harden into the Democratic Party's "God gap" was still wet. Though Falwell and Billy Graham helped Ford, the vocally "born again" Carter also had plenty of evangelical support. Even Pat Robertson — the religious broadcaster of The 700 Club fame who would run for president as a Republican in 1988 — backed Carter. And why not? Robertson was the son of a Democratic senator.

Despite a large lead at the start of the race, Carter ultimately won the election in a squeaker, barely surviving an ill-advised interview with Playboy. Associating himself with that magazine late in the campaign cost him more evangelical support than his confusing stance on abortion. Nevertheless, many of the faithful were still excited (if a bit anxious) to see what it would be like to have one of their own at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Would Brother Jimmy change Washington, or would Washington change him? As it turned out, Carter stayed much the same while both Washington and the politics of religious conservatives changed around him.


On abortion, Carter held to his party's platform and did not press for a constitutional amendment affecting Roe, but he also supported the Hyde Amendment outlawing the use of federal funds for most abortions. That policy derived from a larger understanding that abortion — involving as it does the destruction of a unique human individual rather than, say, a tumor — should not be treated as just your garden-variety health care, even if judicially declared to be a legal right. Beginning in 1976, these principles manifested themselves in a rider that must be repeatedly added to each annual appropriations bill. The Hyde Amendment, named for its chief sponsor, Republican congressman Henry Hyde, but also championed by House Democrats like Jim Oberstar, first passed in 1976 under President Ford. It was immediately enjoined by a New York federal judge before it could take effect. That meant that Medicaid — and therefore taxpayers — continued to pay for some 300,000 abortions a year.

President Carter supported subsequent iterations of the appropriations rider and fought the injunction in court. Additionally, while his administration was often populated with social liberals (including Roe attorney Sarah Weddington), he purposely put a pro-life Catholic, Joseph Califano, in charge of the important Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that would oversee this matter.

Carter's support of the Hyde Amendment was not without substantial political and legal risks. The Washington Post editorialized that he was on "the wrong side" of history by championing what they saw as "bad social policy" and "bad constitutional law." Pro-abortion feminists were irate at Carter, across the nation and across the hall in the West Wing.

Midge Costanza was a liberal Catholic politician from upstate New York who had jumped on the Carter train early. She was rewarded by becoming the first woman with the title Assistant to the President. Costanza was the chief public liaison, occupying the same official role that Charles Colson had filled for Nixon. With an outspoken nature and an activist's heart, she was ill-suited to the job when her own views did not match those of her boss. That was the case with the public funding of abortions. After hearing the calls of frustration from her fellow feminists, Costanza drafted a memo urging Carter to change his position. The president replied with a blunt handwritten "No," and warned that his public stance was "actually more liberal than I feel personally." Undeterred, Costanza brought 30 or so female presidential appointees to the White House in a show of feminist force in July 1977. Carter faced down the internal revolt and helped to hand the young pro-life movement a key legislative victory.

The initial injunction on the Hyde Amendment was lifted in August 1977 following Supreme Court rulings that upheld state restrictions on Medicaid abortion spending. More court challenges and another injunction would come later, but in the meantime HEW secretary Califano drafted regulations and enforced the law, reducing publicly funded abortions by hundreds of thousands. Costanza was soon given a narrower portfolio and a new office in the basement. She eventually got the hint and resigned. Soon thereafter, Costanza would use the notoriety brought about by her year and a half in the White House to criticize Carter for failing to fund abortions.

The Hyde Amendment was eventually upheld 5-4 in the Supreme Court case of Harris v. McRae. The Court ruled that the shadowy new right to abortion it had found amid the penumbras of the constitutional text did not include the right to have that decision subsidized by the state. Ford appointee John Paul Stevens voted to strike the statute down, so victory required that three from the Roe majority be willing to set a limit on the abortion rights they had so recently created. Such a result would have been unlikely had the Carter administration not vigorously defended the Hyde Amendment, which again took effect in June 1980, just a few months before Carter suffered a landslide defeat.

