The state Democratic Party will not use abortion-rights support as a litmus test for new candidates, despite a comment stating the opposite by the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
“The only litmus test we care to take is whether what we do is in the best interest of the people we serve,” said Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, who is the recently elected chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas. “Ideological purity leaves little room for compromise on our most important issues.”
In a statement Tuesday, he said those who struggle with the issue of abortion should “double down on their efforts to fund the very resources and programs — like women’s health initiatives and access to contraception — that significantly lower abortion rates.”
His comments follow a remark from Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, who demanded ideological purity in a statement April 21 provided to online news website Huff-Post.
“Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health,” Perez said. “That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”
The quote was seized on by Arkansas Republicans.
“DNC Chairman Perez finally states what we all have known for a long time, that to be a Democrat you must be Pro-Abortion,” Doyle Webb, chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, said in a statement.
“Under his leadership, it is clear that the DNC is moving even further left with a liberal and progressive agenda. If the Democrat Party had any momentum at all in Arkansas, this occasion certainly will not favor that effort as we are overwhelmingly a Pro-Life state.”
Likewise, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton tweeted that Arkansas sheriffs and other local Democratic officials are not welcome in their own party. And Arkansas Senate Republican leader Jim Hendren of Sulphur Springs tweeted that he knew some Democrats in the state Legislature for whom the comments might be the “final straw.”
Webb encouraged anti-abortion Democrats to join the Republican Party.
But Gray said they are welcome within the state party.
“Much to the chagrin of those who thrive on the discord that accompanies debate over lightning rod issues, the Democratic Party of Arkansas is undeterred,” Gray said. “We are a family and we recognize that our strength is reflected in our ability to house a variety of views and yet still manage to evolve alongside the needs of a changing society.”
Democrats in Arkansas have long held mixed views on abortion rights.
While campaigning for governor in 2006, Democrat Mike Beebe said he personally opposed abortion.
“There is not anything equivocal about that at all,” he said. “I have also voted to restrict abortions by voting to ban partial-birth abortion and voting to require parental notification and would even require parental consent, assuming the constitutionality of it. I have also took an oath to support the Constitution and I will do that. I believe abortion should be made available for rape, incest and the health of the mother.”
But while governor, Beebe vetoed a 2013 bill banning abortions after 12 weeks when a heartbeat is detected. He said the law was unconstitutional. The Republican-majority Legislature overrode his veto, but the law eventually was ruled unconstitutional by a panel of federal judges.
In an interview, former Rep. Tommy Thompson of Morrilton said he holds anti-abortion views, supports the Second Amendment, believes marriage is between one man and one woman and is a Democrat.
While his views on those subjects may not reflect those of most in the party, he says ideological rigidity results in an inability for lawmakers to work together. More nuanced opinions — even if not supported by a party’s base — result in moderate legislation that’s largely agreed upon, he said.
Thompson, who served two terms in the House starting in 2011, said he listened to doctors for years as a state legislator. His impression was that ending a pregnancy before 20 weeks is the termination of that pregnancy. After 20 weeks, it’s abortion.
“And I just don’t believe in abortion,” he said.
Thompson said the national Democratic Party appears to be moving away from older Democrats, but he appreciates Gray’s statement.
“I support that young man and I think he’s going to work hard to bring the party together, but at the same time he’s got to deal with the national people,” he said.
During this year’s regular legislative session, most Democrats opposed bills to restrict abortion rights. However, a handful supported anti-abortion bills, including Act 45, which restricts use of the dilation and evacuation procedure.
The procedure was the only one Arkansas women used for 638 second-trimester abortions in 2015, according to the state Department of Health. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas has promised to sue the state over the law.
Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, who runs the annual Arkansas Poll, said journalists and pollsters often focus on abortion as an important public-policy issue.
But when voters are polled on what matters to them, education, the economy and health care dominate the conversation, she said.
“Sometimes there’s a lot of noise and flash on this issue and it seems fraught for Democrats and I’m sure it feels fraught, but the politics of it in the end usually pale in comparison to the bread-andbutter issues,” she said. “It’s awkward for the state chair. It’s awkward for the occasional candidate.”
Given Democrats’ dwindling numbers in the state Legislature and the fact that no Democrat holds any of the seven statewide constitutional offices, she doesn’t expect the comments from the head of the national party to have a large impact on future elections.
“There’s nowhere to go but up,” Parry said.