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Pa. Democrats are rallying behind abortion rights as they look for a new midterm election message

Democrats hope it will give them a boost at a time when the party’s core voters have been disappointed with President Joe Biden’s stalled domestic agenda.

Protesters outside Philadelphia’s federal courthouse on Tuesday.
Protesters outside Philadelphia’s federal courthouse on Tuesday.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

It took less than 24 hours for the streets to fill.

From Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, protesters wielding posters and clothing hangers mobilized Tuesday night to rage against what could be a tectonic shift in nationwide abortion access — the same year as a midterm election.

“It almost feels like the 2016 election all over again, where that first day or two [after the election], many of us were scared,” said State Sen. Amanda Cappelletti (D., Montgomery). “But it also activated us.”

For much of the last year, the political outlook for Democrats has been bleak. Strong performances by Republicans in New Jersey and Virginia last year pointed to discontent in the electorate, and conditions only worsened for Democrats as inflation hit a 40-year high and President Joe Biden’s poll numbers tanked.

The party still faces those headwinds. But almost immediately after a leaked draft opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court indicated late Monday that the high court is prepared to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, Democrats quickly rallied behind protecting abortion rights as a key plank of their midterm message. The burst of protests and fund-raising that followed suggested the court’s coming decision could revive Democratic enthusiasm at a time when the party’s core voters have been disappointed with Biden’s stalled domestic agenda.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, vowed to veto any antiabortion legislation and characterized his Republican opponents as out of step with most Pennsylvanians.

His campaign said Tuesday was his strongest online fund-raising day of the year.

“It’s time right now for all of us to get off the sidelines, get in the game, and fight like hell to defend the right to choose,” Shapiro said Tuesday.

Shapiro, asked on a conference call with reporters if he would also work to “strengthen abortion rights,” said: “I certainly would. I think, given this legislature, it will be hard to play offense, if you will.”

» READ MORE: Bob Casey is one of the last ‘pro-life’ Democrats. The Supreme Court just put him in the hot seat.

Elections for Senate, House, and the state legislature will be on the ballot in November. Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature — something Democrats hope to change.

“We’re going to make this an issue and part of our campaigns,” said State Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia), the House minority leader. “It is important that folks realize it’s no longer a joke.”

Pennsylvania does not have a “trigger law” on the books, meaning if Roe is overturned, the legislature would have to pass a bill to further restrict abortion access in the state, which would have to be signed by the governor. Gov. Tom Wolf, a term-limited Democrat, has vetoed such measures in the past.

Nine Republicans are running in the May 17 primary election for governor, and all support further restricting or banning abortion, some without exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother. The four leading candidates have all indicated that they would likely support a ban after as early as six weeks into a pregnancy — a time when many women don’t yet know they’re pregnant. Current state law allows for abortions to be performed through 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, a Republican candidate who held a news conference at a gas station Wednesday promoting his plan to cut the gas tax, said he’d support legislation to “protect the most vulnerable among us — the unborn.”

He said he’d sign a bill that limits abortion after as early as six weeks “if the elected representatives bring that kind of legislation to my desk.” He reiterated his support for exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or if the life of the mother is in jeopardy.

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State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) has consistently been at or near the top of public polls in the GOP primary and has been among a handful of leading antiabortion voices in Harrisburg. In a statement Tuesday, he referred to abortion as “science denying genocide” and called on the legislature to immediately pass a six-week ban if Roe is overturned.

A version of that legislation — known by proponents as a “Heartbeat Bill” because it bans abortion after cardiac activity is detected in an embryo — is sitting in the House Health Committee. State Rep. Kathy Rapp (R., Warren), who heads the committee, said in a statement that lawmakers are “well-positioned to successfully advance some of the strongest pro-life legislation in the history of our Commonwealth.”

And now that the antiabortion movement’s long-sought goal of overturning Roe is within striking distance, enthusiasm is running high among activists.

“What we’re seeing is, life is on the ballot for this year,” said Michelle Ashley, Pennsylvania state director for the Susan B. Anthony List, which opposes abortion. Since the leak of the draft opinion, she said, the group’s canvassers have reported that “voters are so much more willing to speak about the life issue.”

“They’re asking a lot of questions,” Ashley said. “It’s really putting it at the forefront of the discussion.”

The issue seemed almost certain to come up at a debate Wednesday night for Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidates.

Republican David McCormick— a former hedge fund CEO who is among the front-runners in the Senate race — used the news this week to attack his chief opponent, Mehmet Oz, for his shifting positions on abortion. He tweeted Tuesday that Oz is a “phony who will buckle under pressure from the Left’s pro-abortion agenda.”

Oz, the celebrity surgeon backed by former President Donald Trump, tweeted that the leak was an “attempt to impose outside political pressure on the Supreme Court,” but he didn’t post about the potential overturning of Roe.

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about voting in Pennsylvania's May 2022 primary election

And on Wednesday outside City Hall in Philadelphia, board members of the state and national chapters of the National Organization for Women stood alongside U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat running for Senate.

“The Republicans love to talk about freedom,” Lamb said. “And people in our state will not have freedom until … their rights are honored and respected.”

Wolf, who has vetoed three antiabortion bills in his two terms as governor, delivered a speech with other Democrats and Planned Parenthood executives Wednesday in the shadow of Independence Hall, urging voters to reject “right-wing extremists” at the polls.

For their part, Republicans say the modern Democratic Party is out of touch with the public on the issue.

Mark Harris, a Pittsburgh-based GOP consultant, said Republicans will continue to focus on the economy and inflation, and dismissed the idea that abortion is a winning issue for Democrats. He pointed to unpopular Democratic positions in support of taxpayer funding for abortions, and recalled the “safe, legal, and rare” platform Bill Clinton ran on in 1992.

“That was electorally helpful [for Democrats],” Harris said. “Can you imagine a Democrat saying that today? I can’t. That’s the cultural problem they have.”

In Harrisburg, Democrats would need to flip 12 seats to gain control of the state House — and under the new legislative maps passed through redistricting, the party stands at least an outside shot. Democratic leaders say they will focus on competitive districts in suburban areas.

Among those districts is Delaware County’s 168th, where Republican Rep. Chris Quinn is seeking reelection. His Democratic challenger, Lisa Borowski, who is running unopposed in the primary, said she intends to make abortion a campaign issue.

“It is essential that we flip the state legislature and we put in place people that are clearly representing the majority voice,” she said. “We’ll be definitely letting people know that they have a clear choice.”

-Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this article.