By Election Day 1980, many of Carter's religious supporters had come to embrace the pro-life cause more fully than the man they helped put in the White House. Some of those who had sported "J. C. Can Save America!" buttons in 1976 traded them in for new ones that advocated a human-life amendment and bluntly stated "Abort Carter." Nevertheless, the Hyde Amendment that Carter did much to save in its infancy still survives today.


The continued existence of the Hyde Amendment and other prohibitions on federal abortion spending, however, does not mean that later Democratic presidents were as supportive as Carter. President Bill Clinton famously used the rhetoric of making abortion "safe, legal, and rare," even as he supported a raft of policies and regulations that expanded abortion access and limited state controls. Still, he never made a full-throated attack on the Hyde Amendment or vetoed budgets because of its inclusion.

The Obama administration felt no such need to find a rhetorical middle ground. In 2013, Obama became the first sitting president to speak to Planned Parenthood, by far the nation's largest and loudest abortion provider. In a speech featuring no hint of criticism, Obama closed by assuring Planned Parenthood leaders that in him they had "a President who's going to be right there with you fighting every step of the way."

The official party position had also changed since 1976. Beginning in 1988, Democratic platforms began to include affirmations of abortion rights "regardless of ability to pay," a thinly veiled slap at the Hyde Amendment. Conversely, the GOP moved in 1980 to explicitly "support the Congressional efforts to restrict the use of taxpayers' dollars for abortion." In 2016, the Democrats shifted from vague jabs to a full-frontal assault, saying in their platform, "We will continue to oppose — and seek to overturn — federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman's access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment."

The Democrats' evolution toward more vocal and extreme positions on abortion funding matches the transformation of their congressional caucus. In 1976, the anti-abortion Democrats in the House numbered in the triple digits; today there are three. Along the way, when there were still dozens of pro-life House Democrats in the 1990s, President Clinton largely left the Hyde Amendment alone.

In 2009, when Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak put forward an amendment to the Affordable Care Act with Hyde Amendment-like restrictions on abortion spending, 64 House Democrats voted for it and the amendment passed, but no similar amendment passed the Democrat-controlled Senate. During conference-committee negotiations, Stupak and a group of about a dozen pro-life Democrats first threatened to torpedo the entire Obamacare bill before settling for an executive order that affirmed the Hyde Amendment's applicability. That muddled result produced consternation from both sides of the abortion debate, and, ironically, may have expedited the purge of pro-life Democrats. Stupak himself was among those who retired rather than take fire from both sides.

On the other side of the Capitol, former senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana has publicly bemoaned the Democrats' inflexibility on abortion. With his loss in 2018, the Senate is now down to two Democrats who will sometimes break with their party on abortion. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia was the sole Democrat to vote for Justice Kavanaugh's confirmation and called the 2016 platform shift against the Hyde Amendment "crazy." Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey, Jr., also occasionally votes for limits on abortion, such as for the unsuccessful 2015 and 2018 attempts to ban abortions after 20 weeks, and for the unsuccessful 2019 Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act (all of which Manchin also supported). But the son of the vociferously pro-life governor of Pennsylvania Bob Casey, Sr., is far from the champion for life that his father was.

The elder Casey was denied his request to speak about abortion at the 1992 Democratic convention, a black-balling that many count as the symbolic end to any viewpoint diversity within Democratic ranks. In contrast, the younger Casey chose to attend an April 2019 fundraising gala for EMILY's List, a group dedicated solely to electing pro-abortion candidates. His attendance brought pleas to "reconsider" from Democrats for Life of America, a group headed by Kristen Day, a former chief of staff for the now retired pro-life congressman James Barcia.

There are currently few signs that the Democratic Party as a whole is reconsidering its abortion absolutism. Instead, any Democrats in the 2020 presidential race with questionable pasts are engaging in various forms of self-flagellation to show their adherence to the pro-abortion orthodoxy. Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard was seen as pro-life when she was a state representative. Though she recently voiced some third-trimester qualms, Gabbard now more often touts a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood and NARAL. When John Delaney was asked by CNN's Jake Tapper how he squares his active participation in a Catholic parish with his abortion-supporting politics, the former Maryland congressman affirmed he was "pro-choice" and does not "struggle with that as a matter of public policy, not at all." As Delaney told a questioner from the audience at the same event, "I don't think anyone's religious doctrines should inform public policy." Neither Gabbard nor Delaney nor any others lagging in the polls seem eager to stand out on abortion.

More telling and likely more important, early frontrunner Joe Biden — the dominant candidate in the electable-moderate lane — has moved away from any moderation on abortion. In May, Biden told an ACLU volunteer with a camera that "yes" he would commit to abolishing the Hyde Amendment. "It can't stay," Biden reiterated. By June, however, his campaign was telling reporters that he "misheard" what seemed to most a clearly stated question and that Biden still supported the Hyde Amendment. When criticism flowed in from Democratic circles, Biden himself took to a stage just days later to state that he could "no longer support" Hyde and was now on board for government-funded abortions.

Before his 2008 presidential run that eventually led to his vice presidency, Biden sought to claim the middle ground on abortion in his 2007 book, Promises to Keep:

I still vote against partial birth abortion and federal funding, and I'd like to find ways to make it easier for scared young mothers to choose not to have an abortion, but I will also vote against a constitutional amendment that strips a woman of her right to make her own choice.

In the book, Biden clearly wanted to emphasize his consistency: "I've stuck to my middle-of-the-road position on abortion for more than 30 years."

That was not exactly true even in 2007. Biden had already slid to the left significantly on abortion. As a 31-year-old freshman senator, he had this to say to Washingtonian magazine in 1974:

[W]hen it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid, I'm about as liberal as your grandmother. I don't like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far. I don't think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.

True, 2007 minus 30 only gets you to 1977, so his 1974 quote is technically not a contradiction of his book. Arithmetic, though, will not save him from a 1982 Judiciary Committee vote for a constitutional amendment that would have overturned Roe and returned the issue to the states. A year after his committee vote to overturn Roe, a similar amendment (co-sponsored by five Senate Democrats) would make it to the floor of the Senate, but Biden did not support it.

Unlike Biden's relatively fleeting support of a constitutional amendment, his recent about-face on the Hyde Amendment comes after decades of support. In 1994, he was touting his record of voting against federal abortion funding "on no fewer than 50 occasions" because "those of us who are opposed to abortion should not be compelled to pay for them." From 1977 through his last Senate vote on the issue in 1988, Biden voted against adding rape and incest exceptions to the version of the Hyde Amendment that then allowed government-funded abortions only to protect the life of the mother.

Biden ran for president twice, in 1988 and 2008, on that mixed but somewhat pro-life record. He has chosen not to run on it again. Biden's abortion evolution is consistent with a host of Democrats who have liberalized their views as they eyed the presidency — Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, and Dennis Kucinich among them. (The changing positions of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Mitt Romney show the trend runs the other direction as well.) Still, having foresworn the Hyde Amendment, one must wonder if he will next reverse his support for a permanent law passed in 1981 that prevents foreign-assistance funds from going to biomedical research involving abortion or involuntary sterilization. Such a reversal would be even trickier because that law is known as the Biden Amendment.


While the Democrats' national party leaders and platform show near unanimity for abortion rights, there is more flexibility among the voters. True, those for whom abortion is their top voting issue have largely migrated to the party that best reflects their view. But abortion is not everyone's top issue. According to a January 2018 Marist poll conducted for the Knights of Columbus, only 46% of Democrats call a presidential candidate's position on abortion (one way or the other) a "major factor" when deciding for whom to vote. Another 27% describe it as a "minor factor." Interestingly, the poll found the same percentages for Republicans. Among independents, 39% called it a "major factor," 31% a "minor" one.

