Pro-Choice Candidates Like Marie Newman, Others Prove Reproductive Health is a Winning Issue at the Polls

While the coronavirus crisis has prompted states to postpone primaries and thrown into question how voting will proceed in the coming months, the primary results so far suggest that pro-choice candidates are in a strong position to increase their numbers in the House come November.

Last week, in a huge victory for reproductive freedom, Marie Newman defeated Dan Lipinski—one of the last anti-abortion rights Democratic House members—in Illinois’ third Congressional district. Newman is all but assured of victory in November in this solidly Democratic district.

Pro-Choice Candidates Score Wins in 2020

Newman’s win was just one of several victories for pro-choice candidates in the 2020 cycle. Illinois’s pro-choice delegation could increase even more in November, when Betsy Londrigan Dirksen will go up against a vulnerable anti-choice Republican incumbent in a toss-up district. Dirksen, like Newman, ran in 2018 and lost narrowly.

In California, in the open seat vacated by Rep. Katie Hill, Christy Smith was the top vote-getter, as Ms. previously reported, in the lean Democrat district.

On Super Tuesday, first-time candidate for Congress Christy Smith earned a first-place finish. But to win, she’ll have to prevail in two elections over the next eight months. (Kunal Atit) Read more.

Texas—with the flight of suburban women from the GOP and the ever-growing numbers of Latinx and young voters—has some of the most vulnerable anti-choice representatives. According to Cook Political Report, six Republican-held seats are vulnerable or competitive.

In the 23rd district, Gina Ortiz Jones—an LGBT veteran and first-generation Filipina American—easily won her primary. Jones lost the race for this seat in 2018 by only 926 votes; her decision to run in 2020 prompted the incumbent to opt not to run for reelection. The open seat is rated lean Democrat and Jones is running a strong campaign.

In the 21st district, pro-choice champion Wendy Davis easily won her primary to will take on GOP Rep. Chip Roy.  Davis—who won international acclaim for her 2013 filibuster against Texas’s anti-abortion TRAP laws and ran for governor in 2014—has vastly more electoral experience than the typical House challenger.

Wendy Davis easily won her primary to will take on GOP Rep. Chip Roy. Davis is famously known for filibustering against a restrictive abortion bill in 2013, pictured above. (@SenGillibrand)

Although the district is rated lean Republican, Davis’s opponent is a first-term representative who voted against the House coronavirus relief bill.  

Each of these winning candidates campaigned explicitly and proudly on their commitment to women’s freedom and fundamental rights. 

Marie Newman Proves Reproductive Health is a Winning Issue

As abortion rights and access has become ever more imperiled in the Trump Era, candidates are increasingly leaning into the issue.  

Newman’s victory, and her trajectory since 2018, is emblematic of this shift—as well as a blueprint for up-and-coming pro-choice women candidates.

A businesswoman and founder of anti-bullying group, Newman narrowly lost to Lipinski in 2018 by 2200 votes. Yet, like many women candidates, she ran again despite the loss. 

Gloria Steinem (right) attends an event for Marie Newman, Democratic candidate for Illinois 3rd congressional district, in Chicago in February 2018. (NARAL Pro-Choice America / Creative Commons)

A broad progressive coalition—anchored by women’s organizations such as EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood Votes, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Feminist Majority and NOW, and including labor unions and grassroots groups—joined forces to support Newman. EMILY’s List and others spent $1.4 million on an independent expenditure campaign to expose Lipinski’s anti-choice and anti-worker record. NARAL members knocked on 1200 doors and made 25,000 calls.

This time around, Newman won by 2,800 votes.

Newman’s experience suggests the long-term prospects for increasing representation by pro-choice women are strong—even when candidates lose on their first attempt.

That bodes well for someone like Jessica Cisneros, the 26-year-old progressive ACLU lawyer, who came 3000 votes short of defeating the anti-choice Texas Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar, in a contest that garnered national attention.

More broadly, Newman’s success “proves that voters across the country are in no mind to stand by as their elected officials throw women and families under the bus,” NARAL President Ilyse Hogue said in a post-election statement.  “In times of crisis, fundamental freedoms and rights matter, and those of women are hanging on by a thread in this country. Women voters know it. Threats to Roe rank high on their list of electoral decisions.”

Protecting Pro-Choice Incumbents

In 2020, 39 pro-choice lawmakers who flipped GOP-held seats in the 2018 election are facing their first reelection test. Seventeen of those seats are rated toss-up. Several of the 2018 class’s pro-choice women—such as Kendra Horn (Oklahoma) and Xochitl Torres Small (New Mexico)—represent Republican- and Trump-voting districts and face especially tough reelection battles.

Under Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, the House majority is firmly committed to advancing reproductive freedom and women’s rights. 

With Lipinski defeated, only two anti-abortion rights Democrats remain in the House. 

But every Republican in the U.S. House opposes abortion rights. Protecting the House pro-choice majority is critical to women’s rights, regardless of the outcome in the senate and presidential elections. 

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Nancy L. Cohen is an editor-at-large for Ms. She is the author of four books, including Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America and Breakthrough: The Making of America’s First Woman President. She has appeared as a guest on MSNBC and her writing has been published in the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @nancylcohen.