Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and overturning Roe v. Wade has set off a firestorm around the Commonwealth and the nation.
While as many as 13 states had trigger laws that kicked into place after the ruling, Pennsylvania is not one of them, as Commonwealth law permits an abortion to be performed at 23 weeks unless there are cases of life or health endangerment.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly seems poised to send more restrictive bills to the governor’s desk, where Democrat Tom Wolf has consistently wielded his veto pen.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro said, “I will keep abortion legal in Pennsylvania. Abortion is health care and must remain so.”
Republican candidate Doug Mastriano does not agree. “The whole abortion movement is based off of old science. Now we know at six weeks, there’s a heartbeat. You hear a life. I believe that life begins at conception.”
While Pennsylvania voters have responded in polls conducted by Suffolk University and AARP that the most important issues to them are the economy, high gas prices and inflation, will upcoming polls show that abortion rights leaps to the top?
Will Pennsylvania become a one-issue governor’s race?
“I’m not sure the fall election will turn solely on abortion but it’s going to be an enormous part of the campaign,” said Stephen Medvic, professor of government and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. “At first blush, you might conclude that the Dobbs decision will activate Democrats more than it will Republicans because those on the winning side of a political battle have a tendency to get complacent and those on the losing side want to fight. But in this case, there’s another stage to the battle, which is whether or not to change Pennsylvania law. Both sides will be mobilized because the next governor will be the difference between vetoing an abortion ban and signing one (assuming the legislature remains in Republican control).”
With Democrats facing stiff headwinds entering November, will this be the issue that mobilizes those non-engaged members of the party, especially in a mid-term election?
“The challenge, however, is that the incumbent governor is a Democrat and has promised that abortion access in Pennsylvania will not change,” said Sam Chen, constitutional scholar and principal director of the Liddell Group. “It is hard to understand or feel the impact of the Dobbs decision if nothing changes in your state and this makes it easy for voters to be lulled into complacency. In a state where restrictions or bans on abortion does occur, the impact is seen as opposed to perceived and more likely to stick with voters through the election. Much of the answer to the question, then, depends on how Shapiro communicates on this issue in the months ahead.”
“The real problems that Democrats have is the national environment,” said Terry Madonna, senior fellow in residence for political affairs at Millersville University. “Republicans were going to vote for Mastriano anyway. The heartbeat bill already issue in campaign. This moves it front and center into the campaign. Democrats need to galvanize their base and increase turnout … which party gets more motivated may decide the race.”
“When there are only two candidates to choose from it is really difficult to know what issue mattered the most in their choices – it is usually never just one thing.,” said Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research and the Floyd Institute for Public Policy at Franklin and Marshall College. “I think the abortion decision will be a catalyst for some voters, as will the recent decision on guns. In fact, the 2022 midterms are going to have many things for voters to think about, including their feelings about the economy, the direction of the state, and the state’s electoral procedures to name just a few others. The most important result of the recent Supreme Court decisions, from a political standpoint, is that they give Democratic candidates something to talk about other than the economy and the President’s performance in office, which most voters don’t feel good about.”
While some will say that this election is more than about one issue, it is clear that abortion rights is front and center in the Commonwealth.
“The electoral implications of the SCOTUS decision are more significant in Pennsylvania than almost any state in the country,” said Chris Borick, professor of political science and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “This is because in our governor’s race two conditions are present. First the vastly different positions on abortion that Shapiro and Mastriano maintain give voters a clear choice on the matter. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the SCOTUS decision that turns this issue back to the states makes the varied positions of the candidates very likely to become policy. I doubt that on its own the abortion matter offsets the cyclical advantages the GOP has, but the combination of candidate quality and a bump from the abortion issue certainly have Democrats in Pennsylvania in a better position than they were before the primaries.”
The one thing you can say about Pennsylvania voters is that you don’t know what Pennsylvania voters will do next.
“Pennsylvania voters often split their tickets, meaning that pro-choice Republicans may flip their vote or at least abstain from voting if they believe this issue if important enough,” reminded Chen. “Pennsylvania has a large Catholic voting population — including many Democrats — that could be turned off if Democrats push this issue too hard.”