Anti-choice Democrats open gateway for rural voters

Credit: Qingyi Dong/ Credit: Qingyi Dong/
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I’d like to begin this column by stating that I am unequivocally pro-choice. This is an extremely important aspect of the Democratic Party’s platform. Beyond securing in the abstract a woman’s right to control her own body, the right to choose is an essential component of personal liberty and economic justice. Societies are more free, more safe, and more prosperous when women have full reproductive rights. I believe that anti-choice politicians are wrong scientifically, factually, and morally. Not just that, but anti-choice policies have proven time and again to be ineffective, repressive, and usually counter-intuitive. We should all work very hard to educate voters and politicians about the importance of reproductive health care so that one day the right to have an abortion is no longer a controversial or politicized issue.
Now to alienate myself from all my fellow pro-choice readers. This week, Senator Bernie Sanders (I–VT) received some negative attention from Democrats for endorsing and campaigning for Heath Mello, an anti-choice Democrat who is running to be the mayor of Omaha, NE. Mello, who is in the Nebraska State Legislature, has co-sponsored several pieces of anti-choice legislation. I don’t agree with Mello’s position on abortion, but I’m glad Sanders is supporting him. Democrats should follow Sanders’ lead and support Mello and other anti-choice Democrats campaigning in places where only anti-choice candidates can win right now.

Here’s a sad political reality: Democrats have a huge geographic disadvantage when it comes to politics. Increasingly, Democrats are cloistered in large cities, while vast swaths of land in rural regions are overrun with Republicans. Unfortunately, our political system doesn’t just reward the number of voters you have, but the amount of land you control as well. This is how it’s possible that more people voted for Democratic candidates for Senate, House of Representatives, and President in 2016, yet all three of those bodies are controlled by Republicans. And this is how a majority of Americans can support a woman’s right to choose, yet Democrats lose in large part because of their stance on abortion.

If Democrats ever want to regain power in Washington and in state and local offices around the United States, they need to learn how to connect with rural voters. And if Democrats ever want to connect with rural voters again, they need to run candidates that can win in rural areas. It’s an often repeated but eminently true adage: all politics is local. As someone who comes from an extremely conservative rural area, I know that most rural voters will never, ever vote for a candidate who vocally supports a woman’s right to choose, at least not until the political conversation surrounding abortion changes dramatically. Abortion is an emotional issue, and it is a deal breaker for many rural voters. They genuinely believe that abortion is murder. They are wrong, but that’s what they believe. And we’re simply naive if we believe that we will ever get voters to support a candidate who they think endorses murder.

Now just because that’s the current political reality doesn’t mean that this is an acceptable state of affairs. Democrats and reproductive rights advocates should continue to educate the public about abortion and the scientific and moral reasons why access to abortion is such an important right. We shouldn’t simply cede the argument because the other side is so emotional and irrational about it. Eventually, Democrats will win this argument, and abortion will no longer be a controversial or politicized topic.

Until that day comes, Democrats need to embrace a strategy that will help us win today. This means encouraging anti-choice Democrats to run in areas where only anti-choice candidates can win. Our choice is not between getting pro-choice and anti-choice candidates elected. When it comes to elections in rural areas, our choice is between anti-choice Democrats who will stand with the party on issues like worker’s rights, economic justice, healthcare, environmental protection, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, and other aspects of women’s rights like equal pay, or anti-choice Republicans who will support none of the above.

But let’s say that your top issue is a woman’s right to choose. Instead of blasting Sanders for supporting Mello like NARAL did, even voters that care first and foremost about abortion rights should still support and welcome anti-choice Democrats. Why? First, because anti-choice Democrats can rehabilitate the Democratic Party’s name and reputation among rural voters. In many rural areas, the word “Democrat” is practically synonymous with “abortion.” But anti-choice Democrats introduce rural voters to other aspects of the Democratic platform that they’ll like and want to continue supporting. Eventually, rural voters who vote for local anti-choice Democrats may become more comfortable with voting for Democrats at the top of the ticket, even if they are pro-choice. Think of anti-choice Democrats as a “gateway drug” for rural voters to become comfortable voting for all Democrats.

Second, staunchly pro-choice organizations and voters should still support anti-choice Democrats in rural areas because whichever party is in power sets the agenda. Let’s say that there are 240 Democrats in the House of Representatives, but thirty of those Democrats are anti-choice. This means that Democrats have a majority in Congress, but it also means that a majority of members of Congress oppose abortion rights. Nonetheless, because Democrats control the House of Representatives, they control which bills come to the floor of the House for a vote. Since Democrats control the House, and most Democrats are pro-choice, the House won’t vote on anti-choice legislation. If Democrats had instead tried to run pro-choice candidates for those thirty seats, they would have lost those seats to Republicans. Now, there are still the same number of anti-choice members of Congress, but Republicans hold the majority, so they set the agenda and bring anti-choice legislation to the floor. In Mello’s case, he has vowed not to try to restrict women's access to abortion as Omaha’s mayor, while his opponent will seek to do just that. Running pro-choice candidates in areas where pro-choice candidates simply cannot win ultimately harms women and the right to choose by handing power to aggressively anti-choice Republicans.

It feels nice to demand purity, especially on issues as important as the right to choose. In a perfect world in which voters acted on reason instead of emotion and science instead of faith, abortion wouldn’t be a controversial or politicized issue. But this isn’t that world. When Democrats demand that their candidates toe the party line on abortion, they are shutting themselves out of otherwise winnable races. When Democrats excoriate people like Sanders who understands that getting progressives into office is more important that supporting doomed candidates who agree with them on every point, they divide their party and only hurt themselves. Democrats have always been a big tent party full of diverse opinions, perspectives, and approaches. We win because we are for people, not because we’re in lockstep on every issue. Instead of criticizing Sanders for backing Mello, Democrats everywhere, including even the most enthusiastic pro-choice voters and organizations, need to join Sanders, because his is a winning strategy.