Many suburban Republicans say they are having a hard time bringing themselves to vote for their party’s nominee for governor, Doug Mastriano. And several voters and political operatives doing on-the-ground outreach say his stance on abortion is a big reason why.
In this race to lead purple Pennsylvania, the difference between the candidates is stark.
Mastriano, a state senator, opposes abortion under all circumstances. His Democratic opponent, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, says he wants to maintain Pennsylvania’s current law: Abortion is legal up to about 24 weeks of gestation, with later-term abortions permitted in case of a medical emergency.
Stacy Naulty is one of those voters for whom a total ban is a problem. She’s 43 and lives near Lansdale, a Montgomery County town about an hour from Philadelphia, with her four kids. She supported Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020.
Naulty isn’t especially involved in politics, but she follows it closely. She works in elementary special education for the Central Bucks School District, and between her job and her kids, she cares a lot about schools. She has been frustrated by closures and mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic, worries about inflation, and generally supports lower taxes. She considers herself an independent-leaning Republican.
She voted for former congressman Lou Barletta in the GOP primary — a very conservative candidate who she still felt seemed “grounded” — but she doesn’t think Mastriano can be trusted with the governorship.
“I think he’s too far conservative,” she said. “I think he will cause more of a divide in our state if he gets in as governor.”
Naulty has a few specific areas of concern. Mastriano has released a plan to dramatically cut education funding that, as a teacher, she thinks will be “really tough on school districts.” She doesn’t like that Mastriano refuses to talk to mainstream news media.
But it’s his stance on abortion that she finds especially unacceptable, even as a person who generally supports abortion laws being up to states.
“I do think he will take it to the extreme and completely shut abortion down altogether, and that’s not an answer these days,” she said. “People rape children. You’re going to have her, you know, have a baby out of that situation?”
“No,” she said. “It’s not OK.”
Naulty isn’t presenting a hypothetical about Mastriano’s abortion views. During a primary debate, a moderator asked Mastriano explicitly when he would want to make abortion illegal and Mastriano said he supported a ban from “conception.” He added, “I don’t give way for exceptions, either,” referring to exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or a medical emergency in which a mother’s life is at risk.
He then brought up commentator Kathy Barnette, who at the time he was supporting for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination.
“She is a product of rape,” he said.
Mastriano has since tried to distance himself from that rhetoric. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, he released a statement praising the decision but added that it shouldn’t “take our focus away from the key issues facing Pennsylvania families,” like inflation and crime. He has also said that regardless of his personal abortion views, decisions about abortion timelines and exceptions are “in the hands of the people.”
It’s true that a governor can’t unilaterally ban abortion — they need support from the legislature. But Pennsylvania’s House and Senate are both controlled, and likely will continue to be controlled, by Republicans who have been very willing to pass bills restricting abortion in recent years.
Until now, those bills have been purely symbolic. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf had vowed to veto all abortion restrictions, and Roe v. Wade likely would have made restrictions invalid anyway. But with Roe moot and Wolf term-limited, things could change rapidly. 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.”
Cara Alderfen, a registered Republican who lives in the Perkasie area, in Bucks County, said she doesn’t really care how Mastriano frames his abortion views. Any level of support for rolling back abortion rights, she said, is “the nail in the coffin for me.”
Like Naulty, Alderfen works in the Central Bucks School District — the biggest public school district in the Philadelphia suburbs — but unlike Naulty, her estrangement from her party didn’t start with Mastriano.
Though Alderfen voted for Trump in 2016 because she thought he might be good for the economy, she came to hate his policies for “how they affect schools, how they affect children, how they affect women, how they affect minorities and other groups.”
She’s not against voting for a Republican again, but it won’t be Mastriano. When Roe v. Wade fell, she recalls being hit by how impactful the gubernatorial race would be.
“I was like, oh, my gosh, this guy is really bad,” she said. “I mean, he was bad before, but now it’s, like, really bad. He cannot be elected.”
That sentiment is all over the populous, politically vital Philadelphia collar counties, according to one Republican organizer who primarily opposes school closures and mask mandates, and who asked not to be named because of the political nature of her work.
This area of the state has trended toward Democrats in the last decade, but its voters are still relatively moderate and it remains important for statewide GOP candidates to perform well there.
In 2020, the four counties bordering Philadelphia — Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks — were together responsible for 27% of the vote increase for Democrats, compared with 2016. That surge in both the size of the electorate, and the rate at which it voted for Democrats, was key in pushing Joe Biden to victory in Pennsylvania, where Hillary Clinton had lost the commonwealth four years earlier.
People care about lots of issues this election cycle, the GOP organizer said — crime and education are big ones — but abortion bans can be a dealbreaker.
“I deal with all moms. I deal with all women,” she said. “They just want their kids to be educated, productive members of society. Do we have to vote for someone who thinks that if a woman gets raped, they have to keep the kid? That’s moms everywhere.”
Andrea Fellerman Kesack, 58, a physician working in the pharmaceutical industry who lives in Maple Glen, in Montgomery County, has had a tortured relationship with her political party for even longer.
Originally from Luzerne County, she has considered herself a Republican for her entire adult life, but always disliked Donald Trump and his impact on the party. She used to vote for down-ballot Republicans, like Pat Toomey, but doesn’t anymore. But she remains a registered Republican because she feels that moderates need to keep weighing in on primaries.
But candidates like Mastriano dishearten her — especially when it comes to issues like abortion. When Roe v. Wade still limited states’ ability to restrict abortion, she didn’t consider it a top issue. Now she does, and it feels to her like a regression.
“Now that the Supreme Court did what it did, it’s up there,” she said. “It wasn’t my first issue, [but] I have to think about it for my daughters and all those young women.”
Kesack is involved with the Republican Accountability Project, a conservative group that is running ads opposing Trump-aligned GOP candidates like Mastriano. The group is also doing voter outreach and holding focus groups.
“We’re appealing to the moderates around the Philadelphia suburbs, around the Harrisburg suburbs, around the Pittsburgh suburbs…the college educated suburban moderates who are without a home in the modern day Republican Party,” RAP Political Director Gunner Ramer said.
Ramer said that in the suburbs, abortion feels like the kind of issue that will peel away voters who might have supported another GOP candidate.
“Even if they consider themselves pro-life — which, many people in our organization consider themselves pro-life — Doug Mastriano’s stance on abortion is incredibly extreme,” he said, adding that in focus groups, these kinds of voters seem happy to vote for a conventional Democrat like Josh Shapiro when Mastriano is the alternative.
Kesack is happily supporting Shapiro, and Alderfen is, too. The anonymous political organizer says while she hasn’t made a final decision, Shapiro might be “the lesser of the two evils.”
Naulty still isn’t sure. She dislikes how the current administration handled schools during the pandemic and is wary of a repeat. But she also really doesn’t want a person like Mastriano in the governor’s office.
Ultimately, that impulse might win out. As she worked through her feelings on both candidates, Naulty sighed. Shapiro, she said, probably wouldn’t be “the worst” governor, and that might be good enough.