How Midwestern Democrats confronted “the abortion issue”

Whether a relic of a bygone era or totally applicable lesson in Democratic messaging, there’s a historical example for how Midwestern Democrats responded when confronted with anti-abortion rhetoric.

The caveat, mostly because it’s a hot-button issue: My purpose here is not to suggest anything about a woman’s safe, legal, private right to an abortion. It is to note historical lessons on politics and campaigning in the Midwest, using “abortion” as a medium for that discussion. That said, I’ll feel kind of cool if I get denied Communion just for writing about the issue.

In 1978 and 1980, on the Sundays before primary and Election Day, voters in some Midwestern states returned to their cars after church services to find a flyer tucked under their windshield or an activist waiting on the sidewalk just off church property to hand them a flyer whose message was unequivocal.

Flyer labeled "Who cares about the unborn child? You should know before Nov. 4"
Gaylord Nelson Papers

“VOTE FOR THE UNBORN!” they proclaimed in all-caps.

“Who cares about the unborn child? You should know before Nov. 4!” others declared.

These smears sank Democratic and Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL, the Democratic Party in Minnesota), often liberal, campaigns. Tagged to Rudy Perpich, they likely threw the 1978 Minnesota governor’s race to Independent-Republican Al Quie. Applied to Minnette Doderer, they sank an outspoken feminist’s campaign for lieutenant governor in Iowa in 1978. Targeting three-term incumbent Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, they caught established liberals off-guard and led to state-level consequences of the “Reagan Revolution”.1

Midwestern liberals did not solve these issues overnight. Indeed, some left the party — in Minnesota alone those included Tad June, two-time DFL-turned-IR candidate for U.S. House and Hennepin County Attorney, longtime State Rep. Steve Wenzel of Little Falls, and, depending on who you ask, a good number of Iron Range DFLers turned off by what they see as the “metropolitan” flavor of the modern Democratic Party.

There’s a lot to deal with there, and my point here isn’t to deep-dive every single issue that led some of those folks to declare, wrongly, “the party left me.” (That’s not how that works, guys. Sorry.) Rather, it’s to consider the ways in which Minnesota DFLers–and, broadly, Midwestern liberals, because I”m not just a historian of the DFL–overcame “the abortion issue”.

Throughout the 1980s, the DFL dealt with resolutions and petitions from members, like one in 1989, relaying that:

We are concerned about a proposal to use $50,000 of DFL Party funds to actively identify and encourage abortion-rights activists to attend party caucuses and conventions. The DFL Party has historically been a party with broad-based support, and has welcomed people supporting a wide range of issues. The use of Party money to support one position on a specific issue is unprecedented. In addition, it signals those who hold a contrary position on abortion rights that they are not welcome in the DFL Party.

[Author not identified] to DFL Central Committee Members, September 27, 1989, 1. Box 22, Folder 4, DFL Papers, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, MN.

Under the leadership of party chair Mike Hatch, the DFL in the early 1980s had downplayed and marginalized the abortion issue, rewriting caucusing threshold rules to quiet angry, often-conflicting intraparty interest groups from the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) to the DFL Feminist Caucus (DFLFC).

While groups like the DFLFC remained committed to their causes, other campaigners sympathetic to abortion rights understood the lessons of 1978 and sought to cut off anti-abortion flyering in the 1990s. Some, like North Dakota congressman and eventual Sen. Byron Dorgan, legend has it, responded to one leading anti-abortion question in conservative northeastern North Dakota win a 10-minute filibuster on the Farm Bill that left the crowd shaking their heads.

Others took the issue head-on.

“Two days before the election” White Bear Lake state senate candidate Kevin Chandler had, to the Star-Tribune, “just been whacked below the belt.” Emerging from church the Sunday before Election Day, Chandler found that cars across his White Bear Lake-North St. Paul district had been “plastered” with anti-abortion fliers.

This time, though, the DFL was ready.

With the help of the Wellstone Alliance, at the time a campaign arm of just three people, Chandler blanketed his district with fliers explaining his position, a strategy devised by Wellstone Alliance staffer Dan Cramer:

Don’t blast the opposition for distorting your position. Go to the voters. Deliver a flyer to every residence in your district clearly stating your support for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortions.

Jim Parsons, “Alliance has winning ways,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, November 16, 1992, 1B.

In one day, Chandler followed Cramer’s advice. In two days, he was a new state senator.

Minneapolis Star-Tribune, November 16, 1992, 1B. Screenshot from

But the Wellstone Alliance had not planned to be, as the Star Tribune put it, “a political SWAT team.” Rather, to Cramer, “We believe in empowering people. And we know a lot about running low-budget, people-oriented grass-roots campaigns. We want to share that knowledge with progressive candidates at all levels — county boards, mayors, city councils — not just the Legislature and Congress.”