Thus, there are substantial numbers of voters whom one might call secondarily pro-life or pro-choice. For example, while African-Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats (89% of black voters chose Hillary Clinton compared to Donald Trump's 8%, according to CNN exit polls), a 2018 Pew poll found that 38% of blacks thought that abortion should be "illegal in all/most cases," a sharp contrast to the Democratic position. Marist found 41% of African-Americans identifying as "pro-life" in 2018. The trend is similar for Latinos and Hispanics. That group voted for Clinton over Trump 66% to 28%, but 44% believe abortion should be "illegal in all/most cases." Marist found 55% identifying as "pro-life."

Other groups are not as easy to track, but there is undoubtedly a cohort of Midwestern working-class white Catholics who vote Democratic out of a loyalty to past tradition or union ties but, all else being equal, would prefer a pro-life candidate to a pro-choice one. Similarly, some slice of the Southern white "yellow-dog" Democrats who refused to switch to the GOP would still welcome a pro-life option.

Mix all this together, and one gets some surprising results when self-identifying Democrats are asked about abortion. In a February 2019 Marist poll, 34% of Democrats identified as "pro-life." And beyond these sometimes amorphous labels, Marist has also asked a range of questions about specific policy options over the years. In 2019, Marist found that only 22% of Democrats believed that abortion should be legally available to a woman at "any time she wants one during her entire pregnancy." A greater number of Democrats, 24%, believed that abortion should be "allowed only in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother." Add to that the 9% who believed abortion should be "allowed only to save the life of the mother" and the surprising 15% of Democrats who responded that "abortion should never be permitted under any circumstance," and that totals 48% of Democrats who are against elective abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy.

That 48% figure, however, would seem to diverge from the Pew poll that found only 21% of Democrats saying that abortion should be "illegal in all/most cases." Perhaps the disparity in answering the differently worded questions partly reflects a misconception that rape, incest, and mother-saving abortions are more common than they actually are. According to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute, less than 1.5% of abortions are tied to rape or incest. Regarding issues of maternal health, Guttmacher researchers surveyed women in 2004 who had abortions about the motivations for their decisions and found that the "most important" reason for the abortion was a "physical problem with my health" (whether life-threatening or not) only 4% of the time.

Data collected by the state of Florida suggest that the Guttmacher numbers may be too high. In 2018, Florida found only 0.01% of abortions were reported as being motivated by incest, 0.14% by rape, and 0.27% because of a life-threatening situation. Thus, while the exceptional cases drive much of the discussion, all the available data sources demonstrate that the vast majority of the approximately 60 million abortions performed in the United States since Roe have been purely elective and the result of consensual sex. Raising that fact is not meant to demean the humanity of those conceived in rape or incest, but it does highlight the often-disproportional nature of our national debate. Thus, it is quite possible that more than 21% of Democrats would oppose legal status in the situations that are actually associated with most abortions. 

Of course, even if only one in five Democrats are opposed to most abortions, that is still a substantial group of voters. Additionally, many more than one in five Democratic voters are opposed to the public funding of abortion that their leaders now increasingly support. In 2018, Marist found that 24% of Democrats "strongly oppose using tax dollars to pay for a woman's abortion." Another 19% were "opposed," for a total Democratic opposition of 43%. Among African-Americans, 54% were opposed or strongly opposed. For Latinos, the combined opposition rate was a whopping 65%. The 2020 presidential race is expected to be won or lost in the Midwest, where some 66% oppose public funding (with 45% strongly opposed). Among all Americans, Marist found 61% of adults opposed or strongly opposed in 2017, 60% in 2018, and 54% in 2019.

These Marist results seem consistent with other measures. A 2016 pre-election Politico/Harvard poll found only 36% of likely voters wanted to see public funding for abortions, an issue then being highlighted by candidate Hillary Clinton. That number grew to 57% among those identifying themselves as likely Clinton voters, but that still left some 43% of Clinton's own supporters either unsure or opposed to federal abortion funding.

The most recent polling came in the immediate wake of Biden's flip on the issue. A June 2019 Morning Consult poll found 49% of the general electorate supports the Hyde Amendment, with only 32% opposed. Among likely Democratic primary voters, 46% oppose the Hyde Amendment, but even with all the Democratic presidential candidates vocally aligned against it, 39% still support Hyde.


