A Pro-Choice Woman Is Running Against a Male Democrat Who Voted to Restrict Abortion. Why Are Women’s Groups Silent?

Lee Fang,
The Intercept, May 8 2018

When Kara
Eastman, a community activist, decided to run for Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District,
a swing seat surrounding metro Omaha, she was confident that pro-choice
groups would leap to embrace her candidacy.
Photo: Nati
has campaigned on populist ideas like “Medicare for All,” tuition-free
public university education, higher taxes on the wealthy, increasing the
minimum wage and, notable for a Nebraska Democrat, unfettered access to
reproductive health options. She even features her support for abortion rights
in a campaign
weeks before Eastman launched her bid, major pro-choice groups made headlines
by denouncing Democrats for supporting the Omaha mayoral run of Heath Mello, a
former Nebraska legislator, citing his anti-choice voting record. NARAL
Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue slammed the party, arguing
that Democrats were rejecting
women’s rights by “embracing” an “anti-choice candidate,” and claiming
on Twitter that an endorsement rally sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.,
and Democratic National Committee leaders on Mello’s behalf was “offensive
morally & counterproductive strategically.”
It kicked
off a heated conversation within the party, as some top Democrats argued that
there was no place for anti-choice candidates in the party, while House
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., who
chairs the House Democratic campaign arm, took the opposite position. (Writer
and Texas Democratic congressional candidate Laura Moser weighed in to lambast
for the stance, a position she believes later came back to haunt
her.) Sanders and DNC Chair Tom Perez countered that Mello was the only
Democrat in the race, so he needed support in the general election. If
Democrats wanted an outspoken pro-choice candidate, the place to have that
fight was in the primary, not the general. Perez, after feeling heat, flipped,
issuing a statement that insisted Democrats must only support pro-choice
candidates. Mello, the man in the middle, put out his own statement, saying
that he was not, in fact, opposed to abortion rights and would do nothing as
mayor to restrict access.
On May 9,
2017, Mello lost his election by 6 points. On May 24, long before the dust had
settled, Kara Eastman launched her pro-choice bid for Congress.
had even better reasons to suspect that abortion rights groups would rally to
her side: Her opponent for the Democratic nomination, Brad Ashford, is a former
Republican with a long history of supporting abortion restrictions. As a state legislator,
Ashford voted for some of the same legislation that landed Mello on the
business end of the choice groups. He backed bills to ban
abortions after 20 weeks, require a doctor to perform an ultrasound on women seeking
an abortion, require physicians to obtain a form notifying them of
parental consent for minors seeking
an abortion, and require that
women seeking an abortion undergo a risk screening for any potential
“demographic” or “emotional” factors that may complicate an abortion procedure.
But the
major pro-choice advocacy groups have ignored her pleas for support.
official from NARAL Pro-Choice America told The Intercept that the organization
is not engaging in the primary race. Other pro-choice organizations,
including UltraViolet Action, EMILY’s List, and the Planned Parenthood
Action Fund, did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the
Nebraska primary between Eastman and Ashford. Federal Election Commission
records show no political action committees for national abortion rights
groups donating to Eastman’s campaign or spending money on their own to boost
her chances in the May 15 primary.
The only
pro-choice group that has endorsed Eastman is #VoteProChoice, a small
organization founded in 2016 by activist Heidi Sieck.
establishment Democratic organizations, including the Democratic Congressional
Campaign Committee, have rallied behind Ashford, who previously served one term
in Congress before losing in 2016 to the current incumbent, Rep. Don Bacon,
R-Neb. Ashford also served on
Hillary Clinton’s Nebraska Leadership Council.
Ashford campaigns in Omaha, Neb., on April 5, 2018. Photo: Nati Harnik/AP

