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Democrats bet on abortion rights as winning issue as they seek control of Pa. House

Todd Stephens 151 district representative.jpeg
Joe Lamberti
/
Philadelphia Inquirer
For the past 12 years, voters in the 151st District have sent Todd Stephens (right) back to Harrisburg because of that deep local connection and a laser focus on constituent issues, even as they overwhelmingly picked Democrats in statewide races.

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.

HORSHAM — An afternoon out knocking doors became a trip down memory lane as Todd Stephens traversed a quiet cul-de-sac on a rainy Thursday afternoon a month before Election Day.

A six-term state representative from Montgomery County, Stephens, 50, recalled playing high school basketball with a resident’s son and graduating with another’s daughter.

For the past 12 years, voters in the 151st District have sent Stephens back to Harrisburg because of that deep local connection and a laser focus on constituent issues, even as they overwhelmingly picked Democrats in statewide races.

As his Republican legislative colleagues in the increasingly blue Philadelphia suburbs have fallen one-by-one, Stephens has faced and beat well-funded Democratic challenges — buoyed by a centrist record that includes support for abortion rights.

But in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, having an “R” next to his name has become more of a liability than ever.

In suburban Horsham, most of the potential voters Stephens faced as he knocked on doors in October sternly quizzed him on his stance on abortion as well as guns and the 2020 election.

Stephens calmly responded with his positions: Joe Biden is the properly elected president, Philadelphia should be able to pass stricter gun laws, and the legislature should pass his bill that would make it easier to take guns away from people having a mental health crisis. He also ran down endorsements from a slew of environmental groups and unions.

“I am not advocating for Doug Mastriano,” he told them of the far-right GOP nominee for governor.

With all of that, Sheri, a 60-year-old voter who asked for Spotlight PA not to use her last name, jokingly asked: Why is Stephens still a Republican?

Tax increases, Stephens answered, including those Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf proposed during his first term to cover increased education spending.

Stephens moved to the next door, but his responses left Sheri conflicted.

“I almost wish he would switch parties,” she said. “That would make this a hell of a lot easier.”

Todd Stephens talking to voter.jpeg
Joe Lamberti
/
Todd Stephens (left), a Republican state representative running for reelection, speaks with supporter Linda McKillen as he goes door-to-door in his district in October.

With Roe gone, Pennsylvania Democrats and their allies hope abortion will motivate voters to turn out on Nov. 8 — particularly the suburban women they need to win races.

Under current state law, abortion is legal until 24 weeks of pregnancy, but upcoming elections could change that. Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, supports enacting a six-week ban without exceptions for rape and incest, while Democrat Josh Shapiro has said he, like Wolf, would block any further restrictions.

The stakes in the governor and U.S. Senate races are clear from the many TV ads that focus on abortion, but Democrats also hope it influences voters down the ballot, not only in Stephens’ district but in ones across the state.

“We know this issue gets folks riled up,” said Lindsey Mauldin, director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania’s political action committee.

Flipping the state House has long been a priority for Democrats, who haven’t held a majority in 12 years. This year, because of a redistricting cycle that redrew political maps to account for population shifts to urban and suburban areas, the party has a more favorable path to that goal.

While the governor of Pennsylvania has immense powers, control of the General Assembly lets a party implement lasting policies or propose constitutional changes.

Stephens’ seat is a must-win for Democrats to take the majority. His opponent is Melissa Cerrato, a former legislative staffer to state Rep. Liz Hanbidge (D., Montgomery).

While Stephens has name recognition and a significant record to run on, Cerrato has one key endorsement that he does not: Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania.

“We cannot flip the Pennsylvania House without the 151,” Cerrato told Spotlight PA. “And if [Stephens] truly believed in the things that he’s telling people that he believes in, then he would make the decision to either step aside or to change his party registration.”

Melissa Cerrato candidate 151.jpeg
TOM GRALISH
/
Philadelphia Inquirer
Stephens’ seat is a must-win for Democrats to take the majority. His opponent is Melissa Cerrato (pictured), a former legislative staffer to state Rep. Liz Hanbidge (D., Montgomery).