In short, support for publicly funded abortions and even legal abortion itself is not a consensus issue among the Democratic rank and file. What percentage of these anti-abortion-leaning Democratic voters would, if given the chance, cast their ballot for a candidate who rejected the pro-abortion absolutism that is now standard among elected Democrats and presidential candidates? That is difficult to say, but Representative Dan Lipinski offers something of a test case.

Lipinski's Chicagoland district is solidly "blue," going to Clinton 55% to 40% over Trump in 2016, with similar blow-out margins in recent history for Obama, John Kerry, and Al Gore. Many of these constituents are Catholic, like Lipinski, but the area has been seen as trending more progressive. In 2018, Lipinski, one of the last pro-life Democrats in Congress, faced an aggressive primary challenge from the left. NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and EMILY's List poured in money. National media bathed him in unfavorable press, and several local and out-of-state Democrats — including Bernie Sanders, who had won the district in the 2016 presidential primary — endorsed his opponent.

Likely with the help of some Republican crossover votes (the local GOP did not field any serious candidates in its primary), Lipinski fended off the challenge 51% to 49%. Incidentally, the same challenger is coming for Lipinski again in 2020, and, in a sign of the shibboleth that a pro-abortion stance has become, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, in May canceled a fundraising appearance with Lipinski over the abortion optics.


Any Democrat trying to carve out a pro-life lane in the 2020 presidential primaries could, like Lipinski, expect outrage and intransigence from Democratic luminaries and much of the media. Such a candidate could also expect some crossover support. A Morning Consult/Politico poll in March 2019 found that 10% of Republicans "definitely" would vote for someone other than Donald Trump. An additional 7% said they would "probably" vote against him, and another 15% were reserved in their support for Trump, saying only that they would "probably vote to re-elect" Trump. Apart from party labels, 26% of conservatives indicated they would probably or definitely vote for someone other than Trump. (Among moderates, that number increases to 63%.) Late April 2019 polling from Langer for ABC News and the Washington Post found "15 percent of Republicans say they definitely will not support Trump for re-election, as do 30 percent of conservatives."

While that number of frustrated Republicans and conservatives is significant, even 30% support is a long way from victory in a primary race against an incumbent president. Still, Bill Weld, a 1990s-era governor from Massachusetts, was the first to announce as a primary challenger to Trump. He has generated little in the way of funding or enthusiasm, and the idea of Weld's Northeastern Republicanism taking off nationally among today's GOP seems unlikely. The pro-choice Weld would certainly have a hard time rallying the religious pro-life voters who either reluctantly voted for Trump, went independent (Evan McMullin received over 700,000 votes nationally and an impressive 21% of the vote in Utah), or sat out the 2016 general election. Other options have since emerged and more may follow depending on the impact of the impeachment inquiry. Former congressman Joe Walsh is now running and was outspokenly pro-life during his brief time in public office. Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford also announced but suspended his campaign in November.

With the Republican parties in a number of states like South Carolina moving to protect President Trump or save money by canceling their primaries, there could be a significant minority of the GOP electorate that is frustrated with Trump but has no electoral outlet. A socially conservative Democrat, if one existed, could prove attractive to them during the primary season, as well as for the general election.

While the bench of pro-life Democrats with national potential is a slim one, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards merits a serious discussion. On the pro-life side of the equation, Edwards is not a reluctant warrior. In May 2018, Edwards signed a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. A year later, he signed a "heartbeat bill" that would bar abortions at an even earlier stage of development. (Both bills have language tying them to ongoing federal court battles over similar Mississippi laws, and so neither has taken effect.) Further, Edwards has not run from his pro-life beliefs, but has run on them. A 2015 campaign ad highlighted his oldest daughter, Samantha, who a doctor had advised be aborted because of spina bifida detected at 20 weeks of pregnancy. The Catholic couple rejected the advice. The governor's wife closed the spot by saying that their daughter is "living proof that John Bel Edwards lives his values every day." Samantha is now married, holds a master's degree, and works as a school counselor.

