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Democrats trying to flip the Pa. House were cautiously optimistic. The abortion decision changed the game.

“Conventionally speaking, the party in control doesn’t usually do well in a midterm,” said the head of the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “But abortion has mobilized people."

Campaign volunteers for Melissa Cerrato, a Democratic candidate challenging Republican incumbent Todd Stephens in the 151st House District in Montgomery County, meet in her campaign office before they head out to canvass.
Campaign volunteers for Melissa Cerrato, a Democratic candidate challenging Republican incumbent Todd Stephens in the 151st House District in Montgomery County, meet in her campaign office before they head out to canvass.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

A dozen volunteers crammed into a suburban Philadelphia office this week armed with campaign pamphlets, and Melissa Cerrato gave them instructions: Go knock on doors and tell people to vote for her — not the moderate Republican who’s been in office for 12 years.

And if the voters ask why they shouldn’t send their incumbent state representative back to Harrisburg?

“The response,” Cerrato said, “is, ‘Only one candidate will actually fight to protect reproductive freedoms.’”

Cerrato, a Democrat, embodies the strategy her party is using to reach one of its longest-sought goals: flipping a chamber in the Pennsylvania legislature. They’re putting abortion rights front and center, hoping to harness the energy on the left since the U.S. Supreme Court in June ended the constitutional right to abortion.

Party leaders say they already felt cautiously optimistic about their chances of taking control of the state House, where Republicans currently hold a 113-90 advantage, because a favorable redistricting process made them competitive in more districts. Their path runs through the Philadelphia collar counties, which have been getting bluer for two decades.

Now, the candidates in those districts are using messaging similar to Democrats running for Congress: They’re reminding Pennsylvanians that abortion access could be curtailed, and that control of the state legislature is a determining factor in whether abortion remains legal through about 24 weeks.

“Conventionally speaking, the party in control doesn’t usually do well in a midterm,” said Rep. Leanne Krueger (D., Delaware), chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, “but abortion has mobilized people.”

» READ MORE: Why Democrats think it’s their best chance in a decade to take control of the Pa. House

Whether the energy lasts or translates into electoral success is uncertain. But Democrats say it’s animated their base like nothing since the Trump era, and it’s fueled an unexpected turnaround.

How abortion is changing the Pennsylvania political landscape

There was some question in the weeks after the Dobbs decision whether such a seismic shift in American society and health care would translate to the polls. Democrats — who were already in search of a midterm election message as the economy sputtered and President Joe Biden’s job rating tanked — rallied around abortion access.

It’s become clear this month that momentum has shifted.

Outside Pennsylvania, Democrats have over-performed projections in several swing districts where special elections were held. Voters in Kansas decisively defeated an antiabortion constitutional amendment.

Pollsters and analysts say there’s some evidence of shifts in Pennsylvania, too. Women have significantly outpaced men in new voter registrations, according to Democratic voter data firm Target Smart.

» READ MORE: The majority of Pennsylvanians support some access to abortion. But polling on abortion is nuanced.

A Franklin and Marshall poll released Thursday found support for abortion rights among Pennsylvania voters slightly increased since May. Nearly 90% of respondents said abortion should be legal under any or certain circumstances. Among Republicans, fewer than a quarter believe abortion should always be illegal.

The survey also found enthusiasm on the left has increased in recent months. The number of Democratic respondents who said they were “very interested” in the 2022 elections increased to 66%, from 50% in May. The number of Republicans who said the same, 60%, didn’t change.

“Voter interest among Democrats has gone up, and I think you have to attribute that at least in part to Dobbs,” said Berwood A. Yost, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall.

The question is how long it lasts.

Mike Barley, a Pennsylvania GOP strategist, said it’s clear Democrats got a rallying cry out of the Dobbs decision, but he questioned whether the motivation would sustain through November. Campaigns and advertising often kick into high gear after Labor Day — so it’s still early.

“I also think you’re going to see some increased enthusiasm on the Republican side,” he said, pointing to other issues including backlash against Biden’s announcement this week related to student loan debt cancellation. “The economy is not doing well, and there’s a lot of things that play into that happening every day.”

Voters in the F&M poll and other surveys said the economy remains one of the most important problems facing Pennsylvania.

But Democrats at the top of the ticket are hammering the abortion issue, banking on most voters being in favor of some access.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor, reminds voters every chance he gets that his opponent, State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), has championed legislation banning abortion after six weeks without exceptions. Shapiro says he would veto any legislation further restricting access.

But it’s harder to draw that distinction in some swing districts where positions are less absolute.

How abortion is playing in the suburbs

Cerrato is running against incumbent Rep. Todd Stephens, a Montgomery County Republican whom Democrats have been trying to unseat for years. In 2020, Democrats and their allies spent nearly $900,000 attempting to topple him — four times what Republicans spent, according to AdImpact, which tracks political advertising. Stephens won by seven percentage points.

» READ MORE: In the race for Pennsylvania governor, the two candidates’ records on abortion could hardly be more divergent

Stephens has held onto his seat in a blue district in part by appealing to more moderate sensibilities. His campaign website says he “believes in a woman’s right to choose and will continue to ferociously defend that right in Pennsylvania.” A mailed advertisement the campaign is sending across the district does not note that Stephens is a Republican, and it says in bright pink letters: “Protect Women’s Rights.”

Another mailer notes Stephens was endorsed by Planned Parenthood’s political arm in 2018 and 2020.

It didn’t mention that, this year, they endorsed his opponent.

Lindsey Mauldin, a spokesperson for the Planned Parenthood coordinated campaigns, said in light of the Dobbs decision, the group decided not to endorse Stephens again. She said that when Republicans advanced legislation that would amend the state constitution to say there is no right to an abortion, Stephens “did not use his platform to convince others to vote no.”

But he did vote against it.

Cerrato argues that while Stephens “may not be an antichoice extremist,” his seat is part of the Republican majority, which “stands in the way of progress.” That’s a complicated message to get across in 15 seconds on someone’s doorstep.

So Cerrato tells voters Stephens isn’t a leader on the issue. And in some cases, she uses her personal life to appeal to them, telling them about how she worries her four daughters may have fewer rights than she did.

Other Democratic women running against Republican incumbents in the suburbs are trying similar tactics.

Cathy Spahr, a transportation planner challenging incumbent Rep. Craig Williams in a district that spans Delaware and Chester counties, is happy to remind voters that Williams approved legislation last year that would have required health-care facilities to bury or cremate embryos and fetal tissue, regardless of how long a pregnancy lasted. (The bill stalled in the Senate.)

She’s also open about why it matters to her.

In the mid-1990s, when some of her friends were starting families, Spahr was in prison for selling drugs and then violating her parole. She got sober while incarcerated and went back to school, but by the time she was healthy enough and ready to have children, she was 36 and divorced.

So Spahr underwent in-vitro fertilization using donor sperm and got pregnant with twin boys. They’re 13 today.

She said that she had the ability to plan her family in the manner — and at the time — that was best for her. She tells voters she wants every parent to have the same opportunity.

“I feel a huge responsibility to women’s choice,” Spahr said. “Having children should never be taken lightly, and should never be forced upon anyone, and it’s just horrifying that you have people who think that this is OK.”