Given our nation’s polarized abortion politics, it is hard to believe that a governor who dramatically expanded Medicaid in his state also signed a bill banning abortion after a heartbeat can be detected. Yet that’s precisely what Democrat John Bel Edwards of Louisiana did. And this weekend, Edwards won a reelection race against Eddie Rispone—a Republican who got strong support from Trump, including two personal visits in the final two weeks of the campaign.
How did Edwards manage to win the governorship of a deep-red state in which the president has a +12 approval rating? Simply put, he could never have won in such a state if he were not pro-life. His traditional values in this area reflect both his deep commitment to Catholicism and the views of Louisiana voters—especially Democratic voters of color.
In the run-up to the election, both racial justice activist organizations and Edwards’s campaign itself made a dramatic increase in African American voter turnout a major priority. And with good results—according to preliminary indications, voters of color put Edwards over the top, especially when it came to early voting.
It would be interesting to know what white, progressive, highly educated Democrats think of all this. After all, they have been primarily responsible for the party's turn to the kind of abortion extremism that would have doomed an orthodox Democrat in a race like this one. Mother Jones ran a piece a few days before the election with the headline, “Is There Still Room for an Anti-Abortion Hardliner in the Democratic Party?” The answer in the party platform—which claims that abortion should be unrestricted, that it should be paid for by pro-lifers’ tax dollars, and that it is “core to women’s, men’s, and young people’s health and wellbeing”—is obviously in the negative.
But when faced with the prospect of a Trump-supported governor, Democratic activists changed their tune. This kind of change needs to happen more generally throughout the party, especially as we head into 2020. In 2016, Trump over-performed with African Americans and Latinos—populations which tend to be more abortion-skeptical than white Democrats. For the Democrats’ progressive leadership, which at least says all the right things about listening to voices of color, the factors behind Edwards’s reelection should be highly instructive. But the party, at least as currently constituted, is light years away from permitting a pro-life Democratic candidate from running for national office.
As Alexandra DeSanctis pointed out in the Washington Post, candidates like Tulsi Gabbard who dare to suggest (as Hillary Clinton did just a decade ago) that abortion ought to be “safe, legal, and rare” are castigated by the party’s powers that be. The Democratic Attorneys General Association has announced it will not support any candidate who does not support abortion rights. Abortion is now understood in the Democratic party to be a social good, unworthy of any stigma whatsoever.
It’s an extremely alienating view for the kinds of voters Democrats need to keep and pick up if they are to defeat Trump in 2020. Virtually no one holds the “abortion is a social good” position other than ultra-progressive white Democrats, and the swing voters in swing states—already a source of consternation for Democrats given recent polling—especially loathe this position. Consider that 25 percent of Trump voters (including a disproportionate number of late-deciders in swing states) voted for him primarily because of Supreme Court vacancies.
Despite struggling in purple states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, there is, remarkably, increased talk of the Democrats becoming a dominant party by turning big states like Texas from red to blue. But it is nearly impossible to see how this would work given their current abortion platform—which, in addition to just being politically bananas, is made-to-order for devastating pro-life messaging.
Indeed, recent studies of pro-life political advertisements in Texas found that they had the biggest impact on—wait for it—Democratic-leaning women, young voters, and Latino voters. Such ads moved them 10, 8, and 13 points, respectively. And they had real political results—pushing Governor Abbott to a whopping 44 percent approval rating with Latinos, for instance. Is it possible that the progressive, white abortion rights activists who dominate the Democratic party leadership could be marginalized in favor of those genuinely committed to listening to black and Latino voices on abortion?
One might think that Trump’s 2016 victory, coupled with the Edwards reelection, would be enough to push the party to change course. But the bubble of coastal elites (on both right and left) is a difficult one to burst. I fear that only something totally devastating—like a 2020 Trump victory—could shake up the current leadership.
That said, the U.S. finds itself in the early stages of major political realignment. If allowed oxygen from the major gatekeepers of our public discourse (who largely seem unable to lose the political assumptions and language of forty years ago), such a shift could push us to radically rethink what we even mean by terms like Democrat and Republican. Or, even more dramatically, whether we should have a two-dimensional, binary political imagination at all.
As Fr. Matt Malone wrote: Neither party can claim ownership of the values that the governor of Louisiana brings to public life. His authentic Catholic faith leads him to value fundamental principles over party loyalty. Given that, and especially after a triumphant reelection, Governor Edwards may be the politician who is best-positioned to take advantage of whatever comes next in U.S. politics.
Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and author of Too Expensive to Treat?—Finitude, Tragedy, and the Neonatal ICU.
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