Stephens’ abortion record

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Stephens became an anomaly among his fellow Republicans by consistently voting in favor of abortion access, including voting against a 20-week ban in 2017.

Stephens’ record earned him Planned Parenthood’s endorsements in 2018 and 2020. But that changed this year.

Mauldin said that the group wants a General Assembly that expands access to reproductive health rather than defends the status quo. Initiatives it would like to see the legislature pursue include expanding insurance coverage for contraceptives (including publicly funded plans) and requiring comprehensive sex education.

“Todd Stephens, though he has voted with us in the past on certain issues, has not been proactive in expanding access to sexual and reproductive health,” Mauldin said.

Even before the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe, Stephens didn’t have a perfect record of protecting abortion access.

In 2011, he voted for a successful bill that tightened the standards for abortion clinics. Providers say the law has limited their ability to keep clinics open. And in 2013, he voted in favor of a bill that banned health care plans offered in the state through the Affordable Care Act from covering abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the pregnant person’s life.

Stephens said his vote for stricter medical standards at abortion clinics was in response to a grand jury investigation of former Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell, who conducted illegal abortions and murdered infants.

He added that those votes were “clearly not that big a deal” if he earned the group’s endorsement after he took them.

“Every single time that a woman’s right to choose has been up for a vote … I have voted no,” he added. “I have sided with women to make that choice.”

A more recent vote might be his most controversial. In 2021, Stephens voted in favor of a bill that would mandate a life sentence if a person is convicted of “murder of an unborn child” — a crime that already exists in state law. It passed the state House 123-80.

The bill hasn’t passed the state Senate, and the statute for murder of an unborn child specifically excludes abortion providers. Stephens, a former federal prosecutor known for supporting “tough-on-crime” policies like mandatory minimums, said his vote was to protect pregnant women from domestic violence.

Mauldin and Cerrato argue that the proposal’s passage portends more dangerous legislation that could give a fetus personhood and completely ban abortion in the commonwealth.

“The majority party is chipping away at our rights one bill at a time,” Cerrato said. “I do not think that it is a leap to say that once they have set a legal precedent on murder of a fetus that they would then use that to push forward future legislation or amendments to legislation that is already in place.”

Stephens still has supporters among some supporters of abortion. In a July 13 memo to Planned Parenthood’s state board members and executives, a lobbyist for the group said it should back Stephens.

Stephens, the lobbyist wrote, has consistently voted for the organization’s positions, has been “an important confidant and conduit of information helpful to our cause,” and was informed of the group’s opposition to the fetal sentencing bill only after he had already cast a vote. (Spotlight PA was given the memo on the condition it did not reveal the lobbyist’s name; the news outlet independently confirmed its veracity.)

“If we walk away from incumbents who have voted with us, and do not endorse them, regardless of their party affiliation, our political credibility is damaged, in both the legislature and the community,” the lobbyist wrote.

Still, even seeing the blowback to the bill post-Dobbs, Stephens said he’d vote for it again.

“This bill is about protecting pregnant women from their abusers,” Stephens said. “So, yes, I’ve always sided with protecting pregnant women from their abusers my entire career.”

Such nuanced arguments may become more common in the post-Dobbs world, said Ziad Munson, a sociologist at Lehigh University who has studied the “pro-life movement.”

Pre-Dobbs, politicians, particularly those opposed to abortion access, could get away with taking an extreme position without having to see the consequences of those policies.

But now that abortion rules are up to states and their lawmakers, politicians will need to find a way to effectively communicate their position while navigating an issue with far more shades of gray than the day’s partisan politics allow for.

“You want clear sound bites that signal what political tribe you belong to — that has worked for a very long time with abortion,” Munson said. “But post-Dobbs, I see that being much more difficult for politicians.”

