PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Rhode Island's leading pro-life group has endorsed all of the state's top Democratic legislative leaders for re-election, but its main counterpart is nevertheless predicting big gains for advocates of abortion rights this fall.
Rhode Island Right to Life released its list of General Assembly endorsements last week. The group gave its backing to the top three Democrats in both the House (Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Majority Leader John DeSimone, and Majority Whip Jay Edwards) and the Senate (President Teresa Paiva Weed, Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, and Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin).
The Democratic legislative leaders were among 48 Democrats, 19 Republicans and two independents endorsed by Right to Life ahead of Rhode Island's Sept. 13 primary for General Assembly, with many of those Democrats being incumbents seeking a new term. (The two Republican leaders, Rep. Brian Newberry and Sen. Dennis Algiere, also have the group's endorsement.)
The continued strength of the Democratic Party's pro-life wing in Rhode Island is a striking contrast with the party nationally, which is now overwhelmingly pro-choice. Few Democrats in Congress oppose abortion rights, and the party platform adopted in Philadelphia last month included new language calling for repeal of the Hyde Amendment that bars most federal funding of abortions. But in Rhode Island - which amended its constitution in 1986 to explicitly rule out a right to abortion - only about one-third of state legislators are publicly pro-choice, and many Democrats are avowedly pro-life.
"Though we are a nonpartisan organization, we do indeed take pride in both the number and the percentage of pro-life Democrats in the R.I. General Assembly," Barth Bracy, Right to Life's executive director, told WPRI.com. The group's "longstanding policy" is to endorse the incumbent when there is more than one pro-life candidate in the race, he said.
Bracy also said he doesn't think Rhode Island's situation is unusual.
"I can tell you, anecdotally, from conversations I have had with pro-life activists from other states, that it often seems to be the case that there are ample pro-life Democrats at the state and local level, but they rarely seem to get the party nod for higher office unless they are willing to compromise their principles," he said.
Indeed, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and all but one member of the state's all-Democratic congressional delegation are pro-choice; the exception, Congressman Jim Langevin, describes himself as pro-life but has clashed with Right to Life.
On the other side of the issue, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England's political arm has released its own list of General Assembly endorsements, backing 46 Democrats - two fewer than Right to Life - but no Republicans or independents. Craig O'Connor, the group's director of public policy and government relations for Rhode Island, said Planned Parenthood has backed Republicans in the past.
Planned Parenthood has spent nearly $26,000 so far on behalf of nine of its candidates, while Right to Life has spent almost $3,500 for its slate, according to filings this week with the R.I. Board of Elections.
Only one of the six Democratic legislative leaders endorsed by Right to Life has a primary opponent backed by Planned Parenthood: DeSimone, the House majority leader, whose challenger for the Democratic nomination is Marcia Ranglin-Vassell. The pair are scheduled to debate Friday during a taping of WPRI 12's Newsmakers.
O'Connor predicted that this year's elections will result in 10 to 15 new House members and three or four more senators who are "publicly pro-choice," saying: "Momentum is in our direction."
"It is going to change," O'Connor said. "It's just very clear that there's going to be a significant increase in the number of legislators who are openly pro-choice." He also noted that Rep. Joe McNamara, the Rhode Island Democratic Party's chairman, recently penned an op-ed that described "reproductive rights" as among the state party's "proud and successful initiatives."
O'Connor suggested a key reason pro-life Democratic lawmakers continue to win re-election in Rhode Island is that there have been no major standalone votes on anti-abortion legislation in both chambers of the General Assembly since 1997, which he chalked up to a lack of support in the House.
"Without votes being on the record, most Rhode Islanders don't know where their own legislators stand when it comes to abortion," he said. "So they just sort of assume, 'My person's a Democrat; they must be pro-choice.'"
Bracy disputed O'Connor's analysis, saying abortion continues to be a "hotly contested" policy issue in Rhode Island and recalling that in 2014, "Gina Raimondo suffered such a major backlash after her Planned Parenthood press conference that she went into hiding for nearly three weeks of the campaign."
"While the abortion issue by itself cannot make or break a candidate, the reality is that in most districts of the state it does not harm a candidate of either party to 'come out' as being pro-life, and in many districts it helps them," Bracy said. "The candidates themselves know this, or quickly learn this, from walking their districts and knocking on doors."
O'Connor expressed frustration over Right to Life's strength at the highest levels of the General Assembly, pointing to its 2014 poll that suggested 52% of Rhode Islanders favor Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.
"The disconnect between Rhode Island elected officials and where the public stands is kind of remarkable," he said.
Bracy countered that Rhode Island lawmakers have found that the specific positions espoused by Planned Parenthood "are often extreme and far out of step with the views of their constituents, the overwhelming majority of whom favor at least some limits on the abortion license."Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram