At rally for Dem Senate candidate in Pennsylvania - and beyond - abortion takes center stage

Abortion has raised the stakes in an already consequential election that will decide which party controls Congress and the fate of President Joe Biden's agenda in the last two years of his term.

  • A John Fetterman rally in battleground Pennsylvania offers a close view of abortion and the midterms
  • The abortion issue is drawing registered Republicans to rallies like these
  • Political strategists in Arizona and Georgia say the abortion issue could decide races there
  • Abortion rights have prompted doctors across the country to join the frontlines of a political fight

BLUE BELL, Pa. – This is the type of crowd that shows how Democrats across the country could improve their odds in the November midterms. 

John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor and the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, is speaking to a crowd that includes babies too young to vote to women in their 80s. The backdrop behind him says women for Fetterman, but there are also men here to support him. There are also registered Republicans here who say they are voting for Democrats this year.

"This November, abortion rights are on the ballot here in Pennsylvania and abortion rights will win," said Gisele Fetterman, John's wife and the second lady of Pennsylvania.

Though she introduced him as a fighter for Pennsylvania and reproductive rights, he introduced himself as John Fetterwoman.

Democratic Pennsylvania Senate nominee John Fetterman arrives on stage for a rally with U.S. Congresswomen Madeleine Dean and Mary Gay Scanlon on September 11, 2022 at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. In the November general election, Fetterman faces U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz.

"Women are the reason we can win," he said to loud applause. "Don't piss women off."

A midterm race once thought to be determined in favor of Republicans by the old adage "It's the economy, stupid" is being redefined in favor of Democrats with a cross-party rallying cry to save abortion rights.

Dr. Mark Lopatin said he is more motivated to vote in November than in years past. A registered Republican in suburban Philadelphia, he has voted for both major parties. This year he's voting for Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. 

"It's a medical issue," he said. "The physician-patient relationship is the most sacred thing in healthcare, and it's being destroyed."

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Lopatin, a rheumatologist, said doctors have been put in an untenable position of deciding what's best for the patient and what might be considered criminal since the Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade. 

A supporter wears a t-shirt that reads "FETTERWOMAN" and a campaign pin before Democratic Pennsylvania Senate nominee John Fetterman holds a rally with U.S. Congresswomen Madeleine Dean and Mary Gay Scanlon on September 11, 2022 in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. Fetterman faces GOP U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz in the November general election.

As a rheumatologist, prescribing arthritis drug methotrexate could be viewed as criminal in some states because of the medication's potential to interfere with pregnancies.

It puts physicians in a quandary to decide whether to face criminality for violating a state's abortion laws or possibly being sued for malpractice if they don't provide a standard of care, Lopatin said. 

Extra motivation?

He's one of several physicians in the packed crowd to see Fetterman at Montgomery County Community College in suburban Philadelphia – one of the most-populated areas of Pennsylvania that has decided elections for years. About 2,500 people were packed in the college gymnasium, with another 1,000 waiting outside. 

Fetterman is flanked by Democratic congresswomen, the state House minority leader, abortion advocates, doctors, former primary opponents and Republicans. All spoke about how he could be the 51st vote in the Senate to support abortion rights and enshrine Roe v. Wade into law. 

"Everything is on the line," said U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Democratic congresswoman from Pennsylvania. 

This is a campaign rally billed as an abortion rally, gathering a consortium of support and setting the tone of the midterms throughout the next two months.

Democratic Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D-PA) is welcomed on stage during a rally at the Bayfront Convention Center on August 12, 2022 in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Polls show abortion is the most motivating issue for midterm voters – especially Democrats who frequently need a little extra motivation to show up to the polls in the midterms.

The stakes were already high in an election that will decide which party controls Congress and the fate of President Joe Biden's agenda in the last two years of his term. The Supreme Court then overturned the constitutional right to an abortion in June.

Inflation, the president's low approval numbers and historical trends suggested the political climate favored Republicans, who were predicted to win both chambers of Congress. The Supreme Court's Dobbs decision in June drastically changed that, especially in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin and Florida.

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In Pennsylvania, Fetterman has led his Trump-backed Republican opponent Dr. Mehmet Oz in every poll. Helping Fetterman lead are women of all ages in all corners of the state who say they are supporting the candidate who supports abortion rights. 

"I was disgusted," when Roe was overturned this summer, said Louise Doskow, a 78-year-old Montgomery County resident. 

She's supporting Fetterman because he's pro-abortion rights, but also because he's the candidate she believes will protect democracy.

Pennsylvania — and beyond

A Republican political strategist in Arizona said he is seeing a similar scenario in his home state, where Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly is leading his Republican opponent Blake Masters among women by 20 points. 

The Republicans' path to victory was thought to be through inflation, the economy and a referendum on Biden. The Democratic path is through the criminalization of abortion and election denial among Republicans, according to Chuck Coughlin, a Republican strategist who worked for two Arizona governors and became an independent in 2017.

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So far, Democrats are winning because of a game-changing Roe decision, he said.

“Two years ago it was unfathomable to me that a Democratic sweep could happen, but there’s a real possibility out here for that to happen with every statewide office," Coughlin said.

A primary referendum in Kansas, where numerous Republicans joined Democrats and Independents to uphold abortion rights in the reliably red state, further signaled how abortion could be the decisive issue in the November election.

Kansas was the first vote on abortion rights since the Roe reversal in June, but voter turnout shattered expectations and, some analysts say, battleground Republicans' paths to victory. 

A defining issue

Fetterman is ramping up his campaign messaging during a stop at Montgomery County Community College in a suburb of Philadelphia.

The Dobbs decision in June sent the issue back to the states, where legal battles are raging across a divided nation. 

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"We know that everyone's freedom to make the right choices for their health and their family is on the line," said U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democratic congresswoman from Pennsylvania.  

A recent Franklin & Marshall Poll shows 9 out of 10 Pennsylvanians support abortion rights. That's especially true among suburban women and independents and is out of line with Oz's comments recently that abortion at any stage is "murder."

"Despite the oath he took as a doctor to do no harm, Dr. Oz wants to let extremists criminalize abortion with no exceptions, jeopardizing the lives of millions of women and pregnant people and criminalizing providers," said Alexis McGill, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

The Oz campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This is a pressing issue for voters, too, including some Republicans who say they are voting for Fetterman. 

Georgia is another battleground state where the abortion issue is attracting Republicans and independents to Democratic tickets. 

Fred Hicks, a political strategist and pollster in Georgia, said he has run conservative-leaning polls that still show a majority of voters disagree with the Supreme Court decision and are more likely to vote for candidates who expand or protect abortion rights. 

"Republican candidates have tried to stop talking about the abortion issue," he said. "That's the best poll there is to show you where things are."

Doctors join the political fight

The abortion issue has prompted doctors across the country to join the frontlines of a political fight. 

In recent weeks, Pennsylvania doctors have been speaking out against Oz, a pro-life candidate who supports the Dobbs decision, and have called the cardiothoracic surgeon "a major threat to public health."

On the steps of Philadelphia City Hall last month, Dr. Lisa Perriera joined the ranks of abortion providers who oppose Oz.

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"I know what happens when abortion becomes illegal," said Perriera, an OB-GYN and chief medical director at the Women's Centers in Philadelphia and Delaware counties. "If Dr. Oz were elected, he would only make the struggle for my patients harder." 

Abortion is currently legal in Pennsylvania, and those rights are at stake in the November election. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is term limited and has blocked anti-abortion bills from the Republican-controlled Legislature. 

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor, said he would continue Wolf's defense and uphold a woman's right to choose. His Republican opponent, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Trump-backed candidate who has pushed falsehoods about the legitimacy of President Joe Biden's victory in 2020, opposes abortion rights and said the "my body, my choice" argument is "nonsense."

Morgan MacNaughton, a 23-year-old Penn State student from Ambler, is most concerned about how abortion rights could be impacted in Pennsylvania if Mastriano is elected. 

"That's the scarier race," she said. "But if we can elect Fetterman, he would help the Senate codify Roe, protect abortion rights and do something about the Supreme Court decision."

Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at cwoodall@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.