Progressives can win office and policy goals when they stick to their values—including protecting reproductive rights. That was the message shared by many activists, organizers, and candidates who convened for the annual progressive summit Netroots Nation in New Orleans last week.
New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon touched on the theme in her keynote speech on Friday. “I’m tired of a Democratic establishment that warns candidates not to run on single-payer health care, and tells us to stop talking about abolishing ICE because it doesn’t poll well. The same Democratic establishment that once told us not to talk about civil rights, or same-sex marriage, or abortion, or a $15 minimum wage,” she continued, going on to suggest that her campaign had pushed incumbent Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo further to the left on issues like marijuana policy and teacher evaluations.
A panel the day prior moderated by #VoteProChoice co-founder and CEO Heidi Sieck went even further, specifically addressing abortion as a Democratic litmus test and the panelists’ belief that “for too long the Democratic Party has been compromising on reproductive freedom.”
The topic has caused visible conflict among Democrats coming to a head last year when Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello, who had cast anti-choice votes as a state legislator, was slated to speak alongside high-ranking party members at a rally. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has maintained there should be no litmus test on abortion for candidates.
When asked generally about whether the Democratic Party should compromise on reproductive rights, Deb Haaland, a Democratic candidate running to represent New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. Congress, told Rewire.News, “absolutely not.”
“Abortion is legal in this country. It’s legal, and that is the baseline,” said Haaland, who would be the first Native American woman elected to Congress if she wins in November. “We can’t go backward on that. I’ll always fight for that. Women have died, and that can happen again.”
“I’ll never sacrifice any of my values,” Haaland said when asked about whether Democrats should moderate their stances to appeal to more voters. “Voters rely on you to stay true to your word, and everything that I’m campaigning on, that’s what I’ll do when I get to Congress …. You have to be courageous.”
Reproductive rights as an issue is “solidly progressive,” according to Marvin Randolph, president of the Southern Elections Fund and Onyx Communications.
When it comes to whether the party should work to appeal to anti-choice voters, Randolph told Rewire.News doing so would be “a big mistake.”
“That’s one issue that is an absolute deal-breaker,” he said. “When you try to expand your tent where you include just everybody, at some point you lose your voice with who you are.”
While he later noted that he thought there would always be “candidates in some districts, in some place, that may take a different position on the issue” to oppose abortion, and that it was something that “voters and the party have to sort … out,” speaking more generally about the party’s beliefs Randolph said that the issue was a core Democratic value.
“As a platform, as a fundamental, ‘This is what being a progressive and a Democrat is about,’ that is territory we should not cede,” Randolph continued. “I would challenge anyone that says that to say, ‘Well does the Republican Party see their position the opposite [way]? Never. When their candidates get into office, they hold their feet to the fire on that. They don’t wait a second, they don’t wait a minute. They don’t want to wait zero seconds and they are unflinching—and we need to be too.”
Democrat’s 2016 national platform did include an explicit commitment to protecting abortion rights and, for the first time, to repealing restrictions on federal funding for abortion care.
Erica Sackin, director of political communications at Planned Parenthood, told Rewire.News that while the reproductive health organization is nonpartisan, “what you can say is that right now we’re seeing a movement across the country of women and of people galvanized around women’s health and women’s rights.”
When it comes to whether Democrats need to change their stances to appeal to more moderate voters, she noted that “people are really hungry for people who will be champions for them.”
“Alabama is a great example,” Sackin continued. “Roy Moore was absolutely a terrifying candidate, and he thought that he could win by saying that he was anti-abortion and by trying to leverage the fact that Doug Jones is unabashedly pro-choice against him. And what you saw is that it didn’t work. You saw Doug Jones’ base galvanized by him being supportive of access to abortion and access to reproductive health.”
“I think that right now we’re seeing this moment where people are really hungry for people who will stand up and fight for them, and that’s being reflected in the activism that you’re seeing but also the new candidates who are running for office,” she said.
Sackin said that she was seeing some of that energy at Netroots this year, and it had been a theme at the summit. “People who are not just organizing their communities, but running for office as first-time candidates and really not shying away from talking about the rights that affect people, including reproductive rights,” she said.