Can Democrats Win by Peeling Off Pro-Life Voters? Probably Not

lauren duca tweet

Journalist Lauren Duca received a lot of criticism in the Twitterverse from more moderate and conservative Democrats for her tweet above. Much of it was self-consciously pragmatic, the favorite word of a particular breed of serious pundit. Duca simply wasn’t thinking strategically. Any winning strategy for the Democrats in 2018 and 2020, they argue, must shave off at least some votes from conservative whites, especially in congressional races.

But there’s a pragmatic reason why Duca is right. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s move, which opens up the probablity of the party recruiting anti-abortion candidates for House races, could alienate the Democratic base and dampen turnout while ultimately gaining few votes from white conservatives.

Part of the problem is that Democratic leadership appears to be under the impresson that single-issue abortion voters—who are primarily evangelical Christians— may decide to pull the lever for the Democratic candidate if only there was some flexibility on the abortion issue.

This is a questionable proposition. Abortion is far from the only—or even the most important—issue around which evangelicals have mobilized politically, and evangelical positions on abortion are only a part of a broad worldview on gender, sexuality, and marriage that is utterly antithetical to many Democratic voters.

Totally nuts

Phyllis Schlafly’s crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment is well known. Marabel Morgan’s 1973 book The Total Woman (which was dedicated to Phyllis Schlafly), tends to be overlooked. This is a shame, because it’s a highly revealing response to the sexual revolution and women’s liberation. The whole point of the book was to be a Christian Feminine Mystique. Morgan instructs women to find fulfillment in “admiring,” not just loving, their husbands, and to defer to them in disputes. Morgan didn’t completely reject alternative lifestyles—“no one says you have to get married,” she wrote—but that marriage is a necessarily patriarchal institution. And while she emphasizes the sexual side of marriage—in her words, a good wife ought not to be “merely a submissive sex partner; she is a sizzling lover”—there’s an implicit argument that the powerful force of human sexuality needs to be contained within the patriarchal institution of marriage.[1]

Indeed, the evangelical obsession with controlling sexuality extends far beyond Morgan. In 1969, Tim LaHaye—quite possibly the most influential evangelical of the last half-century, thanks to the tremendously popular Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels—wrote a book condemning “radical sex education.” Like Morgan, LaHaye didn’t have a problem with sex per se, but that sex, as a gift from God, needed to be taught in a Christian context grounded in the Bible. That meant, for example, ensuring that “atheistic humanist” instructors did not teach children about contraceptives, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, the sordid details of vaginal intercourse, alternatives to vaginal intercourse, and, of course, homosexuality. And LaHaye did not merely condemn comprehensive sex education. He offered detailed instructions to concerned Christian parents about how to mobilize against sex education. This was four years before Roe v. Wade.[2]

In fact, reading literature from evangelical Christian schools from the 1970s—and understanding why those schools were founded in the first place—is extremely revealing. Take Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg Christian Academy. The school was opened in 1967 as a segregation academy—Falwell was a notorious opponent of the civil rights movement in general, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in particular.[3] Promotional literature for Lynchburg in 1975 boasted of a school that provided a quality education, had no drug problems, emphasized prayer and Bible readings, had no hippies (“our students are taught the importance of dressing neatly and acceptably”), and taught a fiercely patriotic version of American history.

“We have never had an anti-American demonstration,” the promotional pamphlet proudly noted.[4]

All of this is to say that abortion is only a part of a broader political, social, and cultural evangelical worldview. In his infamous 1992 “culture wars” speech at the Republican National Convention, Pat Buchanan inveighed against abortion, true, but he spent at least as much time condemning gays and lesbians, feminists, secularists, and—of course—Hillary Clinton, who he implied belonged in at least a few of those categories.[5]

So, it seems to me to be profoundly silly from a purely pragmatic perspective for the Democratic Party to alienate its progressive, middle-class feminist supporters, as well as working-class activists who rightly argue that reproductive rights are economic rights, in order to appeal to a voting bloc who hold values that are completely opposed to what the modern Democratic Party stands for.

If a Democrat were to run on a pro-life, anti-gay, anti-secular platform, they might be able to pry off a few votes from the Republican candidate, but this would come at the cost of reliably Democratic voters.

You can’t have it both ways.

It is rightly argued that American political parties are coalitions; coalitions generally don’t include groups that are diametrically opposed to each other. The last time that happened in American politics was in the Democratic Party with its Northern liberal and Southern segregationist wings. We all know how that turned out.

The basic critique of this position is that it’s not strategic, that Democrats need conservative candidates to win conservative House districts. And it’s a fair point: U.S. congressional elections, partly by design, privilege whiter, more conservative, and more rural voters. A competitive national congressional campaign needs to take that into account.

Conservative Democrats are terrified the party is self-immolating in the same way they believe it did in the 1980s. The general narrative goes like this: old-school Great Society liberal Walter Mondale was crushed in 1984, Michael Dukakis was pegged as a wimpy New England liberal in 1988, and it took the sunny, moderate sensibilities of the Southerner Bill Clinton to bring the party back to power in 1992. It should come as no surprise that many of the voices for moderation today generally came of political age during the Clinton administration—indeed, some are veterans of that administration.

