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The Pro-life Democrat Is Nearly Extinct

Abortion could be the issue that decides two hotly contested Illinois primaries next week.

Congressman Dan Lipinski and challenger Marie Newman during a Chicago Tribune editorial board meeting in January   Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Abortion is the No. 1 issue in the race for Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District. Incumbent Democrat Dan Lipinski is against it. His main challenger in next week’s primary, Marie Newman, thinks it should be legal.

But the race isn’t just about whether abortion has a place in southwest Chicago and its suburbs. It’s about whether a pro-life Democrat has a place anywhere in the party.

Lipinksi is one of three Democratic congressmen who oppose abortion. One of the others, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, just eked out a primary win against a challenger backed by Justice Democrats, the group founded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The other, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, is facing a tough re-election campaign in a district that voted for Donald Trump by 31 points. It’s safe to say that a pro-choice Democrat couldn’t win there.

“More and more the party is sending a message that if you are pro-life you aren’t welcome,” Lipinski told Roll Call recently. “Look, we want to defeat Donald Trump. We can’t keep pushing people out of the party.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who recently ended her presidential campaign, said on The View that the party should make room for diverse views on abortion: “There are pro-life Democrats, and they are part of our party, and I think we need to build a big tent. We need to bring people in instead of shutting them out.” But Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is still running for president, probably spoke for most Democrats when he said, “being pro-choice is an absolutely essential part of being a Democrat.”

Lipinski isn’t the only local Democrat facing a challenger primarily over the abortion issue. In the 16th state House district, which covers Skokie and West Rogers Park, Rep. Yehiel “Mark” Kalish earned two challengers after he failed to vote for the Reproductive Health Care Act, which established abortion as a fundamental right in Illinois. Kalish, an Orthodox rabbi, voted “present.”

In light of the vote, former state Rep. Lou Lang, who helped appoint Kalish to his old seat, went out and found a more reliably pro-choice candidate, Denise Wang Stoneback, to run aginst Kalish. State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, the Act’s sponsor, held a “Kalish Lied to Us” press conference, accusing him of going back on his word to vote for her bill. “Call Out Kalish” is the name of a website, hashtag, and Facebook page dedicated to defeating the apostate legislator.

Before Kalish was appointed to the seat, “[i]t was made very clear that this district demanded someone who was unapologetically pro-choice, and he’s not,” Cassidy said.

Kalish wasn’t the only Democrat to vote “present” on the bill. In the House, he was joined by representatives from majority Catholic and African-American districts. In the Senate, Andy Manar, who represents a socially conservative district in central Illinois, flat out voted no. On the other side of the aisle, every Republican in both houses voted no.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Republicans are more dogmatically pro-life than the Democrats are pro-choice. After the 2018 Blue Wave election, which swept so many suburban Republicans out of the legislature, the only Republicans left in Springfield represent deeply conservative districts whose voters are opposed to abortion.

When Republicans run statewide, it’s a different story. Both Illinois Republicans who won major statewide elections in this century — Sen. Mark Kirk and Gov. Bruce Rauner — favored abortion rights. Rauner even signed a bill to publicly fund abortions. Illinois Republicans know that social conservatives can’t win statewide elections, so they tolerate support for abortion in their candidates for Senate and governor.

Compare that to what happened the last time a pro-life Democrat ran for statewide office in Illinois. In 1998, U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard won the primary for governor with 36 percent of the vote, most of it from his base in Southern Illinois. Poshard portrayed himself as a “whole life Democrat.” He opposed abortion, but supported programs for children in need, such as Head Start and Women, Infants, and Children food assistance.

“The Democratic Party has had a platform position of being pro-choice for many years,” said a supporter of one of Poshard’s opponents in the primary. “An anti-choice position is a no-win position. If Poshard is the nominee, the pro-choice Republican women may just stay with [George] Ryan.”

Pro-choice Republican women did stay with George Ryan, and so did a lot of socially liberal Democrats. Ryan won Chicago’s lakefront wards on the way to defeating Poshard, who passed up a second run for governor on the grounds that he had divided the party.

Poshard’s southern Illinois is no longer Democratic, and abortion is one reason why. As the Democratic Party has become more urban and more secular, its pro-choice orthodoxy has hardened, driving away rural conservatives. In the late 1990s, the political action committee Democrats for Life endorsed 40 members of Congress; in 2018, it endorsed seven. As Lipinski suggested, the party may have paid a price in 2016, when it won the popular vote by piling up huge support in cities, but lost the Electoral College, due to the defection of formerly Democratic areas such as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Wisconsin’s mining country.

As an urban Democrat who opposes abortion, Lipinski may be headed for defeat. If he loses, the pro-life Democrat will be nearly extinct.

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