In addition to his faith and family, other parts of Edwards's biography also stand out against President Trump and much of the 2020 Democratic field. The son of a small-town sheriff, Edwards graduated first in his high-school class and then went to West Point. Eight years in the Army followed, during which he served in the 82nd Airborne Division, and he left military service as a captain. He next earned a law degree and returned to his hometown before eventually entering politics. It is a compelling tale, and with the 53-year-old Edwards's re-election in November, this Democrat has now twice won in a state that Romney took by 17 points in 2012 and Trump won by 20 in 2016. He did so this time with President Trump actively campaigning against him.

If Edwards harbors any presidential ambitions, this cycle could be his best shot. As a pro-life, pro-gun-rights Democrat, Edwards could expand the swing-state map significantly in the South and Midwest, and it is difficult to see liberal bastions like California rebelling against his abortion apostasy enough to tip them to Trump. Instead, liberals would likely hold their noses and vote against Trump the same way many conservatives voted against Hillary Clinton despite a lack of enthusiasm for their party's nominee. And, again, many blue-state voters are not as extreme as their politicians. Even in New York — where Governor Andrew Cuomo lit One World Trade Center pink to celebrate statutorily enshrining abortion rights through all nine months of pregnancy — a Marist poll found that 71% of New Yorkers felt that abortion should be banned after 20 weeks unless the life of the mother was at risk.

It would likely be more difficult for Governor Edwards to win the Democratic nomination than to defeat President Trump. Edwards may have surmised as much himself. Rather than shift his campaign staff to South Carolina in the weeks following his gubernatorial triumph, Edwards let the deadline for that state's important primary pass on December 4. While a self-funding candidate like Michael Bloomberg may be able to skip all the early states and blanket the airwaves for Super Tuesday in March, that option is not available to Edwards. It now seems clear that neither Edwards nor any other pro-life Democrat will enter the fray in 2020. Should Trump be re-elected, Edwards might set his sights on 2024. If he runs then, it could be reminiscent of 1976.


The Edwards story has more than a few parallels to another dark horse who made waves all the way to the White House. Jimmy Carter was a small-town Southern boy who made good and went to a military academy — Navy, not Army. Both then similarly served their country for about a decade on active duty — Carter went undersea in submarines while Edwards jumped out of planes. Each then returned home, rose quickly in politics, and became governor.

The parallels could continue. Carter ran for the White House as a religious and patriotic straight arrow in the wake of a scandal-plagued presidency. He surprised everyone by winning his party's nomination despite being seen by many as too conservative. If Edwards were to follow that path, he might just re-invigorate the moribund status of the pro-life Democrat and save one of Carter's longest-lasting legacies, the principle that taxpayers should not have to pay for abortions. Carter has never publicly repudiated that principle, even as 1970s contemporaries like Joe Biden have fallen away.

In 2005, Carter said that Democratic leaders "overemphasiz[ed]" abortion and failed to "demonstrate...a compatibility with the deeply religious people of this country." He also noted that many Democrats shared his concern about "late-term abortion, where you kill a baby as it's emerging from its mother's womb." In 2012, he called on his party to move its platform away from supporting public funding for elective abortions, a plea that went unheeded. Nevertheless, Carter continued to speak out, telling the New York Times in July 2015, "I have never believed that Jesus would be in favor of abortion, unless it was the result of rape or incest, or the mother's life was in danger."

Whatever one may think of that as a theological statement, Carter's view is a long way from that of many modern liberal activists who have embraced, as the signs say, "Abortion on Demand and Without Apology." The polls indicate that many Democratic voters are a lot closer to Jimmy Carter than Kirsten Gillibrand. Whether those voters will ever have another presidential candidate who shares their views remains to be seen. For now, the pro-life lane in the Democratic primaries sits empty, but available.

John Murdock is an attorney and writer from Texas.


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