When the twenty debating Democrats take the stage this week, not one will defend the Hyde Amendment—the longstanding and bipartisan-crafted budget rider that protects taxpayers from paying for abortions. This will come as no surprise after the recent progressive pile-on that convinced front-runner Joe Biden to reverse his decades of support for the measure. Nevertheless, the Democrats’ abortion absolutism leaves a lot of the party’s voters voiceless.
Polling by Morning Consult earlier this month found that 38 percent of likely Democratic primary voters supported the Hyde Amendment, as did 49 percent of the overall electorate (with only 33 percent opposed). That largely corroborates what Marist polling found in early 2018. Their survey showed that 24 percent of Democrats “strongly oppose using tax dollars to pay for a woman’s abortion.” Another 19 percent were “opposed,” making the total Democratic opposition to taxpayer-funded abortions 43 percent. While these voters may have other issues—like civil rights, immigration, or healthcare—driving their election day choices toward the Democrats, many would still prefer a more pro-life candidate if one were available. Today, none are.
This is a monumental shift. It was a Democrat, President Jimmy Carter, who first enforced and successfully defended the Hyde Amendment in court. Carter even withstood an internal revolt from feminist appointees in his administration, and he purposely appointed an anti-abortion Catholic, Joseph Califano, to head the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that would oversee the implementation of the Hyde Amendment.
Publicly-funded abortions dropped under Carter from approximately 300,000 a year to the few hundred that qualified under the Hyde Amendment’s exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Biden, who once even voted for a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade, was then a strong supporter of the Hyde Amendment. He also sponsored another spending prohibition that became law in 1981. The Biden Amendment prohibits federal dollars from aiding international biomedical research related to abortion. But Biden has now joined the majority of Democratic office holders fully on the abortion bandwagon.
One of the few Democratic leaders not on board is Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana. Edwards is running for re-election this fall, and if past is prologue, he will not run from his pro-life beliefs, but on them. A 2015 campaign ad highlighted his oldest daughter Samantha. Doctors had advised that she be aborted when they detected spina bifida at twenty weeks gestation, but the Catholic couple rejected the advice. The governor’s wife closed the spot by saying that their daughter is “living proof that John Bel Edwards lives his values every day.” Samantha, now twenty-four, is married, has a master's degree, and works as a school counselor.
In his first term as governor, in 2018, Edwards signed a ban on abortions after fifteen weeks of pregnancy. This year, he enthusiastically signed a “heartbeat bill” that would bar abortions at an even earlier stage of development, drawing flak from some presidential candidates and Democrats in D.C. Both those measures, however, passed the state legislature overwhelmingly and with significant Democratic support, including from Representative Katrina Jackson, an African American who has been outspoken in her “whole-life Democrat” views.
If the fifty-two-year-old Edwards is re-elected governor this fall, this Democrat will have twice won a state that Romney took by seventeen points in 2012 and Trump by twenty in 2016. Edwards, with a campaign team already in place, might then want to consider going national. He would certainly shake up the race if he did.
The son of a small-town sheriff, Edwards graduated first in his class and went on to West Point. He spent eight years in the Army, during which time he was a ranger with the 82nd Airborne Division. Edwards left military service as a captain, earned a law degree, and returned to his hometown before eventually entering politics. It is a compelling tale. As a pro-life, pro-gun rights Democrat, Edwards could expand the general election swing state map significantly in the South and Midwest.
It may be more difficult for Governor Edwards to win the Democratic nomination than to defeat Trump. There is some recent precedent for overcoming the abortion lobby, though. Chicago-area congressman Dan Lipinski, one of only three remaining pro-life Democrats in the House, fended off an assault from the pro-abortion left in 2018. Lipinski was likely aided by some crossover votes, as the GOP did not have a competitive primary.
Edwards could expect some similar support from conservatives frustrated with Trump but who have no electoral outlet on the GOP side beyond William Weld, the pro-choice 1990s-era Massachusetts governor who is Trump’s only announced challenger. Late April 2019 polling found “15 percent of Republicans say they definitely will not support Trump for re-election, as do 30 percent of conservatives.” These voters might be willing to support a pro-life Democrat. When combined with either the 34 percent of Democrats who identified as “pro-life” in a 2019 Marist poll or the 21 percent of Democrats that Pew measured in 2018 who said that abortion should be “illegal in all/most cases,” this could be a potent coalition.
If the field stays fractured, any candidate with a committed 20 percent behind him or her could make some major waves. The Edwards story has more than a few parallels to someone who made waves all the way to the White House. Jimmy Carter was a small-town Southern boy who made good and went to a military academy—Navy, not Army. Carter similarly served his country for about a decade on active duty (though Carter went undersea in submarines while Edwards jumped out of planes). Both men returned home, rose quickly in politics, and became governor.
The parallels could continue. Carter ran as a religious and patriotic straight-arrow in the wake of a scandal-plagued presidency and surprisingly won his party’s nomination, despite being seen by many as too conservative. If Edwards were to follow that path, he might just save one of Carter’s longest-lasting legacies: the principle that taxpayers should not have to pay for abortions.
John Murdock is an attorney and writer from Texas.