This morning, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee placed a risky bet for the 2018 congressional elections when they announced their willingness to trade women’s rights for more seats in Congress.
“There is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates. As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America,” Ben Ray Luján, the DCCC’s campaign chairman, told The Hill.
Rep. Luján (who also serves as a congressman for New Mexico) joins the likes of Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders, who have argued that in order to take back the House of Representatives in 2018, Democrats need to cast a wider net in more conservative districts. This means appealing to those voters who may be open to progressive policies such as a higher minimum wage and paid family leave, but who do not support abortion rights. This so-called abortion rights “litmus test” has been in the news a lot lately, as Democrats try to form a cohesive, winning strategy following the losses in 2016. In fact, in a New York Times op-ed announcing the Democrats new “Better Deal” platform just last week, Senate Minority Leader Schumer wrote that Democrats were focusing their energies on creating a better economy, better jobs, and better wages. There was no mention of reproductive rights in the platform.
What’s wrong with this approach? A lot, actually. By reducing abortion rights to a mere bargaining chip, Democrats are risking the alienation of their most reliable, and most powerful, bloc of voters. In the process, they’re making a losing bet.
The Democratic Party leadership is arguing that we need to be “realistic” about the districts candidates are running in. But, first of all, what is the point of any organization if not to align people around a certain set of core values? What is the Democratic Party if there are no lines drawn in the sand? For many in the Democratic base, reproductive rights are a core value, and furthermore, it’s a value that cannot be divorced from the economy. In fact, the latest data from the Guttmacher Institute shows that roughly 75% of abortion patients are either poor or low-income, and many cite financial reasons as the primary reason for seeking an abortion. A woman’s right to decide when or if she wants to start a family and the size of that family is as much an economic decision as it is a social one. So if Democrats really care about improving the economic stability of working people, they can’t drop reproductive rights from that equation.
Aside from that, another problem is this isn’t even a “pragmatic” strategy when you look at what’s happening right now all over the country. Women are more likely than men to identify as Democrats, and 54% of women overall supported Hillary Clinton in the election compared to 42% for Donald Trump. While it’s true that Trump won among white women (53% voted for him over Clinton), an amazing 94% of black women voted for Clinton in November, and two-thirds of Latina women cast their ballots for Clinton as well. These women all voted for the most pro-choice platform in decades. “Let's not forget that the widely-lauded Democratic platform in 2016 clearly opposed not just restrictions on legal abortion — it also opposed the Hyde Amendment which bans abortion coverage,” Destiny Lopez, Co-Director, All* Above All Action Fund, said in a statement.
But Democrats still lost, you say? That still doesn’t mean Dems should bet against women’s rights. Democrats have indeed used this strategy before, notably in 2006 when they took back the house by supporting a number of anti-choice Democrats, according to The Hill. But if there is one thing to learn from the 2016 election, from Bernie Sanders’ surprising primary traction to Trump’s win, it’s that Democrats cannot simply rely on what’s worked in the past.
2006 was then; this is now. In 2017, pro-choice supporters are the ones driving the incredible wave of progressive activism we’ve seen since Trump won. A poll from civic engagement app Daily Action found that 86 percent of calls made to legislators were made by women, and millions of women flooded the streets worldwide in January for the decidedly pro-choice Women’s March. Planned Parenthood alone was responsible for more than 200,000 phone calls and 2,200 events across the country, including rallies, petition drops, phone banks, and marches, against the GOP’s healthcare bill, which was defeated in the Senate last week.
There’s no denying that Democrats need to “build a big tent” and re-brand themselves among voters who have been left behind by the changing economy. But at the end of the day, throwing women’s rights under the bus does nothing to improve the Democrats’ brand. It only further degrades it.
Lily Herman is a New York-based writer and editor. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, TIME, Newsweek, Fast Company, and Mashable. All opinions are her own.