That last point feels particularly poignant in 2022, an era of made-up “Critical Race Theory” charges leveled against school boards and urban myths about litter boxes worming their way into the rhetoric of even the GOP candidate for governor in Minnesota.

These Democrats–and voters–had successfully shifted the issue in the early 1990s. Many–even Catholics like Harkin or Tom Daschle of South Dakota–referred either to Roe v. Wade as “settled law” or to abortion rights as “freedom” from government interference in states where mistrust of the federal government runs deep. Even in North Dakota, in 1992, Republican gubernatorial candidate and eventual general election winner Ed Schafer wrote his eventual running mate, Rosemarie Mydral,

[Only] 5% of people in North Dakota see abortion as the most important issue… I do not shy away from the abortion debate. And I am not asking you to ignore the abortion issue in shaping your decision. But I hope we use every headline, every news clip and every ounce of our convention energy to show voters that we care deeply about how they are going to meet their mortgage, pay their bills, and put their kids through school.

Ed Schafer to Rosemarie Myrdal, March 6, 1992, 1. Box 3.1, Folder 17, Rosemarie Myrdal Papers, Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND.

There’s a longer history to be told–and, hell, I’m working on it in my manuscript-in-progress (and under contract!)–on abortion rights in Fargo, where the Jane Bovard-led Fargo Women’s Health Organization defended its abortion clinic from bombings, protests, and injunctions. They won, and the tenor around abortion shifted not just for Schafer but across the Upper Midwest. In Wisconsin, in 1990, incumbent Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson received similar advice from his pollsters and, at their advice, moderated his stance on the abortion issue.

Rudy Perpich, increasingly erratic but still a pro-life advocate, lost re-election in 1990 to last-minute, pro-choice I-R candidate Arne Carlson, who some crossed over to vote for in the primary and general election. After using their pro-choice stand to defeat Attorney General Tom Miller in the Iowa Democratic gubernatorial primary, the ticket of Don Avenson and JoAnn Zimmerman lost to two-term incumbent and pro-life Gov. Terry Branstad. Ardently pro-choice Wellstone won after not shying away from the issue in debates with primary challenger and Agriculture Commissioner Jim Nichols in 1990, the same year Tom Harkin won in Iowa after vowing “I am pro-choice.” Suggesting that the abortion issue alone decided a race is silly, but understanding its potential to boost or undermine a campaign is important.2

We know a lot about running low-budget, people-oriented grass-roots campaigns. We want to share that knowledge with progressive candidates at all levels — county boards, mayors, city councils — not just the Legislature and Congress.

Dan Cramer (Wellstone alliance), November 1992

It’s worth noting that Democrats in 1992 were able to campaign on the economy, rather than abortion. And it’s worth noting plenty of pro-choice Democrats, particularly women, lost because of their outspoken positions; see, for example, 1982 gubernatorial candidate Roxanne Conlin of Iowa. These positions are not a one-size-fits-all historical lesson.

But Wellstone Alliance–which faded after 1996, its legacy picked up from 2002 to 2018 by the candidate-training Wellstone Action, which counts as alumni folks like the current gubernatorial battery of Tim Walz and Peggy Flanagan–had found a unique approach to counteracting the anti-abortion rhetoric so powerful at the outset of the Reagan Revolution. Rather than just filibuster the issue or change the subject, it clearly articulated its approach way down-ballot: if those issues were misrepresented at the hyper-local level, Wellstone liberals (some might say “progressive populists”) fought the issue head-on.

“Empowering people” while staying true to their beliefs, framing abortion rights in a language of local control, and confronting political mudslinging head-on: Midwestern liberals who fought for abortion rights in the early 1990s did not always win, but they defined the campaign, rather than letting it define them.

1 Benjamin M. Schierer, “Rudy Returns and Minnesota Pivots: The 1982 Election for Minnesota Governor,” Minnesota History (Fall 2022): 94; Flyer titled “Your vote in the Primary is CRUCIAL!” c. June 1978, Minnette Doderer Papers, Box 23, Folder “1978 Contribution Complaint”, Iowa Women’s Archives, Iowa City, IA; Flyer published by Wisconsin Pro-Life Action Committee, c. November 1980. Box 50, Folder 16. Gaylord Nelson Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin Archives Division, Madison, WI.
2 Holly Mullen, “Showdown Over Choice,” Twin Cities Reader, September 11, 1990; Letter labeled “Dear friend” c. 1984, Box 91-004, Folder 16, Jim Abdnor Papers, South Dakota State Historical Society Archives, Pierre, SD; “Transcript: Iowa Press,” November 12, 1989, 4. Legislative Working Files, Subseries 1, Box 8, Folder 13, Tom Harkin Papers, Drake University, Des Moines, IA. Amusingly, even Harkin’s thoughts on abortion were found in a folder labeled “Harkin-Tauke Ag Issues”.

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