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Pennsylvania’s Senate Primary Shows How Republicans’ Abortion Rhetoric Could Backfire

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The rowdy primary for the Republican Senate nomination in Pennsylvania is quickly becoming a referendum on abortion. The contenders seem to have made the final days of the race all about abortion rights—and how each would work to make sure those rights are relegated to a blip in history on par with Prohibition if Roe v. Wade is overturned. The extreme views being espoused by the candidates are resonating with the activist set, the narrow slice of voters who want to return to 1972, and anti-abortion-rights Twitter, but they’re broadly out of the mainstream, even among Republicans.

And it could end up costing Republicans their shot at a majority in the Senate.

Pennsylvania is the first competitive GOP Senate race where abortion rights are at the fore. (Ohio’s primary last Tuesday took place in the immediate wake of the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe; roughly one-in-eight Republican votes had already been cast early before Politico landed its bombshell late on Monday.) Now, races in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have become a rush rightward that has left establishment Republicans quietly groaning that the contenders may be trading an advantage on the economy, which is consistently the most important subject for voters, for a politically backwater topic. In a Fox News poll conducted immediately before the leak, abortion didn’t even crack the top-ten list of issues and 63% of voters said Roe should stand—including 51% of Republicans and 64% of voters who describe themselves as independent.

In other words, Republicans refocusing their races to abortion from the economy may fare well with the local GOP clubs and on social media, but allowing—or encouraging—abortion to overtake the economy and inflation surrenders a potential ripe raft of winning rhetoric for a broader swath of voters. Trading jabs on Twitter may feel good and help with fundraising, but it isn’t where most voters are. As former Republican National Committee spokeswoman Sarah Isgur rightly notes, paying too much attention to Twitter is a recipe for irrelevance; just 1% of the whole U.S. population uses the platform to regularly comment on politics and they do so from the poles of American politics, according to data from Pew.

But none of this seems to matter in Pennsylvania’s race to be the Republican candidate vying to replace retiring Sen. Pat Toomey. Two days after the Supreme Court’s draft decision leaked, candidate Kathy Barnette, an Army veteran and author, said during a debate that she was the product of the rape of her 11-year-old mother: “I was not just a lump of cells.”

It was a sharp challenge to rival Mehmet Oz, the TV doctor who won former President Donald Trump’s endorsement in the race. Oz is telling voters that the only abortion exception should be to protect the life of the pregnant person, omitting cases of rape and incest. After the dramatic confrontation, Oz told reporters that “life starts at conception.” This was a change for Oz, who in 2019 appeared to discount those who believe life begins at the moment of conception: “If you think that the moment of conception you’ve got a life, then why would you even wait six weeks? Right, then an in-vitro fertilized egg is still a life,” he said on the syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club.”

Oz’s trend rightward on the issue broadly mirrors Trump’s, who himself had a public evolution on abortion rights between “I’m very pro-choice” in 1999 to winning over the anti-abortion rights groups with promises of the judges who now are poised to undo Roe. Trump ultimately came down in support of exceptions in cases of rape, incest, and threats to the life of the mother—the same position most Republican candidates have adopted for decades.

With a surprisingly effective parry, another candidate used the same debate to prosecute Oz’s earlier stance on abortion rights, betting that the prior comments may prove disqualifying with conservative voters. Former hedge fund CEO David McCormick cast Oz as an out-of-touch figure who hides behind Trump’s endorsement to excuse his inconsistency. “It’s another example of you being phony in terms of the positions you’re putting forward,” said McCormick, who was the undersecretary of the Treasury Department during George W. Bush’s administration. McCormick, too, has adopted a stance for an almost-blanket ban on abortion except “in the very rare instances there should be exceptions for the life of the mother.” (He and his allies are outspending Oz by a 2-to-1 margin. Barnette, who has momentum on her side, is being outspent 358-to-1.)

But these increasingly reactionary positions could trip up the candidates come the general election, especially in Pennsylvania, a state that went from going to Trump in 2016 by 0.7 percentage points to backing Joe Biden four years later by 1.2 percentage points. By making abortion such a central issue, the Republican candidates are all lurching into policy terrain that resonates better with the fringe in a swing state that could decide the balance of power in the Senate for the second half of Biden’s first term.

Polling shows a jumbled race, with Oz, McCormick, and Barnette all within striking distance of the win at the ballot box next week. But polling also shows abortion isn’t what’s likely to decide the outcome. In a poll taken before the Supreme Court leak, just 3% of Republicans called abortion their top issue.

It would be tempting for Republicans to say the rapid shift in orthodoxy is confined to Pennsylvania. But that is not correct, and it could cost their party a return to the Senate majority this year.

In Georgia, all six candidates for the Republican nomination for Senate have taken a total opposition to abortion rights with no carve-outs. In North Carolina, the Trump-backed contender Rep. Ted Budd seems to also have advocated for a complete ban on abortions. And Ohio’s Trump-backed nominee, who won the primary just a week ago and is headed to the general, says “two wrongs don’t make a right” and that exceptions for rape and incest are superfluous.

Taking these positions may make for good fodder for the most ardent primary voters, and it may secure the coveted Trump endorsement. But there is a cost. Sometimes, what feels like seismic shifts have absolutely zero impact on elections. Strategists from across the spectrum have concluded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine won’t change any votes this fall, for example, any more than the successful rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine will. Smart candidates can’t entirely ignore the cultural quakes, but they also can sometimes overread their significance in their own races.

No credible polling suggests going hard right on abortion is a winning issue for most voters, especially women and suburbanites. Time and again, campaigns of either party that cater to the fringes don’t weather the general race against the rival. Veering so far outside the conservative mainstream can land the contenders a quick buzz in a primary, but they may be toying with rhetoric that will throw them hopelessly off course come November.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com