WASHINGTON—On a debate stage in Pennsylvania last week, emerging Senate Republican primary candidate Kathy Barnette got personal. “I am the by-product of a rape. My mother was eleven years old when I was conceived, my father was 21. I was not just a clump of cells. As you can see, I’m still not just a clump of cells. My life has value.”
She was addressing the recent leak of the Supreme Court’s draft majority opinion that would strike down Roe v. Wade — and immediately turned it into a political attack on the Trump-endorsed candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz, who is a recent convert to professing himself “pro-life.”
Oz defended himself. “I’ve operated on small children, a few days old, and witnessed the majesty of their hearts pounding blood,” he said. “I would never think of harming that child, or even nine months earlier. Because life begins at conception.”
David McCormick, the other candidate in the race, who appears locked in a dead heat with his rivals in polls, has also taken a hard line on abortion bans, even in cases of rape or incest, except for “the very rare instances there should be exceptions for the life of the mother.”
The race for the nomination for the open Senate seat there in Pennsylvania — the vote is on Tuesday — has been a strange one all along, featuring Trump’s endorsement of Oprah’s former TV doctor (dismissed as a quack by the New England Medical Journal among others) and the presence in the race of the wild card Barnette, who has a history of issuing offensive commentary against LGBTQ people (including in the Canada Free Press) and Muslims, and trumpeting far-right conspiracy theories.
But since the leaked Supreme Court opinion, the Republican primary mudslinging has become focused on abortion above all else, with each candidate trying to prove they’ll take a harder line than the others against its legality.
That race leading up to November’s midterm election was always going to be important and influential. It’s a true swing state (that supported Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020, each time by tiny margins) that reflects the polarization of the country in its urban-rural divide — James Carville famously said “Pennsylvania is Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east, with Alabama in between.” Because the Senate seat is open (the incumbent Republican is retiring), the race is a bit of a toss-up. It could be one of a handful of races that decides which party controls the Senate.
But now it is also becoming a preview of how the looming Supreme Court decision on abortion is shaking up the election.
Democrats in Washington and across the country have been suggesting that the sudden loss of reproductive freedom will drive generations of women who don’t usually vote for the polls. The Senate voted on a doomed bill to entrench Roe v. Wade in law this past week was held for the explicit purpose of “getting everyone on the record” — that is, providing a voting record Democrats could use as an election wedge against Republicans.
But as you can see, more-MAGA-than-thou Republican candidates in Pennsylvania are leaning into the decision, at least in the primary, promising voters they’ll be the ones to shut down clinics.
It’s not just in Pennsylvania. In Georgia, which holds its primary on May 24, state Republican candidates have been promising to recall the legislature to implement even tougher abortion bans than the law already on the books that would outlaw any abortion after about six weeks, and all six Republicans running for the Senate nomination vow to support bans even in cases of rape and incest. Republican Senate candidates in North Carolina, Ohio, New Hampshire and Florida also promise near-total bans, according to a recent Axios roundup.
Which may be a popular move in their party — long the home of anti-abortion voters — during the primaries, when only declared supporters’ votes count. But it’s a big gamble in the general election when they’ll need to attract voters to swing and count on those voters going to the polls when no presidential candidate is on the ballot.
Especially considering that in a place like Pennsylvania, the biggest block of swing voters credited with delivering the last presidential election to Joe Biden are middle-class women who live in the suburbs. And that the state’s two big cities are home to large populations of young people who most likely support reproductive choice.
Certainly the pro-choice movement is counting on abortion rights to serve as motivation for those voters. “There are few things as monumental as a federal ban on the right to control your own body that will get women to the polls,” Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization of Women New York, recently told the New York Post. “This will be a huge galvanizing moment.”
Yet there are plenty of analysts who aren’t so sure — reasoning that people may lose interest in the issue in the months between now and the election. Once it’s out of the headlines, some think, it will fade from voters’ minds and they’ll go back to caring about inflation instead.
However, it’s hard to see that happening if both parties are pushing the issue to the front of the agenda.
If the Supreme Court issues a decision on anything like the draft that leaked — and it is still possible it will not — it is certain to have far-reaching effects on American women’s lives and the laws of the land. And even before being officially released, as you can see watching the scene in Pennsylvania, it is already reshaping the politics of the election. It’s just not clear yet what shape they will turn out to take.
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