The race would decide which party controlled the Michigan Senate. Right to Life — the state’s leading anti-abortion group — backed the Democrat.
It was a 1985 special election. The Democratic candidate’s name was Stephen Monsma, a former lawmaker and Calvin College political science professor.
“Mr. Monsma has been a valued pro-life leader in both chambers of the Michigan Legislature,” Right to Life of Michigan’s monthly newsletter reported in February 1985.
Monsma was running against Republican Vern Ehlers, a member of the state House, to fill an open seat in the Senate. According to a book about Ehlers’ political career, Monsma told one publication that he hoped the race would show “how Christians can run campaigns.”
The details of that single race in 1985 point to a larger trend: The changing politics of abortion. Over the last decade alone, Michigan has seen a striking shift within its own borders: The number of pro-life Democrats running for office has plummeted; and the groups funding the fight are providing less information about where their money is coming from.
Both trends are playing out as the 2020 presidential election awaits on the horizon. A reshaped U.S. Supreme Court could make state-level decisions on abortion even more crucial. Meanwhile, petition gatherers in Michigan are seeking to ban one abortion procedure.
Reporters from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network and the Michigan Public Radio Network reviewed two decades of campaign finance disclosures and talked to more than a dozen sources for this report.
“We are in a place now where there are very few anti-choice Democrats, but there are virtually no pro-choice Republicans,” explained Lori Carpentier, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan. “I think we’ve gotten to a place where we can’t even have discourse.”
Disclosures showed that in 2002, Right to Life of Michigan backed 35 Democrats for positions in the state Legislature. Of the 35 in 2002, 14 won seats.
In 2010, Right to Life of Michigan again backed 35 Democrats. Of the 35 in 2010, eight won seats in the Legislature.
In 2018, just eight years later, Right to Life of Michigan backed only two Democrats. Nether won a seat.
Both Carpentier, who leads an organization that provides health care services and supports abortion rights, and Barb Listing, president of the anti-abortion organization Right to Life of Michigan, agreed a political shift has taken place.
Carpentier said abortion has become the “defining element” in deciding whether candidates get challengers in partisan primaries.
Listing said there are Democrats who want Right to Life’s backing when they run for local offices, like county commission and sheriff, but don’t want the group’s backing when they seek higher positions in state government.
“What happens, unfortunately within the Democratic Party, is that when that person decides they’re going to run for higher office then they find that they don’t get the financial support (from Democratic groups),” Listing said, “or they have party members finding somebody to run against them.”
As for the two Democrats running for the Legislature in 2018, one was Cynthia Luczak of Bay City. She lost in a general election race for a state Senate seat. The other, Rhonda Barley of Redford Township, lost in a four-way primary race for the state House. The primary race included an incumbent seeking re-election.
“People don’t want to stand alone,” Barley said of why so few Democrats currently seek Right to Life’s backing. “In the political arena, everybody wants to be politically correct.”
A Governor And A Candidate For Leader
In 2010, the same year voters elected eight Right to Life-backed Democrats to the Legislature, they also chose a Republican who had been opposed by Right to Life for the governor’s office.
That Republican was a businessman from Ann Arbor named Rick Snyder. In the primary election in 2010, Right to Life spent $26,428 opposing Snyder and $71,370 supporting one of his opponents, Republican Attorney General Mike Cox.
Snyder got 36 percent of the vote in a five-way primary race to gain the party’s nomination.
He went on to win the general election and to serve two terms as Michigan’s top state officeholder. His record on abortion-related bills was mixed. In a single year, he vetoed a Right to Life-backed proposal to require that insurance coverage for abortions be offered only through supplemental riders but signed another proposal to set new regulations for abortion providers.
Carpentier described Snyder as “pragmatic.”
However, the number of people in Lansing who go against their parties’ traditional “pro-choice” and “pro-life” expectations dropped significantly during Snyder’s time in office.
Rep. Brian Elder, a Democrat from Bay City, had Right to Life’s backing when he first won election to the House in 2016. In 2018, Elder was considered a candidate to be the next House Democratic leader, and he didn’t seek Right to Life’s support in his second state House race.
“It was surprising to me to see how the organization called Right to Life operated down here in Lansing,” Elder explained in an interview. “And by the end of my first year here, I had just made the personal decision that I really wouldn’t be told what to do on any given bill. I would just make my own decisions. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of this, I didn’t want to be controversial in any way, but Right to Life was bothered by that.”
Elder argued that Right to Life had become more extreme in its positions and said he didn’t see why a Democrat would want to be associated with the organization.
In August 2018, Right to Life of Michigan slammed Elder in a blog post on its website suggesting he had changed his approach because he believed it would help him in the House Democratic leadership race. Right to Life of Michigan was also upset that Elder had introduced a bill that it called an attack on anti-abortion pregnancy centers.
“For shame, Rep. Elder. For shame,” the blog post said.
‘To Stray From That Position’
Former state Rep. Brandon Dillon, a Democrat from Grand Rapids, has also drawn criticism from Right to Life.
In 2010, Dillon won a seat in the state House with Right to Life’s backing. Later, he went on to become chair of the Michigan Democratic Party in 2015. That same year, he wrote a column explaining why he was now “pro-choice” on abortion. Dillon said the decision was a personal one that he arrived at after hearing stories from women who had experiences that he hadn’t been previously aware of.
