March 24, 2023

That the Pennsylvania Democratic Party’s attempt to overthrow Stephens, a 12-year-old incumbent in suburban Philadelphia, was entirely focused on abortion illustrates how much the fall of roe has turned political conventions on its head.

As the number of states with near-total abortion bans continues to rise four months after the fall of the Supreme Court Roe v. WadeDemocrats across the country are arguing that even Republicans who support abortion rights should not be trusted in state or federal positions — forcing candidates like Stephens to distance themselves from their party for their own political survival.

“I vote for my district, not my party,” Stephens told POLITICO. “And I hope my fellow Republicans will look at what’s going on in Pennsylvania and across the country regarding this issue and recognize that some of the bills they’ve introduced are extreme and dangerous for women.”

His challenger, former state legislative staffer Melissa Cerrato, dismissed this as “lip service.”

“We need someone who will stand up, do the work and fight for the values ​​of our community,” she said. “Todd is too passive. We deserve better.”

Abortion groups that once supported candidates on both sides of the aisle agree, citing the higher stakes now that states have the green light to ban the procedure.

Planned Parenthood’s Pennsylvania PAC, which Stephens endorsed in 2018 and 2020, now supports Cerrato.

“We are disappointed by Todd Stephens’ tenure in the legislature,” said Lindsey Mauldin, the group’s director of coordinated programs. “This year’s elections are too important to settle for semi-consistent views on sexual and reproductive health.”

While abortion remains legal in Pennsylvania — and the state has become a haven for patients traveling from Ohio, West Virginia and other states with new restrictions — Republican lawmakers have said they plan to bypass the governor and veto a measure next year. that asks voters to change the state constitution to say there is no protection for abortion.

Citing this, Cerrato insists that the only way to protect access to proceedings is to secure a Democratic majority in Harrisburg. And her district is one of dozens of Democrats saying they must win to reverse control of the state house for the first time in 30 years. In addition to strong public support for abortion rights, candidates like Cerrato are also benefiting from new court-ordered legislative cards that are expected to make her district and many others more competitive.

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As she knocked on doors as part of her effort to turn the chair, several voters told POLITICO that after years of voting for Stephens, they now support her — and abortion is a top priority.

“I am certainly motivated by the loss of rights. I don’t want that to happen to my daughter and future generations,” said Jean Michelle DeNardo. “I’ve voted for him in the past, but the stakes are different now. There’s bigger things at stake that should take precedence over the more local issues, which I think he’s done well. There’s just a different level of urgency.”

Around the bend on that same street, retired nurse Shelly Reader shared a similar story, saying she had voted for Stephens repeatedly but now “100 percent” trusts Cerrato to protect abortion rights.

“He’s just not there for me anymore,” she said. “Number one, it’s good to have another wife there. And I like what she says. We need the right to decide what to do with our own bodies.”

In Pennsylvania—where swing districts like Stephens’s have repeatedly helped shape state and national elections—abortion has not always been a matter of the party line.

For example, a native of Scranton, Joe Biden has long been one of the Democratic Party’s loudest anti-abortion voices, and the late Democratic Chief Executive Robert Casey Sr. insisted on several restrictions on the procedure during his tenure in the late 1980s.

And Republican lawmakers like Stephens and officials including former Governor Tom Ridge, the late Senator Arlen Specter, and former Auditor General and governor candidate Barbara Hafer are vocal advocates of abortion rights.

Though their ranks have dwindled in Pennsylvania and across the country in recent decades, several prominent Republicans are running for reelection this year, including New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who have proposed a bill. submitted to codify roe – are expected to keep their seats despite breaking a hard party line on abortion.

And Colorado Republican Joe O’Dea, who has praised his support for access to abortion up to 22 weeks of pregnancy while working to expel Senator Michael Bennet, is seen nationwide as one of the GOP’s top prospects for a disruption in a blue state.

But the polarization that has come to characterize the national debate has also affected Pennsylvania, and although it started years ago, it has been fueled by the toppling of roe.

“In my caucus there are definitely fewer pro-life Democrats now — that’s just a fact,” Representative Jordan Harris, who represents Philadelphia in the state house, told POLITICO. “And as we see more things like abortion rights being kicked back to the states, state representatives, senate and governor races will become more of a battleground than in the past because there will be a lot of protection there.”

