Pennsylvania Senate primary becomes an abortion issue
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The rowdy primary for the Republican Senate nomination in Pennsylvania quickly turns into an abortion referendum. The contenders seem to have dedicated the final days of the race to abortion rights — and how each would work to ensure those rights are relegated to a point in history on par with Prohibition if Roe vs. Wade is overturned. The extreme views espoused by the candidates resonate with the full spectrum of activists, the narrow slice of voters who want to go back to 1972 and Twitter against abortion rights, but they are largely out of the mainstream, even among Republicans.
And that could end up costing the Republicans their chance to secure a majority in the Senate.
Pennsylvania is the first competitive GOP Senate race where abortion rights are front and center. (Last Tuesday’s Ohio primary came in the immediate wake of a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that would strike down deer; about one in eight Republican votes had already been cast early before Politico dropped its bombshell late Monday.) Now the races in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have become a right-wing scramble that has left establishment Republicans quietly moaning that the contenders could trade an advantage on the economy, which is still the most important topic for voters, for a politically remote one. In a Fox News poll taken just before the leak, abortion didn’t even make the top ten list and 63% of voters said deer should run, including 51% Republicans and 64% of voters who describe themselves as independents.
In other words, Republicans refocusing their races on the abortion economy may get away with it with local GOP clubs and on social media, but allow — or encourage — abortion to overtake the economy and inflation yields ripe potential for winning rhetoric for a wider swath of voters. Exchanging jabs on Twitter might sound nice and help with fundraising, but that’s not where most voters are. As former Republican National Committee spokeswoman Sarah Isgur rightly Remarks, paying too much attention to Twitter is a recipe for irrelevance; only 1% of the entire US population uses the platform to regularly comment on politics and they do so from the poles of US politics, according to Pew data.
But none of that seems to matter in Pennsylvania’s race to be the Republican nominee to replace incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey. Two days after the Supreme Court’s draft ruling was leaked, contender 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 wasn’t just a bunch of cells.”
It was a tall order to compete against Mehmet Oz, the TV doctor who won former President Donald Trump’s endorsement in the race. Oz tells voters that the only exception to abortion should be to protect the life of the pregnant person, omitting cases of rape and incest. After the dramatic confrontation, Oz told reporters that “life begins at conception.” It was a game-changer for Oz, which in 2019 seemed to dismiss those who believe that life begins at conception: “If you think at conception you have a life, then why would you even wait six weeks ? Okay, so an in vitro fertilized egg is still life,” he said on syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club.”
Oz’s lean to the right on the issue largely mirrors that of Trump, who himself had a public swing on abortion rights between “I’m very pro-choice” in 1999 and winning over advocacy groups anti-abortion rights with the promises of judges who are now ready to overturn deer. Trump eventually came out in favor of exceptions in cases of rape, incest and threats to the life of the mother — the same stance most Republican candidates have taken for decades.
With a surprisingly effective parry, another candidate used the same debate to pursue Oz’s earlier position on abortion rights, betting that previous comments might prove disqualifying to conservative voters. Former hedge fund CEO David McCormick cast Oz as an out-of-touch figure hiding behind Trump’s endorsement to excuse his inconsistency. “This is another example of how bogus you are in terms of the positions you put forward,” said McCormick, who was the Treasury Department’s undersecretary during the George W. Bush administration. McCormick also took a position in favor of a near blanket ban on abortion, except that “in very rare cases there should be exceptions for the life of the mother”. (He and his allies spend more Oz by a 2-to-1 margin. Barnette, who has momentum on his side, is outscored 358-to-1.)
But those increasingly reactionary stances could trip up candidates in the general election, particularly in Pennsylvania, a state that jumped from going with Trump in 2016 by 0.7 percentage points to backing Joe Biden four years later. by 1.2 percentage points. By making abortion such a central issue, the Republican candidates are all rushing to political ground 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 the first term of Biden.
Polls show a muddled race, with Oz, McCormick and Barnette all within reach of victory at the polls next week. But the polls also show that abortion is not what is likely to decide the outcome. In a poll taken before the Supreme Court leak, only 3% of Republicans named abortion their top issue.
It would be tempting for Republicans to say that the rapid change in orthodoxy is confined to Pennsylvania. But that’s not right, and it could cost their party a return to a Senate majority this year.
In Georgia, the six candidates for the Republican nomination for the Senate took outright opposition to the right to abortion without exclusion. In North Carolina, the Trump-backed candidate, Rep. Ted Budd, also appears to have advocated for a complete ban on abortions. And the Trump-backed candidate from Ohio, who won the primary just a week ago and is heading for the general, says “two wrongs don’t make a right” and exceptions for rape and incest are superfluous.
Taking these positions can be good fodder for the most ardent primary voters, and it can secure Trump’s coveted endorsement. But there is a cost. Sometimes what looks like seismic shifts have absolutely no impact on elections. Strategists from all walks of life have concluded that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine won’t change any votes this fall, for example, nor will the successful deployment of a COVID-19 vaccine. Clever candidates can’t entirely ignore cultural jerks, but they can also sometimes overestimate their importance in their own races.
No credible polls suggest that the hard right on abortion is a winning issue for most voters, especially women and suburban dwellers. Time and time again, the campaigns of either side that cater to the margins fail to hold up against the overall race against the rival. Drifting so far from the conservative mainstream can have contenders in a primary buzzing fast, but they can play with rhetoric that will send them desperately off course come November.
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