Earlier this morning, The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder broke news that Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak will retire, which has since been confirmed by the Associated Press. As followers of the health-care debate now know well, Stupak was the representative who pushed for stringent abortion language in the health-care bill. His departure comes in the face of entreaties from Democrat leaders, including Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), encouraging the nine-term Democrat to have another go at it.
Stupak’s departure does not really surprise me. By time the final vote rolled around, the Michigan Democrat had essentially driven himself into a corner where he was certain to please no one. Stupak spent the entire health-care debate pushing for particularly restrictive language that, at the last minute, he decided wasn’t actually necessary. Recall this behind-the-scenes bit from my colleague Jonathan Alter on how the health-care debate went down:
Stupak had lost his leverage after he insulted nuns on television and, lacking the support of the Catholic Hospital Association and other Catholic groups, found that the backing of the bishops was no longer enough to give him much clout. Several of his pro-life colleagues—like Rep. Marcy Kaptur—had already announced their support for the bill. So it was no surprise that an agreement by President Obama to restate the obvious in an executive order (that the Hyde amendment banning federal funding of abortion was still in effect) would be enough to secure Stupak's vote.
So when the health-care debate came to a close, Stupak had managed to get himself onto both NARAL and NRLC’s hit lists, a rare feat for a politician.
In a reelection bid, Stupak would have faced challengers from every angle. It would be an incredibly high-profile race for an incumbent accustomed to winning Michigan's First District with large margins and little national attention. NOW, NARAL and Planned Parenthood had all endorsed Stupak's pro–abortion rights challenger, Connie Saltonstall. Meanwhile, one of his Republican challengers, Dan Benishek, recently appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show.
With nearly every group in abortion politics gunning for his seat, and death threats pouring in to his congressional office, it’s pretty easy to see how Stupak could decide to sit this one out.
What I’m most interested to watch, though, is whether Stupak’s resignation could be a harbinger of fissures between Democrats and their anti–abortion rights members. As I wrote in an article last week, Democrats have increasingly gravitated to such candidates as a way to pick up contested swing districts. Will this vicious fight over abortion have them rethinking that strategy? Moreover, do anti–abortion rights Democrats feel like they have place within the party? Granted, abortion won't play a role in most congressional debates in the immediate future but health-care reform certainly revived an intraparty tension that laid dormant for some time now.