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Once a wedge issue, abortion now a rallying cry for Biden, Democrats in Pennsylvania

Chris Deluzio smiles.
Keith Srakocic
Chris Deluzio at campaign rally in Beaver, Pa. during his 2022 bid for Congress

It wasn’t that long ago that a Democratic congressman representing a place like Beaver County would avoid talking about abortion as much as possible. Chris Deluzio, whose district includes Beaver alongside a swath of Allegheny County, is taking a different tack.

“I think there is agreement across this district that people want the government out of something as personal as deciding what to do with their health care,” Deluzio said. “Even folks who might have a personal opposition to abortion don’t want the power of government mandating to women what they do.”

Traditionally, white working class Democrats have skewed more conservative on abortion. Jason Altmire, who previously represented Beaver County, opposed abortion rights when he spoke about the issue at all. Conor Lamb, who preceded Deluzio, said he was personally opposed to abortion but the government should not impose those values on others.

But many small-town Democrats have been trending toward Republicans regardless. And the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in the Dobbs case — which overturned the constitutional right to an abortion enshrined for a half a century by Roe v. Wade — reshuffled the deck for both parties. There are signs everywhere that an issue Democrats once avoided has become now a rallying cry.

One sign is Deluzio’s support for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would bar government interference in abortion decisions and reestablish rights once protected by Roe. Democrats "will pass the Women's Health Protection Act, which will bring back the protections of Roe,” said Deluzio, who is running for a second term in the face of a challenge by state Rep. Rob Mercuri. “That is crystal clear from President Biden on down. I'm a co-sponsor of the bill, and we will pass it if we have majorities to do it.”

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A more recent, and more visible sign of Democrats' embrace of the issue, is a 60-second campaign spot aired locally this month by President Joe Biden’s reelection effort. The ad features Texas obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Austin Dennard who, after a long sigh, recounts her experience having to flee Texas to terminate her pregnancy that posed a threat to her health and offered no chance of survival for the fetus. Such rules were kept at bay by Roe until the Supreme Court, led by a Trump-appointed majority, overturned it.

"If Donald Trump is elected, that is the end of a woman's right to choose," Dennard warns. "There will be no place to turn. ... Every woman in every state is at risk. Donald Trump took away our freedom."

As evidence for the threat, Democrats point to pronouncements by Trump’s allies, some of whom say that in the wake of the Dobbs decision, the Food and Drug Administration can and should move to ban the medications used in nearly two-thirds of abortions nationwide. (A case currently before the Supreme Court seeks to require such a move, though legal scholars say its prospects are poor.)

Trump has denied having a national agenda on abortion at all, although Democrats say he can’t be trusted. And in any case he’s couched his denial terms that offer little solace to abortion-rights supporters.

Speaking to a Pennsylvania TV station earlier this month, Trump maintained that the Dobbs decision had simply demonstrated that abortion rules were “all up to the states.” And while the implication is that he wouldn’t press for a ban or any other policy change at the federal level, he also made clear he wouldn’t intervene on women’s behalf, either.

Asked about the Biden ad’s claim that Trump would permit states to monitor individual pregnancies, Trump said, “That would be up to the states. ... They will make a decision as to how they’ll do it.” He alluded to the fact that voters in Ohio passed a ballot question last year asserting the right to an abortion, though applying that ruling to Ohio law will fall to a Republican-led state Supreme Court.

“It's a very simple question actually, and it's become a lot simpler now,” Trump said, adding that “every legal scholar wanted [the issue] to be in the hands of the states” — a claim that flies in the face of decades of legal advocacy on the issue.

Most pundits credit voter shock over the Dobbs decision for Democrats’ ability to hold onto the Senate and stave off a predicted “red wave” in the House two years ago. And polls suggest that a broad bipartisan majority of American voters think abortion decisions should be made by women and doctors, and that mifepristone should be available for the purpose.

The Biden campaign did not furnish information on how much it spent to broadcast Dennard's spot online and on the air. But a review of Federal Communication Commission filings suggests it has been in regular rotation. And its message is being echoed by other groups.

NextGen America, which seeks to boost turnout among young voters for Democratic candidates, says it plans to use abortion as an issue to mark a contrast between Biden and Trump — neither of whom is intrinsically popular with younger voters. The group’s own polling shows that the issue can serve to drive voters away from Trump.

“When you talk with young people about Trump’s record on abortion, climate change, LGBTQ+ rights and voting rights, they are motivated to vote for Biden,” said NextGen vice president of communications Antonio Arellano.

American Bridge 21st Century, another pro-Democratic group, is using abortion to connect with rural voters, a cohort that is far less likely to support Democrats than the young. Its advertising campaign, which targets smaller markets like Erie and Johnstown, was set to launch this week.

The Biden campaign has been touting its outreach in such areas, seeking to capitalize on the fact that Trump’s own bid has been slow to build such infrastructure. For that matter, Trump himself has yet to make a meaningful splash on the airwaves.

Still, Biden faces serious headwinds. Polling has shown a tight race in Pennsylvania and other must-win states, with a New York Times poll this week suggesting slight leads for Trump. Perhaps most worrisome for Democrats: Traditional areas of strength, like the youth vote, have shown a notable lack of enthusiasm. Trump and Biden are effectively tied among voters 18 to 29 in the Times poll.

Political science professor Chris Borick, who heads the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, said his own polling confirmed that dynamic. “If I hadn’t seen in other polls what we found, I would absolutely question my own poll,” he said. “It speaks volumes to the challenges that Biden has.”

And while abortion “has potential to help Biden,” he said, “I don’t know if it carries the same impact as in [2022]. Presidential races are different creatures: They are more candidate-centric than other races.”

Still, he said that “the good news for Biden in these polls is that it’s a dead heat” in Pennsylvania and other swing states. The issue represents safer ground than Biden's handling of the economy, about which Americans express trepidation despite strong economic indicators, or the war in Gaza, an issue that divides Democrats against each other. And abortion tends to be a more significant issue to suburban and college educated voters, who are disproportionately likely to vote — and who are trending blue even as other groups drift the other way.

“It’s a modest effect,” Borick said. But in a tight race especially, “I think that’s got to be part of the calculus for Democrats — that it will keep those voters motivated.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.