Canceled fundraiser prompts question: Can a Democrat oppose abortion?

CHICAGO — A top Democratic official Wednesday canceled a planned fundraiser for an anti-abortion congressman that had prompted an outcry among progressives, raising the question of whether there is room left in the party for lawmakers who oppose abortion at a moment when numerous Republican-controlled states are trying to effectively outlaw the procedure.

Canceled fundraiser prompts question: Can a Democrat oppose abortion?

The decision by Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, underscored the extent to which support for abortion rights has become a central litmus test for Democrats in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s two appointments to the Supreme Court. And the episode reflects the broader tension in the party between pragmatists who want to pursue a more cautious agenda before the 2020 election and liberals eager to halt what they see as the right’s norm-breaking and extremism.

Bustos did not say directly why she was backing out of the planned $1,000-per-person breakfast in Chicago next month for Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., who is facing a progressive primary challenger who supports abortion rights. But she left little doubt her decision was driven by her party’s anger over the new abortion laws in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and elsewhere — and rising fears that Roe v. Wade could be in jeopardy.

“I’m proud to have a 100% pro-choice voting record and I’m deeply alarmed by the rapidly escalating attacks on women’s access to reproductive care in several states,” Bustos said in a statement, days after thousands of protesters marched in Chicago and other cities in support of abortion rights.

But even as she reversed course on hosting the fundraiser, she reaffirmed her support for what she called “our big tent Democratic caucus” and warned the party’s left wing that “every dollar spent trying to defeat one of our Democratic incumbents is a dollar that we cannot spend defeating Republicans.” And her aides would not rule out using the committee’s resources to aid Lipinski, who defeated his Democratic opponent, Marie Newman, a businesswoman, by only 2 points last year and will face her again next year.

Bustos’ attempted balancing act illustrated the quandary House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats find themselves in, and not just over abortion: Even as progressives are ascendant and emboldened by the backlash over Trump and Republican policies, the fate of the party’s House majority next year rests with moderate lawmakers representing middle-of-the-road districts where voters are uneasy with the president but are not eager to impeach him.

But abortion rights have become a highly charged, and for many Democrats nonnegotiable, issue, as conservative states aggressively seek to pass laws that they hope will lead to a legal challenge of the Roe decision.

In an interview after Bustos announced her decision to cancel the fundraiser, Lipinski acknowledged that Bustos was “in an incredibly difficult spot” and said that he did not blame her. But he lamented that “there are people in the party who are not tolerant.”

Shunning anti-abortion Democrats, he said, was “how we got President Trump — people felt like they weren’t welcome in the party.”

Abortion rights activists believe the safer and wiser political position is to defend legal abortion — and they are intensifying their pressure on more centrist Democrats across the country.

After a career of trying to delicately navigate the issue, and appeal to both liberal activists and his fellow Catholics, former Vice President Joe Biden told The Associated Press on Tuesday, after initially hesitating, that he would support enshrining abortion rights into federal law “should it become necessary,” a position other presidential candidates had already taken.

And in Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a conservative Democrat facing re-election this year, is facing similar pressure. Edwards recently said he would sign a bill restricting abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant. The declaration angered some progressives, including Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race last year, and who said Tuesday that she was “a little annoyed with the governor of Louisiana.”

In Chicago, though, progressive activists are more than a little annoyed with Lipinski, a low-key, eighth-term legislator, and Bustos, who hails from western Illinois but has been thought to harbor statewide ambitions.

They tried to oust Lipinski last year but fell short because of his enduring support from Chicago’s Democratic organization, an influx of money, and votes from Republicans and independents.

The son of former Rep. William Lipinski, who bequeathed him the seat, Lipinski has long raised the ire of his party’s base, and not just because of abortion. He opposed the Affordable Care Act, refused to endorse President Barack Obama’s re-election and has been uneasy about gay rights (though in a sign that he is trying to position himself for re-election, Lipinski last week did support a sweeping measure protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans).

And like Joseph Crowley and Michael Capuano, big-city House Democrats felled in primaries last year by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Lipinski represents a mix of gentrifying and diverse precincts.

The district also includes a swath of Chicago’s more moderate southwest suburbs, but it is still a heavily Democratic seat, so much so that Republicans did not compete for the nomination last year and a Nazi sympathizer became their nominee.

Progressives, therefore, are determined to replace Lipinski, and NARAL, Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List all announced their support for Newman after she declared she would run again. With help from many such allies, she raised $209,962 to Lipinski’s $127,343 in the first quarter of this year.

But Bustos and the DCCC have strictly followed the organization’s mission of defending incumbents.

The group announced this year that it would deny business to any consultant who worked for a candidate challenging a member of the House Democratic caucus, a policy Newman said had made it difficult for her to find strategists and was “unfair to women and people of color” seeking to get elected.

Even before word of the now-canceled fundraiser got out last week, Bustos was facing intense lobbying from Democrats over her support for Lipinski. Earlier this month at an annual women-focused luncheon fundraiser hosted by Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, which was attended by many of Chicago’s top Democratic donors and officials, a handful of progressives confronted Bustos about backing Lipinski, according to two Democrats familiar with the conversations.

One of the Democrats who talked to Bustos alluded to widespread speculation in Illinois that she would like to succeed the long-serving Sen. Richard J. Durbin and could hurt her chances of doing so by lining up with an anti-abortion Democrat.

“There are ways to walk these lines,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, suggesting that headlining an event for a controversial incumbent did not strike such a careful balance.

And by Monday evening, at a candidate forum in Hyde Park, Newman and local activists were visibly upset.

She called Lipinski’s opposition to abortion “totalitarian,” adding: “Ask a fascist nation how they got there.”

Newman told the audience gathered in a soaring Unitarian church that she had just telephoned Bustos and told her that she did not want “war” but that she would not back down.

Esther Peters, a progressive activist who works at the University of Chicago, was blunter.

“This is a bad race for the DCCC to be putting a thumb on,” Peters said after the forum. “There’s no need for them to be supporting and fundraising for an anti-choice candidate.”

To win the chairmanship of the DCCC, Bustos had to assure her colleagues that she would stand firmly with incumbents against primary challengers, and she has told associates that she is honoring that by defending Lipinski.

It is also not lost on many House Democrats that should she forgo a Senate run and pursue a future in the House leadership, it would be helpful for Bustos to have proved her dedication to her colleagues.

And her defenders note that it may not just be conservatives like Lipinski who face primaries next year. Outspoken progressives like Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan could also face challenges.

“The speaker and chair have decided avoiding messy primaries — for liberal members and conservative ones — that divert resources away from general elections is the best way to defend the House majority,” said Thomas Bowen, a Chicago-based strategist.

Saving Lipinski may be an impossible task given the drift of the party, the district and the fact that the primary will take place on the same day as the presidential primary, when progressives are expected to flood the polls.

This is Chicago, though, and Newman and her allies are worried that Lipinski’s backers will do what is often done to protect incumbents here: field additional challengers who can water down the support of the most serious candidates.

“I’m up against the machine and the DCCC,” Newman said.

There is talk of state House Speaker Michael Madigan, the longtime Democratic boss in Illinois and an ally of the elder Lipinski, nudging an ally from one of his wards into the race. And there is already a 32-year-old attorney and first-time candidate, Abe Matthew, running in the primary.

In an interview, Matthew said he had not been pushed into the race by anybody from Chicago’s political machine.

And he made clear where he stood on a key issue. “I’m pro-choice,” he said, “100%.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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