May 18, 2024

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Can a Pro-life Candidate Win a Democratic Primary?

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Kansas Democratic voters will have a primary for the first time in decades in 2018. Their choices will include a pro-life candidate. Can a social conservative win a statewide Democratic primary?

To date the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial field includes Carl Brewer, a former Mayor of Wichita, and former state Rep. Josh Svaty. It’s rumored Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward may also enter the race.

Josh Svaty and his wife, Kimberly.

At first glance, Svaty looks like the perfect Democratic candidate. At 37, he’s young. He has great hair, a striking wife, and three young children with a fourth on the way. His resume reads like a Democratic political dream. He served as the Kansas Secretary of Agriculture in the Gov. Mark Parkinson administration, and he worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration. He also served as a state representative from 2003 to 2009, and that might be the sticking point for many Democrats. He is pro-life and his voting record in the Kansas House largely supports that claim. That might not sit well with some Democratic constituencies.

“At least in Kansas, my race will be a demonstration of whether or not people can focus on the problems that we are facing in Kansas that are real and systemic,” Svaty says. “Or whether they want to get dragged into some of these national conversations.”


The national Democratic Party drew a red line in the sand on the issue of abortion in April.

Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez announced an abortion purity test after appearing with Heath Mello, a pro-life Democratic candidate for Omaha Mayor. Perez appeared with Mello as part of a Democratic unity tour, but the appearance drew sharp rebukes from progressive organizations like the Daily KOS and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Mello lost the Omaha election, and Perez promised the national party would only support pro-abortion candidates in the future. Perez said the party should speak with one voice on the issue.

“Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health. That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state,” Perez said in a statement.

Since then, the DNC spokeswoman has told reporters that the national party doesn’t have a litmus test on abortion, and one of Perez’s aides told a national magazine that Chair Perez never said he doesn’t support pro-life Democratic candidates.

Still, when Svaty announced his candidacy for Kansas Governor on May 16, the response from Planned Parenthood was swift.

“Josh Svaty’s anti-health care voting record is wrong for Kansas,” Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes CEO Laura McQuade said in a press release issued the same day of Svaty’s announcement. “…Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes promises to stop any anti-choice extremists, like Svaty, from gaining even the slightest political foothold in Kansas.”

As a state legislator, Svaty supported a bill that said life begins at fertilization. He also supported legislation that allows a woman’s family member to sue to prevent her from seeking an abortion.

“I am not disputing the record (Planned Parenthood) is displaying,” Svaty said. “I’m not going to disavow those votes from 10 years ago.”

A plank in the Democratic Party platform reads “We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion–regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes or how much she is insured.”

Former State Sen. Chris Steineger, Kansas City, Kansas, believes the national party is further to the left than the Kansas Democratic Party. Steineger served in the Kansas Senate from 1997 to 2013. Elected as a Democrat, he switched parties to become a Republican in 2010, but social issues didn’t cause the break-up. Differences over fiscal issues and government spending did.

“It’s theoretically possible for a pro-life Democrat to win,” Steineger says. “(Former Gov.) Joan Finney was a pro-life, Catholic Democrat.”

Finney was Kansas’ Governor from 1991 to 1995.

“I think it’s possible. Maybe not next year, but in the future, I think it’s entirely possible,” Steineger says.

However, Svaty says the district he represented, much like most of Kansas, is very pro-life.

“Anyone that represents Kansas needs to be respectful of both sides of this issue,” he said.

Dennis McKinney believes a pro-life politician can win a Democratic primary in Kansas. As a former Democratic minority leader of the Kansas House and a former state treasurer, McKinney speaks from some experience. McKinney speaks often of his faith and is known as a pro-life Democrat.

“In legislative races, we’ve won a number of seats,” he says.

However, social issues may have been the deciding factor in a Democratic race in February. McKinney sought to be the Democratic nominee to replace Congressman Mike Pompeo last spring. Republican and Democratic precinct people selected nominees who appeared on the April ballot. Democratic precinct people selected James Thompson, a pro-choice civil rights attorney, over McKinney at a nominating convention last February. It was a narrow win, 21 precinct members chose Thompson while 18 precinct members chose McKinney on a second ballot. Republican Ron Estes beat Thompson in the April election.

McKinney said the nominating convention wasn’t reflective of rank and file Democratic voters.

“The convention was short on representatives from labor, and probably didn’t have enough African American Democrats or Democrats from other minority groups, and Democrats across those categories quite often are socially conservative,” McKinney said.

From his time serving in the Kansas Legislature, McKinney said he learned abortion isn’t really a Republican or Democratic issue. There are pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans.

“Some of these issues cut across both parties and tend to be more regional and geographic,” McKinney said.

McKinney would like to see an abortion conversation in the Democratic Party and in the nation that is less emotional and more thoughtful about how people can really help women in crisis pregnancies.

“Maybe if we could have that conversation, we could make progress,” McKinney says. “Those of us who call ourselves Christians would have an opportunity to show mercy and compassion and love and convince people who have said we’re awful that we’re not awful.”

He believes there’s a place for a social conservative, like Svaty, in the Kansas Democratic Party.

“He’s a bright young man, and I think he wants to hear ideas from voters, especially younger voters,” McKinney says.

National politics may paint an unclear picture of Democrats in general, according to Svaty.

“There is a very real wing of the Democratic Party that feels like it’s important to have all your kids in church pews on Sunday morning,” he says. “You wouldn’t know that they’re there, listening to national issues, but they’re certainly there in Kansas.”

Svaty believes purity tests or loyalty oaths in political parties are corrosive and not conducive to good government.

“These conversations that not everyone in a certain party is automatically the same are a very healthy thing,” he said. “You can see that in the Republican Party as well.”

He named Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and former state Rep. Ed O’Malley, two Republicans running for Kansas Governor in 2018 as examples.

“There are very real constituencies for both,” Svaty said. “I think it’s important for Democrats to understand that one, the party should be open to diversity within its own ranks. We champion diversity on a number of issues, but it’s important on everything. Two, for the Democratic Party to start winning in Kansas again, I think it will require someone that is capable of reaching out and connecting with especially rural Kansans, who feel like the Democratic Party is nowhere near where they are.”

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