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Marching to the beat of a different drummer?

National | It's safe, it's legal, but it's rare: Being a pro-life Democrat means being shamed, shunned, and sometimes shut out of cash. Although they are out of step with the national party, a slate of pro-life Democrats may be the ones who hand a pro-abortion party the edge to regain control of Congress

Issue: "Something's rotten," Sept. 30, 2000

-in St. Louis-Kirkwood, Mo., takes its parades seriously. The sprawling, red-brick campus of Kirkwood High School becomes a staging area for anyone in town who has anything to say or sell. There are politicians, of course-Jim Talent, the GOP nominee for governor graduated from Kirkwood High-as well as churches, real-estate agents, football teams, Scout troops, a movie theater, even the local Krispy Kreme franchisee, handing out free doughnuts to hundreds of people along the parade route. On Sept. 9, an hour after the grand marshal first pulled out of the parking lot-just ahead of the Talent for Governor campaign-dozens of contingents are still sweating on the blacktop, waiting their turn. Members of the local theater guild, in costumes ranging from sailors to flappers, are lined up behind a minivan still plastered with stickers supporting last spring's Million Mom March. Nearby-almost at the tail end of the parade-is a station wagon with a big flannel banner that reads "Life: Our First Inalienable Right." Chris Smith, the sponsor of the pro-life club at a local community college, wanders among her fellow marchers-in-waiting, proselytizing for the cause. "This is my No. 1 issue when I go to the polls," she says, back at the car. "I think if we get our morals in line, then everything else will follow.... It's an issue of just being at peace with one another. I don't think coming at somebody with a scalpel in the most private place in a woman's body is peaceable, in any form." Ted House couldn't agree more. As a state senator, he led last year's successful effort to override Gov. Mel Carnahan's veto of a law banning partial-birth abortion in Missouri. Now he's campaigning to replace Mr. Talent in the House of Representatives, and he's sounding every bit as pro-life as his predecessor. "I view [abortion] as the most important moral and social issue facing our nation today," says the slightly built 41-year-old. "I've fought a lot of pro-life battles. I've been in the trenches. We've had victories and setbacks. It's very important for all of us in the movement to recognize that this is not our battle. This is God's battle. We are instruments of His peace. We're to do what He calls us to do, but this battle will be won on His timetable. We should never, never, never be discouraged, no matter how difficult it may seem." It's a speech that could have been scripted by the Republican National Coalition for Life. Except for one detail: Mr. House is a Democrat. Nationwide, a handful of pro-life Democrats are running for seats in the House and Senate. They're a rare breed in a party that defends the right to kill babies right up until complete birth, but they remain hopeful that their colleagues will come around one day. In the meantime, national Democrats have formed a wary partnership with the pro-life mavericks: Despite ideological differences, the national party is funneling resources into races that could decide control of the Congress. It wasn't always that way. Back in 1992, when Democrats had controlled the House of Representatives for 40 years, Bill Clinton banned Bob Casey, Pennsylvania's popular, pro-life governor, from speaking at the Democratic National Convention. But now, after six years in the minority, the party is ready to lift its excommunication from those who fail its pro-abortion litmus test. At the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles last month, delegates were treated to a belated-and post-mortem-salute to Gov. Casey. Granted, it was in the early afternoon, when the hall was nearly empty and the TV cameras were dark. Still, it acknowledged the reality that pro-life Democrats may be the party's only hope for recapturing the Congress in November. In 1998, Democrats got an enticing taste of what could happen if they ran pro-lifers in selected races. In Kentucky's fourth congressional district, Ken Lucas beat Gex Williams to become the district's first Democratic congressman in 32 years (and the only Democrat in the state's entire congressional delegation). His pro-life stance neutralized what could have been a trump card for Mr. Williams, a favorite of the Christian Coalition. Meanwhile, in northern Pennsylvania, Pat Casey, the 32-year-old son of the former governor, came within 500 votes of taking another traditionally Republican seat. It was the closest race in the country that year, and when it came to the abortion question, Mr. Casey ran to the right of his Republican opponent, Don Sherwood. He's back for a re-match this year, in what is being touted as one of the closest races in the country. And he's not alone. Of the 50 top races this year, pro-life Democrats are contesting perhaps one-fifth, according to Bob Doyle of Sutter's Mill Fundraising and Strategy, a Washington consulting firm. "More than ever, Democrats are successfully recruiting pro-life candidates who match their districts," he explains. "Being in the minority has an excellent way of inspiring inclusion." According to Mr. Doyle, national Democratic leaders have finally realized that they simply can't win some races by insisting their candidates stick to the party line on abortion. "Life is fundamental in a number of districts," he says. "We found through the 1990s that some voters don't even give the Democrats a hearing on issues like education and health care because they perceived that the party didn't share their basic values." By neutralizing the abortion issue, pro-life Democrats "make it more difficult for Republicans to paint them as outside the mainstream.... Then they can challenge the Republicans to meet them in the middle on issues like education and Social Security and other areas that favor the Democrats." It's a strategy that seems to work better in the House than in the Senate. When Pennsylvania Democrats looked for an opponent to challenge freshman GOP Sen. Rick Santorum, they settled on Ron Klink, a conservative state legislator with a solidly pro-life voting record. His was supposed to be one of the closest Senate races in the country, but it hasn't worked out that way. Instead of a neck-and-neck contest, Mr. Santorum has opened up a lead as wide as 20 points in some polls. With enough cash, Mr. Klink might be able to blitz the airwaves and cut into the Republican lead. But deep-pocketed liberals in Philadelphia have shut off the funding pipeline, largely in response to Mr. Klink's pro-life position. As of the last reporting deadline at the end of June, Mr. Klink had only $500,000 in cash on hand, compared to $4.4 million for Mr. Santorum. In an attempt to shore up his own base, Mr. Klink has begun soft-pedaling the abortion issue, promising, for