Pennsylvania Senate Primary Becomes About Abortion

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It is becoming increasingly clear that the Pennsylvania Republican Senate Nominational Race has become a referendum on abortion. The contenders seem to have made the final days of the race all about abortion rights—and how each would work to make sure those rights are relegated to a blip in history on par with Prohibition if Roe v. WadeThis is irreversible. The extreme views being espoused by the candidates are resonating with the activist set, the narrow slice of voters who want to return to 1972, and anti-abortion-rights Twitter, but they’re broadly out of the mainstream, even among Republicans.

It could cost Republicans the chance to win a majority in Senate.

Pennsylvania is the only competitive GOP Senate race in which abortion rights have been at the forefront. (Ohio’s primary last Tuesday took place in the immediate wake of the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn RoeOne-in-eight Republican votes had been cast by Monday night before Politico dropped its bombshell. The races are now hurried rightward in Pennsylvania. This has led to establishment Republicans grumbling that they may have given up an edge on the economy. It is a topic that voters value the most. In a Fox News poll conducted immediately before the leak, abortion didn’t even crack the top-ten list of issues and 63% of voters said Roe should stand—including 51% of Republicans and 64% of voters who describe themselves as independent.

In other words, Republicans refocusing their races to abortion from the economy may fare well with the local GOP clubs and on social media, but allowing—or encouraging—abortion to overtake the economy and inflation surrenders a potential ripe raft of winning rhetoric for a broader swath of voters. Trading jabs on Twitter may feel good and help with fundraising, but it isn’t where most voters are. Sarah Isgur is the former Republican National Committee spokeswoman. notesPaying too much attention on Twitter can lead to irrelevance. According to Pew data, only 1% of Americans use Twitter to comment regularly on politics. They do this from the poles in American politics.

But none of this seems to matter in Pennsylvania’s race to be the Republican candidate vying to replace retiring Sen. Pat Toomey. Two days after the Supreme Court’s draft decision leaked, candidate Kathy Barnette, an Army veteran and author, said during a debate that she was the product of the rape of her 11-year-old mother: “I was not just a lump of cells.”

It was a sharp challenge to rival Mehmet Oz, the TV doctor who won former President Donald Trump’s endorsement in the race. Oz told voters that only cases of rape or incest should be considered exceptions to the ban on abortion. After the dramatic confrontation, Oz told reporters that “life starts at conception.” This was a change for Oz, who in 2019 appeared to discount those who believe life begins at the moment of conception: “If you think that the moment of conception you’ve got a life, then why would you even wait six weeks? Right, then an in-vitro fertilized egg is still a life,” he said on the syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club.”

Oz’s trend rightward on the issue broadly mirrors Trump’s, who himself had a public evolution on abortion rights between “I’m very pro-choice” in 1999 to winning over the anti-abortion rights groups with promises of the judges who now are poised to undo Roe. Trump ultimately came down in support of exceptions in cases of rape, incest, and threats to the life of the mother—the same position most Republican candidates have adopted for decades.

With a surprisingly effective parry, another candidate used the same debate to prosecute Oz’s earlier stance on abortion rights, betting that the prior comments may prove disqualifying with conservative voters. Former hedge fund CEO David McCormick cast Oz as an out-of-touch figure who hides behind Trump’s endorsement to excuse his inconsistency. “It’s another example of you being phony in terms of the positions you’re putting forward,” said McCormick, who was the undersecretary of the Treasury Department during George W. Bush’s administration. McCormick, too, has adopted a stance for an almost-blanket ban on abortion except “in the very rare instances there should be exceptions for the life of the mother.” (He and his allies are outspending Oz by a 2-to-1 margin. Barnette is a woman with momentum and she’s being outspent by 358 to 1.

These increasingly reactionary positions may prove to be a problem for the candidates in the general election. This is especially true in Pennsylvania which went from backing Trump four years ago by 0.7 percentage point to supporting Joe Biden by 1.2 percentage point in 2016. By making abortion such a central issue, the Republican candidates are all lurching into policy terrain that resonates better with the fringe in a swing state that could decide the balance of power in the Senate for the second half of Biden’s first term.

According to polling, there is a mixed race with Oz, McCormick and Barnette within touching distance of winning next week’s election. But polling also shows abortion isn’t what’s likely to decide the outcome. A poll that was taken prior to the Supreme Court leak showed only 3% of Republicans considered abortion their most important issue.

Republicans might be tempted to claim that the sudden shift in orthodoxy was confined to Pennsylvania. It is incorrect and could lead to their party losing the Senate majority.

The six Republican candidates running for Senate are all against abortion rights in Georgia. North Carolina’s Trump-backed candidate, Rep. Ted Budd appears to have also advocated for an absolute ban on abortions. And Ohio’s Trump-backed nominee, who won the primary just a week ago and is headed to the general, says “two wrongs don’t make a right” and that exceptions for rape and incest are superfluous.

These positions could be good for primary voters who are most passionate, as well as a way to secure Trump’s endorsement. There is however a price. It is not uncommon for seismic changes to have a negligible impact on elections. Strategists from across the spectrum have concluded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine won’t change any votes this fall, for example, any more than the successful rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine will. Smart candidates can’t entirely ignore the cultural quakes, but they also can sometimes overread their significance in their own races.

There is no credible polling that suggests abortion rights are a popular issue among voters. This includes suburbanites and women. Time and again, campaigns of either party that cater to the fringes don’t weather the general race against the rival. Although they can get a buzz from supporting the fringes of the conservative mainstream, it may not be enough to win them a general election.

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