Doug Mastriano has extreme abortion views. Suddenly, he’s not talking about them

Polling over abortion in Pa. suggests voters don’t favor outright bans. With Roe still in place, efforts to do it were largely for show. Now that’s changed.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano speaks at a campaign event

State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin), the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pa., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Abortion has always been a centerpiece of Doug Mastriano’s political career. When he was elected to the state senate in 2019, one of the first bills he sponsored was an effective ban on the procedure — one of the more extreme abortion bills any member had introduced.

At the time, Roe v. Wade made the attempt purely symbolic, as did the fact that Gov. Tom Wolf vowed to veto any abortion restriction. But with Roe overturned and Mastriano himself running as his party’s nominee for governor, a total ban is a real possibility in Pennsylvania.

However, Mastriano now says that’s not what his campaign is about.

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe, Mastriano released a statement calling the decision a “triumph” but concluding on a different note: that it “must not take our focus away from the key issues facing Pennsylvania families.”

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Those issues? Inflation, gas and grocery prices, crime, and jobs. Not abortion.

Berwood Yost, who heads the Franklin and Marshall College poll and has been asking voters’ opinions on abortion for 30 years, said the reason is obvious. While the politics surrounding abortion have changed dramatically in Pennsylvania over the years, one factor has always been constant: voters don’t support total bans.

“It’s only a small share of voters, probably around 15 or so percent, who believe that abortion should be illegal under any circumstance,” he said. “For the lion’s share of people, they’re basically telling us that they think abortion should be legal under most circumstances.”

Yost is confident about these numbers. There’s a huge volume of data on public opinion about abortion, in Pennsylvania and nationally, and other polls have backed up F&M’s findings of majority-support for abortion. If anything, Yost expects opposition to total bans to grow with the loss of Roe v. Wade, as previously-complacent abortion rights supporters begin to pay more attention.

“For many people, this has been sort of an abstraction — something that we’ve talked about, but they weren’t active in it and or activated by it because the law was the law,” he said. “Now, all that is up in the air … which could mean a change in opinion.”

Chris Borick, a pollster and political analyst at Muhlenberg College, has also been watching Mastriano’s strategic retreat from his more radical positions on reproductive rights, noting that the senator clearly knows “his positions on the matter are not in line with public opinion.”

But, he noted, that means very little when it comes to actually evaluating what Mastriano would do as governor.

Along with wanting to essentially prohibit abortion — the six-week prohibition he has championed would eliminate the option before most women know they’re pregnant — Mastriano also opposes exceptions for rape, incest, or a parent’s life being in danger during pregnancy. He supports criminal penalties for doctors and nurses who perform abortions.

While the GOP-controlled legislature has never actually passed a six-week ban, they’ve been very willing to pass bills restricting the procedure in recent years, when it was a purely symbolic gesture. House GOP Leader Bryan Cutler, who is largely in charge of the direction of the chamber, has said he would support a total ban on abortion if Pennsylvania had “a different governor.”

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It’s a promise to their most conservative voters, Borick said, that would be hard to take back — even if some Republicans wanted to.

“If Mastriano was to win, there would be enormous pressure to act,” Borick said. “The actions themselves might not be necessarily great in terms of public opinion in Pennsylvania, but certainly among the Republican voters in the state, at least a strong majority of them, to not act on these pledges would be pretty detrimental, in terms of a backlash.”

That’s something Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, knows well.

2022 elections are expected to be a tough year for Democrats thanks to inflation, recession fears, and the general tendency of any new president’s party to do badly in midterms. But with many Democratic voters frustrated with their party for failing to do more to protect abortion rights, Borick noted that Shapiro has something most of the party’s candidates don’t: the ability to make a real promise.

“Shapiro, with this issue, has the most tangible of cases,” Borick said. “It’s as clear as can be: ‘if you don’t want those things to happen, and you want these rights protected in Pennsylvania, there’s one answer. It’s me.’”

In a statement, Shapiro’s campaign made exactly that case. Noting that Mastriano supports a ban without exceptions and would criminalize doctors who perform abortion, a spokesman wrote that his agenda “is so extreme that it will force Pennsylvania companies to leave and cost us jobs here in the commonwealth.”

He was referring to companies like Duolingo, a popular Pittsburgh-based language-learning program that recently said it would move its headquarters elsewhere if Pennsylvania bans abortion. Dicks Sporting Goods, also headquartered in Pittsburgh, has said it will pay for employees’ travel for reproductive care if necessary.

Mastriano, who generally doesn’t speak to mainstream media, didn’t respond to a request for comment. He made a handful of social media posts praising the Supreme Court’s ruling, then held an unrelated press conference at the Capitol Monday but avoided reporters’ questions and said nothing about abortion.

Yost thinks Republicans will have to deal with expressions of public outrage more frequently now. Before Roe was overturned, he said, they had the ability to cater to the extreme parts of their base without having to actually confront the fact that their rhetorical tool was unpopular.

“They were shielded from the broader public opinion in some ways,” he said. “They don’t have that shield any longer.”

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