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4 takeaways from Tuesday night’s Republican debate for Pennsylvania governor

Five of the nine Republican candidates for governor met for a debate at Gettysburg College. The no-shows took plenty of heat.

Pennsylvania state Senate leader Jake Corman, a Republican candidate for governor, earlier this month.
Pennsylvania state Senate leader Jake Corman, a Republican candidate for governor, earlier this month.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

Abortion, recreational marijuana, and how Pennsylvania voters cast ballots took center stage Tuesday night as five of the nine Republican candidates for governor met for a debate at Gettysburg College.

But first came the pot-shots at the no-shows.

Here’s what you might have missed.

The four who stayed away

State Sen. Jake Corman used his opening remarks to go after four candidates who declined to attend — former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, former Delaware County Councilman Dave White, and State Sen. Doug Mastriano.

“Welcome to the be-not-afraid debate,” Corman said. “I want to congratulate my other colleagues here for having the courage to actually face journalists and the public and answer questions.”

Corman, who almost dropped out of the race last week, had actually been a part of a group of candidates who said they would not participate if moderators weren’t Republicans from Pennsylvania who hadn’t spoken negatively about the candidates. The debate hosts, led by Spotlight PA and including The Inquirer, declined to make any adjustments and Corman reversed course.

» READ MORE: Trump is sowing chaos in the Pennsylvania governor’s race

Political consultant Charlie Gerow, later offered a chance to ask one of his opponents on stage a question, instead asked the no-shows: “Where the heck are you?”

“Why are you not here?” Gerow continued, the only time the audience broke the rules and applauded. “If we can’t take on each other, how in the heck are we going to be able to take on [state Attorney General] Josh Shapiro in the fall?”

The candidates spent far more time criticizing their opponents who skipped the debate than they did knocking Shapiro, the only Democrat running for governor.

The fight over election law

There was a crackle of tension when debate moderator Scott Blanchard of WITF correctly noted there is no credible evidence of any significant fraud in Pennsylvania’s 2020 election.

Republicans are now pushing to repeal the 2019 law that greatly expanded mail voting, which became popular as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. Former President Donald Trump has used that law, Act 77, to make false claims about voter fraud.

Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale, a frequent critic of his own party, noted that the 2019 law passed with strong Republican support in the legislature. Gale called that “a trade-off” with Democrats, who agreed to give up the straight-party voting option that allowed voters to back all candidates on the ballot from a particular party.

“That’s all they’re worried about,” Gale said of Republicans, “is keeping their safe seats safe.”

» READ MORE: Supporting Trump’s election lies is becoming a litmus test for Pennsylvania Republicans

Corman — who voted for Act 77 but like other Republicans now wants to repeal it — insisted that people dropping off more than one ballot at drop boxes, which state law prohibits unless a disabled voter has authorized their ballot to be delivered, is tantamount to voter fraud.

Still, Corman said any effort to change election law is about future elections (Republicans in Harrisburg have pushed legislation to ban drop boxes). He said he was “not here to dispute” that President Joe Biden won the state in 2020.

Former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart cited a 28-year-old case of absentee ballot fraud that ended in the reversal of a state Senate election in Philadelphia to call for a repeal of Act 77, as well as a requirement that voters show photo identification at polling places.

Taken together, the pile-on underscored that repealing the law has become a litmus test ahead of the May 17 Republican primary.

Opening the door to a total abortion ban

The candidates all described themselves as “pro-life” — though they didn’t agree on how they would deal with abortion as governor.

Nche Zama, a retired cardiothoracic surgeon, said he would push for a total ban on abortions in Pennsylvania if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade. That would include no exceptions in cases of rape or incest.

“I believe that life begins at conception,” Zama said. “We cannot be wishy-washy about human lives.”

Corman, asked if he would sign legislation like a Texas law that bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy — a period when many women don’t know they’re pregnant — said “we have to wait to see what the court allow us to do.” But Corman later said he would sign such legislation, with exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the pregnant woman.

Gale said he would push for a ban on all abortion and would recruit primary candidates to challenge any Republican who did not take that position.

Gerow said he supports banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.

A split on recreational marijuana

The candidates also split on legalizing marijuana for recreational use (medical marijuana is already legal).

Gerow said he “took a lot of flack” for supporting medical marijuana legislation and “will not make an issue” of recreational use in his campaign, but that he would sign such legislation into law if elected governor.

Hart, Zama, and Gale said they oppose legalizing recreational use of the drug.

Corman, who helped pass medical marijuana legislation but opposes recreational use, seemed open to changing his mind on the issue.

“If the legislature passed such a bill, I’d certainly sit down and talk to them about it,” Corman said. “I was against medical marijuana until somebody educated me on the issue.”