Misremembering the Recent History of the Democratic Party

There are a number of problems with this narrative, though. For one, it ignores that the Democratic Party controlled one or both chambers of Congress during the entirety of the Reagan and Bush years. It also ignores the broader turn in global politics due to the crumbling of communism—the dreaded word “neoliberal” is appropriate here, but if you prefer, we can call it the bipartisan, pro-market “Washington Consensus.”

But most importantly, it ignores the broader shifts in Democratic politics in the 1970s and 1980s. With the massive decline in the power of organized labor in the late ‘70s–something which the Democratic Party itself was complicit with in its failure to pass labor reform during a period of unified government during the Carter administration–Democrats found themselves increasingly beholden to big-money donors.[6] The geographic base of the party, especially at the local level, also began to shift to affluent, well-educated neighborhoods and suburbs populated by white professionals who were reaping the benefits of late-twentieth-century globalization. This was the basis of Dukakis’s support in his native Massachusetts.[7] The left wing of the Democratic Party—what remained of organized labor, as well as veterans of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements—simply did not have the political power within Democratic politics that it enjoyed in the 1960s and early 1970s—and I would argue, with the exception of organized labor, enjoys today.

Historian Andrew Hartman argues that the American left today is, particularly on economic issues, more vibrant than it has been at any time since the 1930s.[8] And the cultural left remains tremendously influential—quite simply, the cultural left defines the boundaries of Democratic politics on issues ranging from LGBT rights, immigration, African American civil rights, and reproductive rights. I strongly doubt that a Democratic candidate, particularly for president, would be able to get away with a Sister Souljah moment today and still retain the support of the cultural left.

This creates a tremendous practical problem for more conservative Democrats who argue that the party must abandon a harder line on issues like abortion. Pivoting from the cultural left will cost the Democratic Party votes from the left. Some voters will opt for Green or even socialist candidates. Some voters will simply stay home. This is also true on the economic left, and was a factor in 2016, particularly given the Clinton campaign’s now-derided attempt to flip moderate and conservative Republican suburbs to the Democratic column.[9]

Are Conservative Democrats Necessary?

One objection to that argument is that conservative Democrats were critical in delivering the votes for the Affordable Healthcare Act and other landmark pieces of Obama era legislation. And that’s true: conservative Democrats, particularly in the Senate, delivered the margin of victory on ACA. But this also creates problems. Two stand out in particular.

The first is that conservative Democrats can hold legislation essentially hostage in order to maximize gains for their districts and/or pet causes—Nebraska senator Ben Nelson did exactly this in 2009 with his demand for an additional $100 million in Medicaid funding for his state. This is not necessarily a bad thing—wheeling and dealing is integral to the political process, and the reintroduction of earmarks would probably go some way to restoring procedural bipartisanship in Congress—but it leads to the second problem.

Newt Gingrich cannily understood in 1994 that the way to winning control of the House of Representatives was to nationalize the midterm elections. This was the basis of the (in)famous “Contract with America,” a branding exercise that ensured that all 435 Republican congressional candidate were repeating the same basic talking points.[10] The brand Gingrich was selling—the party of no new taxes, a stronger military, deregulation—has been disastrous for the country, but that level of message discipline served the GOP well politically for over a decade. Whatever else you could say about them, you basically knew what you were getting when you voted Republican in the 1990s and 2000s.

Another objection to a base-mobilizing strategy is that a defecting vote from a likely voter is worth twice as much as a mobilized base vote. But, at the end of the day, a vote is a vote, and if you don’t have the capacity turn your own base out at the polls, what are the chances that you have the capacity to flip your opponent’s base? A flipping strategy also diverts attention and resources away from institution building and grassroots organization—the Republican Party has been very good at that game for quite some time; the Democrats, less so. And it ought to be noted that the elements of the Democratic coalition that are skilled at grassroots political mobilization—feminists, civil rights activists, people of color, and organized labor—are precisely the groups who will be demoralized by the DCCC’s rightward turn.[11]

If Jill Stein’s Michigan voters had broken for Clinton, she would have carried the state. If African American turnout in Philadelphia and Milwaukee had been slightly higher, Clinton would have carried Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Back in November, the New York Times profiled four African American barbers in Milwaukee who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012. Only two voted in 2016, and neither voted for Clinton. “One wrote in Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The other wrote in himself.”[12]

There were, of course, other factors in Clinton’s stunning defeat. Republican voter suppression was a major factor in a number of states, including Wisconsin and North Carolina. Russian meddling, particularly the leaking of Democratic National Committee emails and the explosion of “fake news” in October and early November, kept a Clinton-hating Republican base mobilized. And, of course, there was James Comey’s public reopening of the FBI investigation of Clinton a scant week before the election, which was probably the tipping point in ensuring her defeat. And unfortunately, unless things change dramatically, Democrats in 2018 and 2020 can expect similar tactics.

