The Democratic Party in both Missouri and Kansas is struggling these days, and now an old issue is coming back to bite it.
The issue: abortion. Last week, Stacey Newman, a state representative from St. Louis and the director of the women’s rights group ProgressWomen, fired a warning shot across the bow of the Missouri Democratic Party, declaring that it was unacceptable for party leaders to recruit anti-abortion candidates.
Recruiting Democrats “to vote against women’s legal access to reproductive care … is plain wrong,” the group said in a petition it delivered to party chairman Stephen Webber.
That’s a problem for a party that’s down on its luck and faces the prospect of virtual extinction next year if its only remaining statewide officeholders — Sen. Claire McCaskill and state Auditor Nicole Galloway — don’t win. Republicans hold super-majorities in the House and Senate, while a new maverick GOP governor rides herd just seven months into a four-year term.
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The Democratic Party needs to grow, and more specifically, it needs to grow in outstate Missouri, where finding Democratic officeholders has become as difficult as finding alligators in Brush Creek.
Webber is all about recruiting high-quality Democratic candidates, even in rural Missouri, where fans of abortion rights are scarce. If they are pro-life, he can live with that.
“We’re looking for candidates that will work hard and are willing to communicate their deeply held convictions,” Webber told Missourinet.
Newman and others, though, want to go back to the days of litmus tests in much the same way that some Republicans have demanded allegiance to the anti-abortion cause. But that stance is destined to keep the Democratic Party in minority status for years.
Some long-time Democratic leaders can say, “I told you so.” Jim Mathewson, the former Senate president pro tem from Sedalia, watched his party’s influence decline in rural Missouri. “We as Democrats are going to have to move to the middle of the road or we’re never going to be in charge again,” he astutely told me in 2004 as he prepared to leave the Senate for the final time.
The party can do two things at once. It can continue to insist on abortion rights in its platforms. But it can also support Democratic primary winners who happen to be pro-life in rural communities where being pro-choice means certain defeat.
The two major political parties must be big tents to remain competitive, and that’s a trick in a diverse society. Not every candidate can be expected to adhere to every tenet. To expect otherwise is wholly unrealistic.
Webber gets that. So, apparently, does John Gibson, the Kansas Democratic Party chair whose position on this hot-button issue boils down to this: He supports whomever wins the August primary. If voters opt for an anti-abortion Democrat, Gibson says the party should back that candidate.
Bernie Sanders has it figured out. In April, the liberal Vermont senator campaigned for an Omaha mayoral candidate with an anti-abortion record, drawing fire from many Democrats. But Sanders said this is exactly what Democrats have to do “if we’re going to become a 50-state party.”
Stacey Newman is a warrior for her cause. But she would be better off training her fire on Republicans. Otherwise, before too long she may not have anyone to shoot at.