The retirement of Rep. Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who shot to prominence over the abortion issue in the healthcare reform debate, represents a blow to the Democratic Party in its battle to retain control of the House this fall.
Congressman Stupak fought to prevent the healthcare legislation from allowing federal funds to be spent on abortion, and in so doing, won enemies among both supporters and opponents of abortion rights. His ultimate vote for the bill displeased abortion foes, who said the final version did not do enough to hinder federal spending on abortion.
In a statement Friday afternoon, announcing that he would retire at the end of his term, Stupak touted healthcare reform as a signal achievement of his 18 years in Congress.
“When I first ran for Congress in 1992, I campaigned on a pledge to make affordable, quality healthcare a right, not a privilege for all Americans,” Stupak said. “After 18 years, together we have accomplished what you sent me to Washington to do.”
Stupak passionate about healthcare
Stupak was so passionate about the healthcare issue that he pledged not to accept the Federal Employees Health Benefit Package that members of Congress receive until all Americans had access to the same quality of care.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report immediately moved Stupak’s seat, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, from “solid Democratic” to “toss-up.” Stupak’s profile – social conservative, pro-labor – fit that of his district, and he is personally popular. President Obama won the district by the smallest margin of any he won in the 2008 election.
“To keep this seat in the current political environment, Democrats will need to field a culturally conservative candidate with impeccable northern Michigan credentials,” the Cook report writes.
Open seats represent the greatest danger of changing partisan hands, especially in swing districts. In 1994, when the Republicans swept the Democrats out of power in Congress, the Democrats had to defend about two dozen “highly vulnerable Democratic open seats,” according to the Cook report. As of now, the Democrats are defending only half as many open seats.
Stupak already faced a challenge in the Democratic primary, in addition to Republican opposition. Now, with the seat open, candidates from both parties are expected to flood the field.
Pushed out by the 'tea party'?
Earlier this week, the antitax “tea party” movement launched an advertising campaign against Stupak over his support for Mr. Obama’s health reform. The group Tea Party Express, which had also raised money for the successful campaign of Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts, aimed to raise $250,000 for ads against Stupak.
But Stupak insists the tea party played no role in his decision to retire.
“The tea party did not run me out,” he told the Associated Press. “If you know me and my personality, I would welcome the challenge.”
In his retirement announcement, Stupak noted that he considered retiring during the past several election cycles, “when it seemed like healthcare reform was an impossible dream in Washington….”
But, he said, he felt he still had work to do, both on healthcare and other issues, such as the Iraq war, which he opposed, and on industry oversight. With the election of Obama, Stupak said he saw an opportunity finally to enact health reform, and so he stayed.
During the final months of healthcare debate, Stupak’s leadership in the House Pro-Life Caucus thrust him into the national spotlight in a way he had never experienced – not all of it pleasant. He and his family received death threats and had to unplug their home phone. In an interview in the Hill newspaper a week before the bill’s final approval, Stupak described his life as “a living hell.”