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Story highlights

Sanders said such moves are necessary 'if we're going to become a 50-state party'

NARAL's head called the move 'politically stupid'

(CNN) —  

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders on Sunday stood by his decision to back a Democratic candidate whose record on abortion has drawn fire from many in the party.

Late last week, Sanders joined Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello for a rally supporting his bid to oust Republican incumbent Jean Stothert as leader of the largest city in Nebraska.

Many Democrats expressed outrage over the endorsement, but in an interview Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” the Vermont senator and 2016 presidential hopeful made a case for pragmatism in a state with significant GOP control, saying it was the kind of thing Democrats needed to do “if we’re going to become a 50-state party.”

While Nebraska Republicans on the whole have a firm grip on power, controlling the governor’s office, the state house and both US Senate seats, Omaha itself isn’t impossible territory for Democratic candidates, including, most famously in recent years, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, who won an electoral vote there in 2008 under the state’s unique allocation rules.

“If you have a rally in which you have the labor movement and environmentalists and Native Americans and the African American community and the Latino community coming together saying, ‘We want this guy to become our next mayor,’ should I reject going there to Omaha?” Sanders asked. “I don’t think so. It was a great rally, and I hope very much he wins.”

Mello developed an anti-abortion image and record during his time in Nebraska’s state legislature, where he has served since 2009. For example, in his first year there, he signed onto a bill mandating a doctor performing an abortion offer the woman an ultrasound. He told the Associated Press at the time it was a “positive first step to reducing the number of abortions in Nebraska.”

Sanders said Stothert’s positions were much further to the right than Mello’s and mentioned that she would soon have a rally with a nationally known conservative, Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, released a statement Thursday calling Sanders’ support for Mello “politically stupid.”

“Abortion access is not a ‘single issue’ or a ‘social issue,” Hogue said. “It is a proxy for women to have control over our lives, our family’s lives, our economic well-being, our dignity, and human rights.”

Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, who spent the week traveling around the country with Sanders but didn’t attend the rally with Mello, issued a statement Thursday saying he “unequivocally” stood by the party’s platform on supporting abortion rights and followed that up with a series of tweets on Friday saying he would sit down with female leaders in the party to reaffirm the party’s position.

In his interview Sunday, Sanders touted his record of support for abortion rights and slammed Republicans for seeking to shut off money to Planned Parenthood, a women’s health organization that provides abortion services.

Mello told the Huffington Post that he would not restrict access to reproductive care as mayor.