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When Stephens searched his district less than a month before the election—passing outstretched skeletal arms, mesh-like ghosts, and other ghostly decorations that covered the lawns and porches of his constituents—he acknowledged the fall of roe and his GOP colleagues’ push for abortion restrictions has made his political survival more difficult, even if he tries to distance himself from it.

When voters told him they were concerned about the abortion restrictions the state and federal GOP candidates have promised to put in place, pointing some of them to their own children who they feared could be affected, he assured them he was different and said, “I’m the only Republican I’m advocating for today.”

Stephens argues that increasing polarization makes it more important than ever to have moderate Republicans like him in office to serve as a dampening voice within the caucus — an argument he has found resonates as he goes door-to-door.

“I think he has some attraction and influence on people to show them that it’s important to meet in the middle,” said Beverly Thompson, a Stephens voter, who said she was terrified that her four granddaughters would die. will lose access to abortion in the coming year.

In the street, Ken Allen told POLITICO that he continues to support Stephens even after he officially leaves the GOP, calling him “a voice of reason in a party that ran away from reason.”

Historically, abortion was not a winning message for Democrats in Pennsylvania’s battlefield districts or a message they wanted front and center, but Democratic nominee for Governor Josh Shapiro told POLITICO that the prospect of a statewide ban and the ” acknowledging that the next governor is going to decide this matter” has changed the way the message resonates in politically disparate parts of the state and has enabled Democrats to go on the offensive.

In a parking lot outside a local AFL-CIO office in Media on a recent weekend, Shapiro told a crowd of mostly elderly white workers wearing union windbreakers that his opponent Doug Mastriano is “uniquely dangerous.”

“It’s true,” Shapiro continued, raising his voice over the booing of the assembled workers at the mention of Mastriano’s name. “He wants [ban abortion] without exception, not even in cases of rape or incest or even to save the woman’s life. And he wants to charge women with murder who have undergone that life-saving health care procedure.”

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The Mastriano campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Giselle Fetterman, the wife of Senate candidate John Fetterman who has focused on reaching female voters, reiterated Shapiro’s insistence that Pennsylvanians are “engaged, energized and angry” about abortion rights wherever she goes in the state, but she says it’s spreading. can manifest in different ways. ways.

“It’s a very diverse state,” she told POLITICO. “In some places you can hear very loudly how upset and scared women are, but in other places they quietly pull me aside and whisper, ‘I am not a murderer.’”

Cerrato hopes to drive this energy and outrage to victory.

On the wall of her campaign office hangs a large parody Gadsden flag that reads “Don’t tread on me” above a womb — the snake that twists to form fallopian tubes. When she knocks, she tells voters that she is not only a supporter of Planned Parenthood, but one of their longtime patients, and gives intimate details when she claims she is more committed to the issue than her opponent.

“My mother had an ectopic pregnancy at age 39 and she would have left five children orphaned if she hadn’t been able to have an abortion,” she said.

These calls have been accompanied by attacks on Stephens’ record on abortion, including a mailer earlier this fall in which he claimed that a bipartisan fetal murder law he voted for in 2021 – aimed at increasing jail terms for those who abuse pregnant women attacks – a back door was to subject abortion providers to “mandatory life imprisonment.” Stephens’ campaign issued a letter of suspension, citing that state’s criminal code which explicitly states that there is no liability for “acts committed during an abortion or attempted abortion” and threatened prosecution if she pursued her claim in future campaign literature would continue.

Cerrato responded with a video of her tearing up the legal letter.

As bitter battles over candidates’ stances on abortion come to a head across the country in the final weeks of the campaign — with access to the procedure for millions of people at stake — November’s outcome could reveal just how much room for variation there is. still is.

“The parties are moving towards a more monoculture,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Pennsylvania Republican consultant who worked for Specter. “It’s hard as a Republican to get in the ramp to elected politics and not be pro-life and pro-gun, just as it’s virtually impossible for Democrats to do the same. They have to be pro-choice and pro-gun control.”

Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.