HARRISBURG — At a Planned Parenthood-sponsored panel in September, a woman asked Gov. Tom Wolf why, in a state where there are more Democrats and pro-choice residents, is the legislature so Republican and anti-abortion?
“Great question,” Wolf said to laughs.
That Wolf would appear at an event put on by a health care organization that’s become a political lightning rod isn’t a surprise. His election was hailed by Cecile Richards, then-president of the national Planned Parenthood Federation of America, as “pretty darn exciting.” He hasn’t backed down from his position supporting reproductive rights since taking office, vetoing a 20-week abortion ban bill in December and vowing to block similar legislation.
On that September day, Wolf pointed to gerrymandering as the reason why Republicans hold majorities in both General Assembly chambers, video from the forum shows. He was also asked how he deals with pushback to his unapologetic support for Planned Parenthood.
“Well, I’m very confident that I’m right,” he said, smiling. “All we’re trying to do is provide more options and more choices for human beings, our fellow citizens. I’m sorry, how is that wrong?”
Wolf is up for reelection this November and will face former state Sen. Scott Wagner, a York County Republican who has described himself as “100 percent pro-life.”
For both supporters and opponents of abortion access, Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial election has taken on new importance in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election. With conservative Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh expected to replace retiring swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court could roll back or overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case legalizing abortion nationwide. If that happened, states would decide what level of access people who can get pregnant have to abortion.
Depending on the outcome this fall, that could go two very different ways in Pennsylvania.
With politicians in Congress and the General Assembly calling for Planned Parenthood to lose government funding — which primarily comes from Medicaid reimbursements — the organization could not ask for a more supportive governor than Wolf.
“This is a guy who was a volunteer escort for Planned Parenthood when he was just a regular dude,” said Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates Executive Director Sari Stevens. “His support is so authentic.”
Wolf’s campaign declined a request for an interview, but at the September panel, First Lady Frances Wolf described the couple’s experience volunteering at the York Planned Parenthood, one of nearly 30 locations in the state.
“You can read something,” she said, “but it doesn’t have the emotional impact, for example, to be an escort and to see what patients coming in what they had to endure, sort of these barricades they had to come through.”
Wolf was not endorsed by Planned Parenthood’s Pennsylvania political arm during the 2014 primary — they went with congresswoman Allyson Schwartz — but the group did back him in the general. Richards even filmed an ad calling Wolf a “phenomenal alternative” to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
The state Republican Party also ran ads in 2014 highlighting Wolf’s support for reproductive rights — alongside information about Kermit Gosnell, who was convicted in 2013 for performing illegal abortions and killing live infants in Philadelphia.
Since taking office, anti-abortion groups and Republicans have criticized Wolf for his relationship with Planned Parenthood. A former Corbett campaign staffer released emails in 2015 that showed Stevens communicating with administration officials ahead of the release of covertly filmed videos regarding fetal tissue donations. Members of Wolf’s team have also privately met with Planned Parenthood representatives, per the governor’s work calendars.
But polls have consistently shown a majority of Pennsylvania voters want to keep funding Planned Parenthood. A 2017 Muhlenberg College survey found 61 percent in favor.
It’s also true that more people in the commonwealth support abortion access than don’t. A Gravis Marketing poll conducted ahead of the PA-18 special election in March found that 45 percent of commonwealth voters support abortion access, while 38 percent do not and 17 percent are unsure.
Those numbers were similar when voters were asked about a ban on abortion after 20 weeks: 48 percent of voters said they opposed a ban, 40 percent said they supported it, and 12 percent were unsure.
Pennsylvania was among the first states to impose strict limitations on abortion post-Roe through the Abortion Control Act, which restricts the procedure to 24 weeks, requires minors under 18 get parental consent, and institutes a one-day waiting period.
The state came right up to the edge of a 20-week ban in December, when Wolf vetoed a bill that also would have imposed criminal penalties on doctors who perform the dilation and evacuation procedure. The ban passed with support from Democrats and Republicans in both chambers. That included Wagner, who also co-sponsored a bill to withhold public money from organizations that perform abortions (read: Planned Parenthood) during his time in the Senate.
According to his campaign spokesperson, Wagner would sign both bills if he became governor.
Wagner’s record did not save him from attacks during the primary. His opponent, Paul Mango, ran an ad criticizing him for saying the state’s Abortion Control Act is “doing its job.” The Pennsylvania GOP jumped to defend Wagner’s record, as did the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation.