“It was clear to me that I couldn’t vote for things that were going to take away a person’s right to choose,” Dillon said.
Dillon served as the Michigan Democratic Party’s chair until the beginning of 2019.
He predicted that the issue of abortion will see increasing division. A woman’s right to choose has become a “core issue” for Democrats and opposing that stance has become a core issue for Republicans, he said.
“It’s very difficult for any member … to stray from that position,” Dillon said.
Flushing Democrat John Gleason is one of those who has strayed from the party position. He is a former state lawmaker and the current Genesee County clerk. Gleason, who at one point in his life considered becoming a Catholic priest, said he will be pro-life until the day he dies.
Gleason noted that when Democrats last won the majority in the Michigan House in 2008, they did so because of a number of successful pro-life candidates, he said. Now, he’s worried that Democrats have turned too far to the left.
“There’s no question that Democrats pulled away from Right to Life,” he said. “No question.”
Where The Money Comes From
As the political landscape has changed and become more partisan on the issue of abortion, Right to Life of Michigan and Planned Parenthood have also changed their fundraising approaches.
Both organizations have social welfare nonprofits that work on public education around the issues important to them and that can occasionally get involved in politics. But they both also have political action committees (PACs), which focus on more heavily on politics.
Before 2014, they used traditional PACs to get directly involved in campaigns. For 2014 in the case of Planned Parenthood and for 2016 in the case of Right to Life,they began more heavily using so-called super PACs.
The difference is traditional PACs can only receive contributions from individuals whose names are disclosed in fundraising reports while super PACs can accept money from corporations, including nonprofit corporations that raise money from secret donors.
In the case of Right to Life, its main traditional PAC raised $170,205 in the 2010 election year. Half of the money came from two donors who are also major supporters of Republican candidates: Dick DeVos, president of the Windquest Group, gave $25,000; and C. Michael Kojaian, executive with Kojaian Management, gave $70,000.
Eight years later, in 2018, Right to Life’s traditional PAC raised just $650. Its super PAC, the Right to Life of Michigan Victory Fund, which formed in 2015, raised $201,430. Almost all of the money, $199,484, came from a nonprofit corporation that didn’t have to disclose its donors, Right to Life of Michigan.
The story is similar with Planned Parenthood. Its super PAC, Michigan Planned Parenthood Votes, formed in 2014.
Before then, its main PAC was Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan. In 2010, the traditional PAC raised $366,348 with $300,000 coming from major Democratic donor Jon Stryker, a philanthropist originally from Kalamazoo.
In 2018, however, the traditional PAC raised just $29,320. The super PAC raised $1.3 million. The two largest contributors were a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit called America Votes gave $654,000, and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, a social welfare nonprofit organization, gave $450,000. Neither of the nonprofits had to disclose the names of donors under Michigan campaign finance law.
Angela Vasquez Giroux, director of communications for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, said super PACs are “a standard component of an advocacy toolbox” in the post-Citizens United world of campaign finance. Citizens United was a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred governments from limiting political spending by corporations and labor unions that’s done independent of candidates. The decision helped give rise to super PACs.
“We can continue to communicate on our issues without being limited to working directly with candidates,” Vasquez Giroux said.
Right to Life’s Barbara Listing expressed a similar reason for the organization using a super PAC. Listing said that it’s necessary to grow the organization.
The PACs of Right to Life and Planned Parenthood spend more heavily communicating with their supporters to inform them about candidates’ stances than they do giving money to candidates.
In 2016, Right to Life of Michigan ran about $350,000 in television ads about the presidential election without even naming a candidate. The ads talked about the election’s stakes and asked viewers to “vote for life in 2016.”
“In his or her term, this president will likely appoint three if not four Supreme Court justices,” the ad said. It continued later, “A pro-abortion president with pro-abortion appointees could solidify the court for the next three decades.”
The spending fell outside of campaign finance disclosure requirements because the ads didn’t name a candidate.
Currently, Republicans hold a 5-4 advantage on the U.S. Supreme Court. And the future of the court and its rulings could hang in the balance during the 2020 presidential election, once again pushing the issue of abortion the center stage.
Adrian Hemond, a political consultant and president of the firm Grassroots Midwest, said while gun rights may be “in the neighborhood,” there is no other issue that inspires voters quite like abortion. But he also noted that there are still many folks in the middle with ambivalent attitudes about abortion.
“They’re not for abortion. They wish there should be fewer abortions. They don’t think it should be completely outlawed,” he explained. “But whether you identify yourself as pro-life or pro-choice is one of those cultural totems that we have divided ourselves along now.”
In that 1985 special election for the Michigan Senate, both candidates stood on the same side of what’s becoming a growing divide. Democrat Stephen Monsma and Republican Vern Ehlers identified themselves as pro-life.
With the majority in the Senate hanging in the balance, Right to Life of Michigan’s endorsement decision came down to its own processes, not politics. Because Monsma had once held the Senate seat and had done so with an anti-abortion voting record, Right to Life of Michigan’s processes called for it to endorse him, Listing remembered.
While the endorsement of Monsma runs counter to what usually happens today, so does the result: Ehlers was a Republican who was able to win without Right to Life’s backing in the general election.
Editor's Note: Craig Mauger of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network contributed to this story.