Mandy Steele candidate 33 district.jpeg
Stephen Caruso
/
Spotlight PA
Mandy Steele — a member of the Fox Chapel Borough Council, just outside of Pittsburgh — is running as a Democrat to represent the 33rd District in the state House.

A statewide issue

Mandy Steele — a member of the Fox Chapel Borough Council, just outside of Pittsburgh — is running as a Democrat to represent the 33rd District in the state House.

With the Allegheny River as its southern border, the district includes wealthy suburbs like Fox Chapel and Indiana Township and old industrial river towns dependent on coal and steel like Tarentum, Springdale, and Sharpsburg.

At a town-wide yard sale in the latter, she told anyone who would listen that if they vote Republican, they may get more than they bargained for.

From voting rights to abortion access, Steele, 44, argued on that September day, state Republicans support an unpopular agenda based on dogma and ideology rather than results or good governance.

Or as she put it to one voter: “It’s either going to be Mr. Extreme or Ms. Reasonable.”

Steele is running in one of a small number of swing districts concentrated in the suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Registered Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans in the 33rd, but that statistic alone can’t predict the outcome of the race.

It’s also useful to look at an “election composite,” which uses past results to calculate likely future outcomes. Based on the performance of statewide candidates between 2016 and 2020, a Democratic candidate is projected to win roughly 53% of the vote share in the 33rd District.

Operatives see the race as a key one to watch, as midterm elections usually benefit the party that doesn’t occupy the White House and the district doesn’t have an incumbent. Shapiro, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, even joined Steele for a recent campaign event.

Steele’s race is one of 30 for state House seats that has a single-digit difference between projected vote share for Democratic and Republican candidates. These seats will decide whether Republicans hold onto their legislative majority.

While the major parties have staked out near absolute positions on issues like abortion access, many Pennsylvania voters fall somewhere in between.

An October poll of registered voters in Pennsylvania by Franklin & Marshall College found that 35% of those surveyed believe abortion should be legal under any circumstance, 9% said it should be illegal under any circumstance, and 54% responded that it should be legal under “some circumstance.”

“I don’t think it should be banned,” Louisa, a registered Republican, told Steele. She suggested cutting off access at 13 weeks as a compromise.

Steele assured Louisa that she wants to preserve access and listen to doctors, though she did not get into the specifics of her position.

Meanwhile, her Republican opponent Ted Tomson has seemingly changed his stance.

According to a pre-primary flier from LifePAC, a group that opposes abortion access, Tomson supported banning abortion without exceptions for rape and incest.

Jim Ludwig, a LifePAC board member, said the group based the flier on survey responses from the candidates. They noted exceptions because voters, looking at large numbers of Republicans running for office, wanted more specific information on candidates, he said.

“It was like before they had handcuffs on, they could only do so much,” Ludwig said of lawmakers pre-Dobbs. “Now, the handcuffs are taken off. And it’s up to the will of the people and their elected representatives.”

But in September, Tomson told Pittsburgh TV station KDKA he supports “exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother,” while also downplaying the issue’s importance in his candidacy.

“... in Harrisburg, my focus is going to be on improving the economic climate here in Pennsylvania,” he said. “I’m going door to door and I’m talking to a lot of people, and it’s not really a defining issue in my campaign.”

Tomson did not return requests for comment.

Unlike the 33rd, Stephens’ 151st isn’t a swing district. An election composite shows that a Democratic candidate can expect to win 60% of the vote share, meaning Stephens must lure members of that party to his side to win.

Back in Horsham, Janet Franz, a 58-year-old Democrat, told Stephens he couldn’t earn her vote. It’s “nothing about you,” she said, “just the Republican Party in general.”

Stephens told Franz that, in Harrisburg, he reviews bills based on their ideas, not the party affiliation of the sponsor.

“I hope you do the same for me,” Stephens said. Franz sighed and admitted he’d given her a lot to think about.

Elected officials “need to all get on the same page,” she said, and “just get stuff done for the country.”

She added, to Stephens, “You’re a unicorn.”

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