Shortly after Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler announced he would run for U.S. Senate as a Republican next year, his spokesman had to quickly put out that he had “evolved” on abortion and he’s now pro-life.
Pensler had run for the same office in 1992 as a pro-choice Republican.*
I can’t speak to Pensler’s personal beliefs, which I presume are sincere. But he’s getting attacked from the far-right Faith and Freedom Coalition for his pro-choice past, anyway. And there’s no doubt that the political winds have shifted in his party.
Last year, the Grand Traverse GOP embarrassed itself by excommunicating its most famous and most successful member, former Gov. William Milliken. In addition to endorsing Democrats (expressing independent thought, the horror!), the moderate was specifically lambasted for vetoing pro-life legislation that was “contrary to the core principles of Republicans.”
As recently as the last decade, there were a smattering of pro-choice Republicans in the Michigan Legislature, like former state Sen. Shirley Johnson. But no more.
Take former state Sen. and U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Battle Creek), a Catholic physician who’s personally pro-life but refused to have every vote dictated to him by Right to Life. In 2006, he lost his Republican congressional primary fight to now-U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), an outspoken pro-life preacher.
After watching what happened to Schwarz and pro-choice Republicans like former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, ambitious Republicans have learned to toe the pro-life line. I can’t tell you how many GOP officials have told me off the record that they’re pro-choice or don’t really care about abortion, but they keep quiet, because they’d like to keep their jobs.
So it wasn’t surprising to see Mitt Romney declare he was now pro-life when he ran for president the first time in 2008. Now-President Donald Trump had the same conversion.
And now-Gov. Rick Snyder, who had bucked Right to Life by backing the ‘08 embryonic stem-cell constitutional amendment, ran in 2010 as being firmly pro-life. Although Snyder has signed a number of bills clamping down on LGBT and abortion rights, his occasional independent streak has made social conservatives apoplectic.
But that will change if Snyder is succeeded by a Republican in 2019 — whether it’s Attorney General Bill Schuette or his own lieutenant governor, Brian Calley. Bills like the Right to Life license plate will be signed into law within the first month. Count on it.
Meanwhile, those Republicans who have stuck to their pro-choice politics have found themselves wandering in the political desert. Both Schwarz and Chafee became independents after losing their elections, with the former flirting with running for Congress in 2012 as a Democrat and the latter running for president in 2016 as one.
If there’s currently a pro-choice Republican holding office in Michigan, I’m not aware of it.
There are plenty of pro-life Democratic officials left in Michigan, however, although their numbers are shrinking. Democrats seeking higher office, like governor or U.S. Senate, are now overwhelmingly pro-choice. Former U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Menominee) would be the exception if he does jump into the ‘18 gubernatorial race, but he could suffer the same fate of pro-life former Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford), who lost badly in the ‘10 Dem primary.
There’s been a fierce debate within the party over whether to run pro-life candidates in 2018, particularly to win over voters in more conservative areas after Trump’s surprise win.
This was inflamed by Bernie Sanders endorsing a pro-life mayoral candidate Health Mello in Nebraska, but snubbing pro-choice Jon Ossoff in his Georgia congressional race. In the end, neither man won, but Dems are left to grapple with abortion as a litmus test.
You can expect this to play out in some Michigan legislative primaries next year, as Rep. Kristy Pagan (D-Canton) and others are recruiting pro-choice women, even in socially conservative areas up north and on the west side of the state. They now have a big victory under their belt with pro-choice Sara Cambensy winning this month’s special 109th state House election in the U.P.
Don’t expect pro-life Democrats to disappear from the Legislature completely. And it’s worth noting that even when Dems have run the state House — as recently as 2006 to 2010 — there was still an anti-abortion majority.
There’s no doubt that the parties are becoming more polarized on abortion. But the Dems still have a ways to go before they achieve the ideological purity that Republicans have.
*Correction: The column originally misstated Ronna Romney ran for Senate on a pro-choice platform; she did not.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.