Democrats Diverge on Outreach to Anti-Abortion Swing Voters

FILE – In this July 30, 2019, file photo, from left, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., greet each other before the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Democratic presidential hopefuls are offering different approaches to the central challenge of how to talk about the polarizing debate over abortion. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — In a party that’s shifted leftward on abortion rights, Democratic presidential hopefuls are offering different approaches to a central challenge: how to talk to voters without a clear home in the polarizing debate over the government’s role in the decision to end a pregnancy.

While Bernie Sanders said this month that “being pro-choice is an absolutely essential part of being a Democrat,” his presidential primary opponent Amy Klobuchar took a more open stance last week in saying that anti-abortion Democrats “are part of our party.” Klobuchar’s perfect voting score from major abortion-rights groups makes her an unlikely ally, but some abortion opponents nonetheless lauded the Minnesota senator for extending a hand to those on the other side of an issue that’s especially important for Catholics and other devout voters.

The praise for Klobuchar suggests that Democrats who have heeded rising worry within their base about GOP-backed abortion limits by pitching significant new abortion-rights policies may risk alienating religious voters who are otherwise open to supporting their party over President Donald Trump. Voters in that group looking for an appeal to “common ground” on abortion, as former President Barack Obama put it during his 2008 campaign, have heard few of those statements during the current Democratic primary.

“Plenty of pro-life Catholics are looking for an alternative to voting for President Trump,” said Kim Daniels, associate director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. “We wish the Democratic Party would offer us an alternative instead of doubling down on support for abortion throughout pregnancy, taxpayer funding and the like.”

Klobuchar has underscored her abortion-rights support, and she’s signed onto legislation that would limit states’ efforts to constrain abortion access, such as the multiple state-level anti-abortion laws that passed last year. But Daniels described Klobuchar’s rhetorical openness to working with abortion opponents as “an important step,” and she’s not alone.

Chris Crawford, a pro-life activist who tweeted about Klobuchar’s welcoming response to him during a recent event in New Hampshire, said that “I don’t like” the senator’s abortion record or positions, “but I do like the work she’s doing on adoptions.”

“And if she’s serious about putting together an agenda that can provide for mothers … that would make a big difference for me and other voters I know,” added the Catholic Crawford, who said he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but has not yet decided who he’s supporting in 2020.

Religion is not the only factor motivating potential Democratic voters who favor some degree of abortion limits — Democrats for Life executive director Kristen Day pointed out in an interview that atheists are part of her coalition. But abortion restriction is still a priority for a sizable number of Catholics, even as Pope Francis orients the church toward a more expansive definition of the term “pro-life,” pressing President Donald Trump on some of his immigration policies.

An AP-NORC poll taken in December found that 45% of Catholics backed significant restrictions that would make abortion illegal except in cases of rape, incest, or threats to a mother’s life. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning adults, 17% said that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, a number that rises to 25% among self-identified conservative or moderate Democrats, according to a Pew Research Center survey last year.

The abortion debate is set to return to the political forefront next month, when the Supreme Court hears arguments in a high-profile challenge to a Louisiana state law, authored by an anti-abortion Democratic lawmaker, which requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. A final decision is anticipated by June.

Charles Camosy, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University who recently left the board of Democrats for Life in frustration over what he saw as the party’s absolutist approach to abortion, asserted that “something is missing” when the same blanket “pro-choice” terminology can be used to apply to both Klobuchar and Sanders.

A Democratic candidate willing to focus on common ground could have “a golden opportunity to meet pro-lifers, or at least religious people who are mildly pro-choice,” Camosy said.

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Source: Religion News Service