Abortion Is New Litmus Test for Democratic Attorneys General Group

Lisa Lerer
The new litmus test worries some Democrats who fear it could hurt their party in rural areas. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — An association of Democratic state attorneys general will become the first national party committee to impose an explicit abortion litmus test on its candidates, announcing Monday that it will refuse to endorse anyone who does not support reproductive rights and expanding access to abortion services.

To win financial and strategic backing from the group, candidates will be required to make a public statement declaring their support of abortion rights. The group, the Democratic Attorneys General Association, recruits candidates and helps their campaigns with financial support, data analysis, messaging and policy positions.

The decision comes as a series of state legislatures have approved restrictive laws designed to provoke a renewed legal battle over abortion rights, with the aim to reach the U.S. Supreme Court and topple Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion.

“Attorneys general are on the front lines of the fight for reproductive freedom,” Letitia James, the New York attorney general, said in a video promoting the group’s decision, which featured news media coverage of the new state laws. “They have the power to protect your rights.”

The new standard is unlikely to have an immediate impact on incumbents: Of 27 Democratic attorneys general currently in office, just one — Jim Hood of Mississippi — describes himself as a “pro-life Democrat.” But officials believe it could have a ripple effect through the Democratic ecosystem, reflecting the changing mores of a national party that has moved sharply to the left in the Trump era and embraced a set of purity tests on divisive social issues.

“State attorneys general are now on the map as taking the lead when it comes to Democratic values,” said Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum of Oregon, who is a chairwoman of the committee and is seeking reelection next year. “We are going to be the ones to be right out in front, and hopefully the other committees will follow right along.”

Attorneys general have emerged as one of the strongest points of resistance to President Donald Trump’s conservative agenda, crafting joint lawsuits that challenge his efforts to deport immigrants, undo the Affordable Care Act, roll back environmental regulations and limit funding for family planning programs.

But the new litmus test worries some Democrats who fear it could hurt their party in rural areas and the more moderate, suburban districts that won Democrats control of the House last fall and may represent their path back to the White House.

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who served two terms as her state’s attorney general, described the decision as “wrongheaded.” She lost her seat representing her deep red state after voting against the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year.

Heitkamp cited the example of Gov. John Bel Edwards, of Louisiana, a rare Democratic officeholder in the South, who won reelection Saturday, after campaigning on his opposition to abortion and support for a state law barring abortion after the pulsing of what becomes the fetus’ heart can be detected.

“There are very principled people, who are Democrats, who feel very strongly about this issue for religious reasons and when you say you’re not welcome in our party, I think it is exclusionary,” she said. “You have to look at the totality of a candidate.”

While the group’s executive committee began discussing their new standard three years ago, the conversations accelerated after Georgia passed a law in May that would effectively ban abortions as early as six weeks. A federal judge in the state temporarily blocked the statute last month as a lawsuit challenging it proceeds.

The Democratic Attorneys General Association is not dictating how Democratic attorneys general deal with laws restricting abortion rights, should they win office. So far, Democratic attorneys general have adopted a series of approaches when those laws have been challenged in court.

In Iowa, Tom Miller, the longest serving attorney general in the country, has refused to defend a state abortion law that would ban the procedure as early as six weeks into pregnancy, saying the statute is a violation of his “core belief.” But in Minnesota, Attorney General Keith Ellison, a staunchly liberal Democrat, is defending a slate of state laws restricting abortion access, despite his personal views on the issue.

Earlier this year, Democratic attorneys general in Michigan and New Mexico pledged not to prosecute people seeking abortions or providers should Roe be overturned. Both states have laws that would criminalize abortion if the Supreme Court upends the ruling.

“We trust in our Democratic attorneys general once they are in office to study their own laws and determine what their strategy will be,” said Rosenblum. “We’re not asking commitments for how they will handle a specific case.”

Officials at the organization believe their new policy will help attract more diverse candidates and increase the number of women who run for the office. Two years ago, they pledged that by 2022 at least half of the party’s attorneys general would be women.

Traditionally, the attorney general position is a steppingstone for higher offices, including governorships and congressional seats.

Sean Rankin, DAGA’s executive director, said of the new policy: “It’s actually increasing the size of the tent.”

“Even in states like Georgia, Texas and Arizona, we’ve run pro-choice candidates who’ve done extraordinarily well,” he said.

The committee has grown from a part-time operation to a robust organization during the Trump era, moving into new offices and expecting to raise nearly $35 million this cycle, about a third more than it raised for the 2018 races. A dozen attorneys general seats will be on ballots next year.

Public opinion on abortion rights is notoriously difficult to gauge because so much depends on how the question is phrased to voters. But according to Gallup, Americans have remained relatively consistent since 1975: Slightly more than half think abortion should be legal only in certain cases; about a quarter think it should be legal in any case; and just under a quarter think it should never be legal.

Democrats have been steadily moving to the left on abortion since the 2016 election, largely dispensing with the message that drove their politics for decades — that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was asked in the first primary debate if there was any restriction on abortion she supported, she didn’t name one. No other candidate on the stage did, either.

“We’ve been on defense for 47 years, ever since Roe was decided. And year by year, in state after state, the ground has crumbled under our feet,” Warren told Marie Claire magazine this fall. “I think it’s time to go on offense.”

Even former Vice President Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic who has struggled with the question of abortion over his entire political career, reversed his decadeslong support earlier this year for a measure that prohibited federal funding for most abortions, after facing immense pressure from Democrats.

Only five Democrats who oppose some abortion rights remain in Congress. At least two of those lawmakers — Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas and Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois — are facing primary challenges from women who have made their support for abortion rights a key part of their campaign message.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


© 2019 The New York Times Company