Saluting its leaders and its agenda Wednesday night, one of the biggest players in Democratic politics laid out her case for why the Democratic Party needs to remain an exclusively pro-abortion rights party.
“The most important economic decision many women will ever make is whether and when to have children,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List.
She spoke at EMILY’s List’s annual gala in Washington, D.C. — a celebration of the Democratic super PAC’s 2016 successes and the unprecedented level of interest from women wanting to run for office in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election.
But the backdrop for evening was a longstanding rift in the Democratic party, once again recently cracked open, that strikes at the very core of the Democratic super PAC’s mission: electing pro-abortion rights Democratic women.
Candidates should not have to meet that litmus test to run as Democrats, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in an interview with the Washington Post Tuesday. “This is not a rubber-stamp party,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi was on stage for the EMILY’s List event, introducing the Democratic female freshmen of the House. She denounced GOP leadership’s health care bill as “one of the most damaging bills for women in the history of our country,” but she didn’t revisit her remarks about the abortion litmus test.
Pelosi’s comments about abortion came several weeks after the issue burst open on the campaign trail during the Democratic National Committee’s “unity tour.” After appearing with an Omaha mayoral candidate who has supported abortion restrictions, DNC Chairman Tom Perez had to later clarify the party’s position on abortion, saying support for abortion rights is “non-negotiable” for its candidates.
Democrats anxious about losing electoral battles in rural and working-class America have suggested that the party has been pulled too far to the left on social issues, turning off voters who would normally be sympathetic to the party’s positions on economic issues.
Even Pelosi, a champion of abortion rights in the House, suggested Tuesday that the focus on social issues may have turned off some voters.
“You know what? That’s why Donald Trump is president of the United States — the evangelicals and the Catholics, anti-marriage equality, anti-choice. That’s how he got to be president,” Pelosi told the Post. “Everything was trumped, literally and figuratively by that.”
Democrats need to gain 24 seats in the House next year to win the majority, and some Democrats argue that the party’s tent should be expanded to include anti-abortion recruits if it’s going to pick up seats in the West and the South.
“We talk about inclusiveness for everyone and yet when it comes to the pro-life issue, we’re told we don’t belong and there’s no place for us,” Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, told Roll Call earlier this year. “And it’s affecting our numbers.”
EMILY’s List is deeply intertwined with the Democratic Party and its recruitment of congressional candidates. The super PAC raised and spent $90 million during the 2016 election cycle, helping elect eight new members of Congress and four new senators. WOMEN VOTE!, its independent expenditure arm, was the fourth largest IE spender among Democratic super PACs in the 2016 cycle, according to OpenSecrets.
But for EMILY’s List, which only backs pro-abortion rights women, the tension between economic issues and social issues presents a false choice and only emboldens Republicans.
“They want us arguing about whether we’re a party focused on elevating diverse voices or a party focused on appealing to the white working class,” Schriock said. “And, from what I can tell, a lot of people in the Democratic Party are happy to have that argument. Well, I’m not one of them.
“I don’t buy the argument that Democrats have to decide whether we’re a party of blue-collar white men in rural America or a party of African-American women in the big cities, a party of immigrants or a party of feminists,” Schriock said.
Not understanding that access to abortion is an economic issue, not just a reproductive rights issue, excludes women from the party, Schriock said. “Democrats should be the party of working people. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of equating ‘working people’ with ‘white men.’”
A record number of female senators are running for re-election next year, and all but one of them are EMILY’s List candidates. (North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp has never sought the group’s support.)
Warren is one of those senators. She credits EMILY’s List’s Schriock with encouraging her to run. She energized the crowd Wednesday talking about the need to elect women — in part, she said, because of people in Washington, D.C., who are determined to roll back “the right to choose.”
“We are going to shatter the glass ceiling into so many pieces that the Donald Trumps and Mitch McConnells will never be able to put it back together,” Warren said.