State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, who is thinking about challenging Mary Burke for the Democratic nomination for governor, has said her position on reproductive rights has evolved in the decade since she was a member of the national anti-abortion group, Democrats for Life.
“I would say that since I ran in 2006, I've been consistent,” she said in September. “I said I supported current law. What was current law had to do with a 24 hour waiting period and a parental consent law that had a bunch of opt-outs. Ever since then, I've voted against any restrictions and there have been a lot of them.”
Vinehout’s move toward the pro-choice position is part of a broader national trend among Democrats that has taken place in the four decades since Roe v. Wade. Both Bill Clinton and Al Gore had favored some abortion restrictions before running as national candidates and liberal icons such as Ted Kennedy, Dennis Kucinich and Dick Gephardt switched to the pro-choice camp after years of anti-abortion statements and votes.
It is a trend that former Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey Sr. bemoaned in his 1996 autobiography, "Fighting for Life." Casey had publicly explored a bid for president as an anti-abortion Democrat, challenging incumbent Bill Clinton for the party's nomination.
Although Casey called off his plans due to health problems, he used his book to warn Democrats that the party's increasingly close association with the pro-choice movement would benefit Republicans, whose position on abortion he believed was closer to that held by millions of traditionally Democratic voters in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
17 years after Casey’s book, his position is far from vindicated. Abortion has barely come up in the two elections that Barack Obama, a staunch pro-choicer, has easily won. And the Democrats would hold a majority in the U.S. Senate even without the three pro-lifers in their ranks, including Casey’s son, Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Penn.
Nowhere is the pro-choice domination of the Democratic Party more apparent than in Wisconsin, where there is not one remaining pro-life Democrat in the state Legislature. The last two pro-life Democratic legislators, Tony Staskunas and Peggy Krusick, both of Milwaukee, retired and lost in a primary, respectively, in 2012.
And whereas there once were many pro-choice Republicans in the Legislature, including Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who sat on the board of Planned Parenthood, the GOP ranks are now solidly pro-life.
In many other states, however, pro-life Democrats persist.
In neighboring Minnesota, where Democrats are in complete control of state government, ten anti-abortion Democrats in the House of Representatives constitute an important political force. Teaming up with Republicans, they have blocked changes to campaign finance law sought by progressives that would have required groups that run “issue ads” in the weeks preceding an election to disclose their donors. The proposal was vehemently opposed by anti-abortion groups in Minnesota, who, like their counterparts in Wisconsin, spend big money every election cycle on TV ads and mailers attacking pro-choice candidates.
Even in liberal states, such as Massachusetts, there are still many pro-life Democrats. 35 Democratic legislators in Massachusetts were supported by Massachusetts Citizens for Life, although that group hardly constitutes a threat to the massive pro-choice majority in the state Assembly or Senate, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 128-32 and 36-4, respectively.
What is different about Minnesota and Massachusetts?
Because of a brutal loss in 2010 and subsequent redistricting that cemented the GOP gains, Democrats in the Wisconsin Legislature mainly represent their base of support in highly Democratic areas throughout the state. In Minnesota, however, Democrats made large gains in 2012 by winning seats in swing or conservative-leaning districts.
If Wisconsin Democrats ever retake the Legislature, perhaps they will do so with the help of some pro-life Democrats.
However, explains Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, abortion is subject to the same forces of partisan polarization that increasingly shapes most other big issues.
Whereas Democrats in the Evangelical South or Republicans in the liberal Northeast likely have to take a position on the issue that conflicts with that of the national party in order to win locally, Maslin says there is little incentive for either party in Wisconsin to break from their rigid stance.
“I think we are pretty close to parity as to who benefits (from the abortion debate),” he says. “Certainly in Wisconsin and much of the heartland.”
The result is that it would be extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible, for Kathleen Vinehout to win the Democratic nomination for governor without making clear that she is a staunch supporter of abortion rights.