instance, that he would not use abortion as a litmus test in voting to confirm Supreme Court nominees. Elizabeth Stanley, his campaign spokeswoman, avoids the issue altogether, even when asked about it directly. "It hasn't been an issue in the race thus far," she insists-then changes the subject. Not so in the Missouri race. Rather than ducking the issue, Ted House gives blunt, thoughtful answers whenever the question comes up. He compares abortion to slavery and wonders how defenders of the practice can stand to look at themselves in the mirror. He readily accuses Al Gore and Dick Gephardt of "political expediency" for selling out their earlier pro-life position in order to achieve national leadership within the party. He says that abortion defenders have turned their backs on a fundamental ideal of the Democratic Party: government protection of the weak and helpless. "Pro-life is liberal," he insists. "What we're seeking in the movement is a government intervention to protect unborn children. In a classical sense, that's a liberal position because you're using the government to correct a systematic discrimination against a disadvantaged minority." Still, he's realistic enough to know that not all so-called liberals share his view. As he marched down the street in the Kirkwood parade, three voters went out of their way to tell him they would not vote for him because of his pro-life stance. He sometimes gets the same reaction in his never-ending cycle of fundraising calls. "We'll go through lists of Democratic donors and we'll have people say, 'I wouldn't contribute to you if you were the last Democrat in the world.'" With the Democratic base sometimes turned off by a pro-life nominee, the question then becomes, Can the candidate win enough Republican and independent voters to make up for any loss of votes on the left? In a district where 58 percent of the voters are Catholic, Mr. House thinks the answer is yes. By retaining a core of moderate, blue-collar Democrats and picking off a few moderate Republicans, the House campaign could put together enough votes to carry this strongly Republican district. All along the parade route, voters seemed confused or apathetic about a campaign that offered no clear choice on the abortion issue. One woman, who described herself as pro-choice (and refused to give her name "because my mother might be reading"), said she normally voted Democratic but was "less than enthusiastic about supporting House" because of his pro-life stance. But far more typical was Tim Goodwin, who said he has voted Republican in years past. As his three young children scrambled for candy tossed by passing marchers, he admitted that he would "absolutely" consider voting for the Democrat this time around. "I tend to lean more toward Republicans because more often than not, they reflect the way I feel about things. But, because [House] is pro-life, I'll take a much closer look at him." Voters like Mr. Goodwin present a challenge to Republican nominee Todd Akin. After winning his crowded primary by just 70-odd votes, the state representative and elder in the Presbyterian Church in America must move quickly to unite his party. But abortion-the one issue that runs like a fault line between the two parties and motivates the Republican base-is largely off-limits. The problem is not lost on Mr. Akin. "You've got a bloc of middle-of-the-road kind of voters. Many of them are pro-life, but their parents were Democrats," he explains. "The Democrat Party has been moving to the left on them, and some of them have been voting Republican, assuming the Republican has got good moral character and is pro-life. So what this does is put that middle bloc more up for grabs than it might otherwise be. If we had a hard-core, feminist, pro-abortion kind of person, you polarize that group and they move over to the Republican side. If you've got a Democrat who's claiming to be pro-life, he may have a little more pull with that bloc of voters." But the abortion issue is not a wash, Mr. Akin insists. While both individual candidates may be pro-life, the parties they represent are not. As a congressman, Mr. House would vote for Dick Gephardt as Speaker, virtually ensuring that no pro-life bills would see the light of day. That, to Mr. Akin, makes the choice clear for pro-lifers. "If you have a guy [like Dick Gephardt] who's pro-abortion and you say, 'I'm going to vote for this guy for Speaker of the House,' I guess that says to me that your allegiance to your party is greater than your allegiance to the cause." "That's just being blatantly partisan," Mr. House shoots back, insisting that he has demonstrated his independence from their party: "How many times do I have to lead the pro-life battles to demonstrate my independence? How many times do I have to fall on my sword for this cause?" He added, "We've had a Republican Congress for six years, and what did they do? They got partial-birth abortion passed, and that's good, but was there ever a serious effort to advance a pro-life constitutional amendment? It's not who's the majority party, it's the commitment and the desire to make progress and save lives." But, when pressed on the issue of a Democratic majority, Mr. House-like Pat Casey and other pro-life Democrats-ultimately can't escape the fact that a Speaker Gephardt would harm the pro-life cause. The power of the majority to stifle debate and shape the agenda is undeniable-a fact that will make it difficult for many pro-lifers to pull the lever marked "D," no matter how much they may admire an individual candidate. "All politics is local," legendary speaker Tip O'Neill used to say. But this year, that might not be true. With control of the House hinging on just a few key races, Republican voters are well aware that any Democratic win-no matter how fine the local candidate may be-brings Mr. Gephardt that much closer to the Speaker's gavel. For pro-life Democrats like Mr. House, that's a tough argument to refute. Which leads to the obvious question: Why not simply switch parties? "I lie awake at night thinking about these things," Mr. House admits. He says the Democratic emphasis on social justice better matches his Methodist worldview. He says organized labor needs defending and public education needs strengthening. But most of all, he says, unborn children need champions in both parties. "I am a much more effective pro-life advocate within the [Democratic] Party than I would be from outside. We can do a lot more good arguing from inside the caucus than we could ever do from outside. We don't want to lose that. We're growing in numbers. Every year there's more and more of us. People who really care about protecting unborn children should be absolutely thrilled that there are so many pro-life Democrats.... If we lose the pro-life Democrats, we lose the battle." By noon, the Kirkwood parade is over, and Mr. House folds up his banner and packs up his brochures. But more parades will come before Election Day-more chances to march with a party he frequently opposes.

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