Democrats fight abortion opponents — inside the party's own ranks

Louisiana Gov. Edwards opposes abortion rights and signed a bill with major restrictions. The 2020 contenders had a lot to say about that.
2017 Essence Festival - Day 1
Gov. John Bel Edwards, in New Orleans in 2017, is the only Democratic governor in the Deep South and the only one who opposes abortion rights. He is up for re-election in November.Josh Brasted / Getty Images file

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

MORGAN CITY, La. — The Democratic governor of Louisiana signed one of the strictest anti-abortion bills in the country into law, then traveled to a barge here to inspect emergency flood control efforts.

But John Bel Edwards couldn't stop the political deluge from his own party.

"Gov. Edwards' decision is dangerous and we will fight it," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the bill "heartbreaking." Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., labeled it "draconian," while Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., called his decision to sign it "outrageous."

Even the chairwoman his own Louisiana Democratic Party blasted the governor's support for the measure as "egregious and offensive" and apologized to all Louisiana women.

The law Edwards signed last week would outlaw abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected — as early as six weeks, before many women even know they're pregnant — and it includes no exceptions for rape or incest.

Edwards has spoken often about his deeply personal stance on abortion. But as the sun beat down on the swollen waters of Bayou Chene, he seemed to wish the controversy would wash out to the Gulf of Mexico along with all the water inundating his state. "The bill has been signed and I'm not going to get into that further today," the governor told NBC News on Thursday.

Across the country, abortion rights are facing their gravest threat in decades from new state laws like Louisiana's, forcing Democrats to choose between principals and pragmatism as they try to win back unfavorable political terrain.

The party now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of running candidates in two of this year's three gubernatorial races who have played an active role in advancing the bills that swept through Southern statehouses this year to crack down on abortion.

Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South and the only one who opposes abortion rights, is up for re-election this fall. Next door in Mississippi, Democrats have their best chance in years to win a second governorship in the region.

The expected Democratic nominee there is Attorney General Jim Hood, a proven winner with four statewide victories under his belt. He calls himself "firmly pro-life" and is now vigorously defending his own state's new anti-abortion law in the courts.

The number of abortion rights opponents inside the Democratic Party has dwindled in recent years and those who remain say they feel like they're being expelled from a party they support on almost every other issue.

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But others insist now is no time to compromise, with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., recently saying "we should be 100 percent pro-choice, and it should be nonnegotiable."

Can everyone co-exist?

"I don't think we need to drum anybody out of the party," said James Carville, the famed Louisiana Democratic strategist. "There's not many statewide elected Democrats in the South. Thank God, we got one in Louisiana."

In his first term, Edwards expanded Medicaid, overhauled the criminal justice system, signed an executive order protecting LGBTQ state workers (though a court later struck it down), and is about to give teachers their first pay raise in a decade. In his second term, he wants to raise the minimum wage and pass a gender equal pay law. He also fixed a budget mess and has healthy approval ratings from voters.

Strategists disagree on whether Democrats need to identify as pro-life to win in the Deep South, where polls show a majority of voters oppose abortion rights, and some say hardline opposition hurts even here.

Doug Jones won an Alabama Senate seat in 2017 with a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood, while Mary Landrieu held a Louisiana Senate seat for 18 years with a similar score.

But Edwards' profile as a straight-talking, churchgoing, former Army Ranger has worked for him. His is of the last states with a significant presence of anti-abortion elected Democrats, thanks in part to Louisiana's Catholic heritage and a substantial number of Catholic voters.

"That's the way I was raised," Edwards said during his monthly radio show last fall. "I know that for many in the national party ... that's not a good fit — but I'll tell you here in Louisiana, I speak and meet with Democrats who are pro-life every single day. And so it comes pretty easy for me."

Landrieu lost the state in 2014, and Edwards won it 2015, before President Donald Trump, campaigning against abortion rights, won it in 2016 with more votes than any candidate in history.

During his first gubernatorial campaign, against Republican David Vitter, Edwards ran a TV ad that featured his wife explaining how they rejected doctors' advice to terminate her pregnancy after it was discovered that their daughter had spina bifida.

"She's living proof that John Bel Edwards lives his values every day," Donna Edwards says in the ad.

But critics say Edwards and his wife were given an option that he's now denied to others. "That's what he and his wife believe, and they have a beautiful daughter, Samantha. But they made a choice," said the Louisiana Democratic Party chair, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson.

The Louisiana law now joins several other new anti-abortion restrictions that may be on course to the Supreme Court, where many expect that new conservative justices appointed by Trump to use the opportunity to strike at Roe v. Wade.

"This extreme abortion ban is part of a concerted, nationwide effort to criminalize abortion," said Alanah Odoms Hebert, the executive director of the Louisiana ACLU.

But Edwards was hardly the only Democrat in the state to support the measure, which passed by veto-proof bipartisan majorities in both chambers of the legislature.

Its sponsor was a Democratic state senator, John Milkovich, who told NBC News it was part of "an ethical insurgency against the abortion industry."

State Rep. Katrina Jackson, an African American Democrat, sees no conflict between her opposition to abortion and the core values of her party since she sees abortion as a tool of racial and economic oppression.

"I think it mitigates our race's voting power, it hurts our race's power in the census. I really consider it to be modern-day genocide," she told NBC News.

So where does that leave Democrats?

The Democratic Governors Association, the party's official campaign arm, has said it will support Edwards, even though all 22 of its other members back abortion rights. Even some who turned out to a protest organized by Planned Parenthood here said they'll back Edwards over a Republican, but may not donate or volunteer for him, and may be less likely to make it to polls on Election Day.

"Unfortunately, it is a binary choice," said Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "That's the choice that voters in Louisiana are faced with. And they're all going to have to make up their minds for themselves."