Pennsylvania Senate Primary Becomes About Abortion

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The tumultuous primary for the Republican Senate nomination in Pennsylvania is fast becoming a referendum on abortion. The contenders appear to have given their all in the final days of the race about abortion rights — and how everyone would work to ensure those rights fall on par with Prohibition Roe v. calf has tipped over. The extreme views espoused by the candidates resonate with activists, the small circle of voters who want to return to 1972, and the anti-abortion rights tweeter, but they are largely outside the mainstream, even among Republicans.

And it could end up costing Republicans a shot at a Senate majority.

Pennsylvania is the first GOP Senate race to prioritize abortion rights. (Ohio’s primary last Tuesday came immediately after the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn roe; About one in eight Republican votes had already been cast early before Politico landed its bombshell late Monday.) Now the races in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have turned into a right-wing rush that has had establishment Republicans quietly moaning, that competitors could negotiate an advantage over the economy, which is consistently the top issue for voters, for a politically backward issue. In a Fox News poll conducted immediately before the leak, abortion didn’t even make the top ten list of issues, and 63% of voters said so roe should stand — including 51% of Republicans and 64% of voters who identify as independent.

In other words, Republicans who are redirecting their race to abortion from the economy may do well on local GOP clubs and on social media, but allowing — or encouraging — abortion to overtake the economy and inflation, gives a potential mature raft of earnings rhetoric to a broader constituency of voters. Trading jabs on Twitter might feel good and help with fundraising, but it’s not where most voters are. As a former spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, Sarah Isgur is rightly considered RemarksPaying 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 that’s from the poles of American politics, according to Pew data.

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

It was a keen challenge for rival Mehmet Oz, the TV doctor who won former President Donald Trump’s confirmation in the race. Oz tells voters the only exception to abortion should be to protect the life of the pregnant person and omit cases of rape and incest. After the dramatic confrontation, Oz told reporters that “life begins at conception.” That was a change for Oz, who in 2019 seemed to devalue those who believe life begins at the moment of conception: “If you believe you have life at the moment of conception, why wait six weeks in the first place?” Right, then an in vitro fertilized egg is still life,” he said on syndicated radio show The Breakfast Club.

Oz’s rightward trend on the issue largely mirrors that of Trump, who himself has had a public development on abortion rights, from “I’m very pro-choice” in 1999 to winning over the anti-abortion rights groups with promises from the judges who now ready to undo roe. Trump eventually supported exceptions in cases of rape, incest and threats to the life of the mother – the same position most Republican candidates have held for decades.

In a surprisingly effective save, another candidate used the same debate to trace Oz’s past stance on abortion rights, betting that the previous comments could prove disqualifying among conservative voters. Former hedge fund CEO David McCormick called Oz an aloof figure hiding behind Trump’s endorsement to excuse his inconsistency. “This is another example of you being wrong about the positions you are taking,” said McCormick, who was undersecretary of the Treasury Department during George W. Bush’s administration. McCormick has also advocated an almost blanket ban on abortion, except “in the very rare cases there should be exceptions for the life of the mother.” (He and his allies outperform Oz by a 2-to-1 ratio. Barnette, who has the momentum on her side, is outperformed 358-to-1.)

But these increasingly reactionary positions could trip candidates up in general elections, particularly in Pennsylvania, a state that backed Trump by 0.7 percentage points in 2016 and backed Joe Biden by 1.2 percentage points four years later. By making abortion such a central issue, Republican candidates are all tumbling into political terrain more consistent with the fringes in a swing state that will decide the balance of power in the Senate for the second half of Biden’s first term could.

Polls show a muddled race with Oz, McCormick and Barnette all within striking distance of victory at the ballot box next week. But polls also show that abortion isn’t what’s likely to determine outcome. In a poll conducted prior to the Supreme Court leak, just 3% of Republicans named abortion as their top issue.

It would be tempting for Republicans to say that the rapid change in orthodoxy is limited to Pennsylvania. But that’s not right, and it could cost her party a return to the Senate majority this year.

In Georgia, all six candidates for the Republican Senate nomination have made total opposition to abortion rights without exception. In North Carolina, Trump-backed contender Rep. Ted Budd also appears to have advocated a total abortion ban. And the Trump-backed Ohio candidate, who won the primary just a week ago and is on his way to general, says “two mistakes don’t make a right” and that exceptions for rape and incest are redundant.

Taking these positions could be good fodder for the most eager primary voters and secure much-coveted Trump approval. But there is a price. What sometimes feels like seismic shifts have absolutely no impact on elections. Strategists from across the spectrum have concluded that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this fall, for example, will not change votes, nor will the successful rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine. Smart candidates cannot entirely ignore the cultural tremors, but they can also sometimes overestimate their importance in their own races.

No credible polls suggest that abortion is a win for most voters, especially women and suburbanites. Time and again, marginal campaigns by both parties do not survive the general race against their rivals. Straying so far outside the conservative mainstream can give the contenders a quick upswing in a primary, but they may be playing with rhetoric that will hopelessly throw them off course next November.

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write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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