Another Way

So, what is to be done? I believe the best strategy for the Democratic Party must include long-term institution building at the local and state level. It ought not to mean pandering to cultural conservatives in the vain attempt to flip their votes into the Democratic column. To do so would undermine the Democratic Party’s own base of support—and lest we forget, whatever mistakes the Clinton campaign made on the ground in some states, she still managed to handily win the popular vote. Democratic congressional candidates overall receive more votes than Republicans. Noting this does not change the un-democratic nature of American electoral politics—the Electoral College, the Senate, and gerrymandering in the House—and it is not a substitute for a strategy. It does, however make it more difficult to argue for policies widely detested by a majority of the Democratic coalition, which itself forms a majority of the electorate.

The main reason the DCCC made its announcement was to green-light recruitment efforts in more conservative House districts. This is pragmatic politics in action. The problem with such efforts is that they overwhelmingly tend to privilege candidates from a particular social class. Take West Virginia’s Joe Manchin or North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, two conservative Democratic senators up for re-election in 2018. Both are abortion skeptics. Both also have extensive business backgrounds. Manchin has a degree in business administration from West Virginia University and ran a number of small businesses in the state before embarking on a multi-decade political career. Heitkamp, an attorney, worked for over a decade for the Dakota Gasification Company before running for Senate. Both Heitkamp and Manchin are often cited as the kinds of Democrats that need to be recruited to win in red states.

But there are alternatives. In Wisconsin, former intelligence analyst and veteran Democratic political operative David Yankovich planned on making a bid to challenge Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for his congressional seat in Wisconsin’s largely rural and suburban 1st District. But he dropped out of the Democratic primary race in early July and endorsed Randy Bryce.

Unlike Yankovich, Bryce is an ironworker. He was the former political coordinator for his union local. He’s campaigning on economic justice issues. And he supports LGBT and abortion rights. If there’s a model for Democratic congressional races going forward, it’s going to have to be ceasing to recruit corporate-friendly conservatives from business and law—and instead actually throwing meaningful support behind going to be nurturing and supporting grassroots left-wing and Democratic activists and organizers with deep roots in their states and districts. And I’m willing to bet that most of those folks are pro-choice.

David A. Walsh is a PhD candidate in the history department at Princeton History. He is writing his dissertation about antisemitism and far right politics in the United States.


[1] Marabel Morgan, The Total Woman (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1973), in Matthew Avery Sutton, ed. Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013), 110-114.

[2] Tim LaHaye, A Christian View of Radical Sex Education (San Diego, CA: Life Family Seminars, c. 1969), in Sutton, Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right, 72-78.

[3] Lynchburg began admitting black students in 1969, well before most other segregation academies dropped their color line. There remains a historiographical debate about the importance of white supremacy in the creation and success of private Christian schools in the South; Seth Dowland and Joseph Crespino both write that while perpetuation of segregation was one of the initial goals of the Christian school movement, many—like Lynchburg—had reversed course by the 1970s and began to admit black students. However, I think it is instructive to compare the racial politics of Southern Christian schools to the relative handful of neighborhoods in Northern cities that successfully integrated—two of the key factors in “managed integration” was that new black residents belonged to the same socioeconomic class as their white neighbors and did not challenge the political and economic ascendancy of whites. See Seth Dowland, “Defending Manhood: Gender, Social Order, and the Rise of the Christian Right in the South, 1965-1995,” PhD diss., Duke University, 2007; Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); David Austin Walsh, “A Village in the City: Managed Integration on Chicago’s Far South Side, 1966-1995” (paper presented at the 2016 meeting of the Urban History Association, Chicago). It’s also worth noting that one need not hold explicitly segregationist politics to seek essentially segregationist ends. See Nancy MacLean’s treatment of libertarian economist James Buchanan  in Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Rights’s Stealth Plan for America (New York: Viking, 2017).

[4] “Five Things We Think You Will Like About Lynchburg Christian Academy,” 1975. Lynchburg Christian Academy folder, Liberty University archives, in Sutton, Falwell, 79-81.

[5] Pat Buchanan, address to the Republican National Convention, August 17, 1992.

[6] Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York: The New Press, 2010). For a condensed version of the argument, see Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 139-143.

[7] Lily Geismer, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015). For a more sympathetic treatment of the professionalization of the Democratic Party, see Margaret P. O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[8] Andrew Hartman, “The Millennial Left’s War Against Liberalism,” Washington Post, July 20, 2017.

[9] Abby Phillip, John Wagner, and Anne Gearan, “A Series of Strategic Mistakes Likely Sealed Clinton’s Fate,” Washington Post, November 12, 2016

[10] Steven M. Gillon, The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 125.

[11] Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein, Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[12] Sabrina Tavernise, “Many in Milwaukee Neighborhood Didn’t Vote—and Don’t Regret It,” New York Times, Nov. 20, 2016

[13] There is a growing literature on queer politics and unions, often emphasizing oral history. See Anne Balay, Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015) and Miriam Frank, Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2015).