January, the DCCC added
Ashford to its “Red to Blue” list of candidates, a gesture viewed by many as
carrying the weight of official party support, which will also give him
special access to party political resources. In addition, PACs controlled by
Pelosi and Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the two Democrats in charge of party
leadership in the House of Representatives, have provided $21,000 to Ashford’s
campaign, making the pair major contributors.
campaign expressed a mix of confusion and frustration at efforts by the party
elite to shun her campaign, an opinion shared
by a number of other progressive Democrats running for Congress. But the
absolute silence from national pro-choice groups is especially painful.
disappointing that so many of the pro-choice organizations have decided to wait
until after the primary to weigh in,” said Eastman. “I’m the only candidate who
believes women are capable of making these decisions for themselves without
unnecessary restrictions. If these organizations want to preserve a woman’s
right to choose, they should be supporting candidates who are willing to
consistently vote that way.”
spokesperson for Ashford’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, EMILY’s List is pumping roughly $1 million
into a race to stop an
anti-choice Democratic prosecutor in a primary
 election set for
May 15, the same day as Nebraska’s.
despite the reluctance to back Eastman, national pro-choice groups have
stepped in to challenge an entrenched Democratic incumbent in one
high-profile race this year. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., a conservative
anti-abortion Democrat in a Chicago-area seat viewed as reliably Democratic, faced
a spirited primary challenge from activist Marie Newman. Last November, a
handful of progressive groups were joined by NARAL in
endorsing Newman,
a rare and direct challenge to a Democratic
incumbent. Notably absent from the fray were EMILY’s List and Planned
Parenthood. Fellow Illinois Democratic delegation member Reps. Jan Schakowsky
and Luis Gutiérrez, along with high-profile Democrats from across the
country, including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, broke ranks and endorsed
Newman. Under intense pressure to get off the sidelines, the two groups finally
endorsed Newman in February
, the month before the primary. She ended up
by just over 2,000 votes.
But in
Nebraska, where Ashford appears to be the overwhelming favorite among
national Democratic figures, there has been no similar intervention.
The 2017
uproar over Mello’s abortion record led to a wave of negative headlines
for Sanders, who had pledged to participate in a “unity tour” with DNC leaders
in support of left-leaning Democrats across the country. The criticism that
Sanders had backed Mello in spite of Mello’s abortion record ricocheted
across the country, with stories in the New York Times, NPR, CNN, The Atlantic,
and beyond, quoting pro-choice leaders denouncing Sanders for supposedly
eschewing reproductive rights in favor of his economic ideas.
Mello should trust women to make their own informed medical decisions – and
Sen. Sanders shouldn’t support any politician who forces a pregnant woman to
undergo an often-medically unnecessary, demeaning procedure over her
objections,” said Karin Roland, chief campaigns officer of UltraViolet, in a
statement. As the political storm grew, DailyKos revoked
its endorsement of Mello.
about the controversy by CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” Sanders held up his own
legislative record of opposing all restrictions on abortions and argued that a
broad range of community groups had urged him to support Mello. “If you
have a rally in which you have the labor movement and the environmentalists and
Native Americans and the African-American community and the Latino community coming
together saying, ‘We want this guy to become our next mayor,’” Sanders said.
“Should I reject going there to Omaha? I don’t think so.”
who identifies as Catholic and pro-life, said that if had been
mayor, he “would never do anything to restrict access to
reproductive health care.” His supporters further
that he had signed onto the ultrasound legislation as a way
to negotiate a less draconian measure, ensuring that the final bill would give
women the choice of whether or not to view the ultrasound image.
opponent, incumbent Mayor Jean Stothert, an anti-abortion Republican,
onto the controversy to mock the D.C. establishment interest in the race.
Stothert went on to win the election by a comfortable margin.
has continued to run a serious race, raising over $355,000 from a broad donor
base and winning the support of a range of local activists and political
leaders. Though she has been spurned by national pro-choice groups, she has at
least been endorsed
by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, as well as Justice Democrats and
Political Revolution, two groups that spun off from volunteers and staffers of
Sanders’s presidential campaign.