“We think there’s a clear decision for voters this year,” said Maria Vitale Gallagher, the federation’s legislative director.
She added that “people are happy about progress being made in Washington,” like the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and new restrictions on federal funding for international organizations that provide information about abortion or perform the procedure.
“All of that has helped to energize and motivate people on the life issues and that does carry over to the governor’s race this year,” she said.
‘Our No. 1 investment’
So far this year, Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania PAC has donated $26,500 to Wolf’s campaign, according to campaign finance records.
Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Votes, meanwhile, is planning to put at least $1.5 million into “door knocking, phone banking, texting, direct mail, and digital advertisements” to get the governor re-elected. Part of that effort will be targeted at the Philadelphia suburbs.
Altogether, Stevens estimated the total spend may be closer to $2 million.
“He is our No. 1 investment,” she said of Wolf.
The Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation has a “very small” PAC, per Gallagher, which makes endorsements and sends a voter guide. The Pennsylvania Family Institute, a conservative nonprofit based in Harrisburg that opposes abortion, also releases a voter guide.
The institute has a 501(c)(4) branch, the Pennsylvania Family Council, that is able to make endorsements, but there are currently no plans to do so in the governor’s race, Vice President for Policy Thomas Shaheen said.
Like Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, the Family Council can also make independent expenditures to support and oppose candidates. The council has not spent money in 2018 to support Wagner, though it did spend more than $13,000 to support Rick Saccone’s unsuccessful bid in the PA-18 special election.
Whether Planned Parenthood’s big spend will make a difference in the gubernatorial race remains to be seen. During the 2016 election, the national Planned Parenthood Action Fund pledged to spend $30 million on ground efforts in six states including Pennsylvania. The group’s endorsed candidate, Hillary Clinton, won in just two of those states.
Before Trump’s election, Planned Parenthood’s political arm may have had a harder time mobilizing voters on reproductive rights, said Kristin Kanthak, associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh.
It seemed like a given that Clinton would win. “Why should they go out and go vote when abortion rights are totally safe in Pennsylvania?” Kanthak said.
But things are different now, which means amped up rhetoric — like Stevens calling Wolf the “last line of defense for Pennsylvanians” — could have a bigger impact.
“That’s going to be an easier message to get across in 2018 than in 2016,” Kanthak said.
Pennsylvania has been pivotal
Efforts to curtail access to abortion in Pennsylvania began even before the passage of Roe v. Wade and continue to this day.
Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp was opposed to abortion, but he vetoed a bill in 1972 that would have only allowed the procedure if three hospital-based physicians consented. He said no to another abortion bill —one including a provision that a woman had to get her husband’s consent — but his veto was overridden by the General Assembly. “The US Supreme Court eventually ruled [that law] unconstitutional several days before Shapp left office in 1979,” according to Pennsylvania political commentators G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young.
Republican Gov. Dick Thornburgh vetoed the first version of the Abortion Control Act in 1981, saying it could “have the effect of imposing an undue and in some cases unconstitutional burden.” But the bill’s creators quickly came back with legislation changed just enough to win Thornburgh’s support, former congressman Joe Hoeffel wrote in Fighting for the Progressive Center in the Age of Trump.
The Abortion Control Act was challenged by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1986, the justices ruled 5-4 that several provisions, including one requiring “informed consent,” were unconstitutional.
Thornburgh was succeeded by Bob Casey Sr., a Democrat who fiercely opposed abortion and signed into law restrictive changes to the Abortion Control Act. Those provisions, which reinstated “informed consent” and a 24-hour waiting period, were again challenged — this time by Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania — in a case that also went to the Supreme Court.
Planned Parenthood v. Casey created the “undue burden” standard, which aimed to to block state regulations that place a “substantial obstacle” on obtaining an abortion, but also upheld most of the restrictions in Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act.
“We were at the forefront of seeing how far state legislatures could take restrictions on abortion under the guise of Roe,” Planned Parenthood’s Stevens said.
The subjectivity of the Casey ruling allowed states to pass a number of additional limits on abortion and led to another Supreme Court case.
Stevens said she expects state legislatures will double down on abortion restrictions in the next year, as the Supreme Court is poised to become solidly conservative. Currently, Pa. House Speaker Mike Turzai, a Republican from Allegheny County, is pushing for the passage of a bill that would ban abortions based on Down syndrome diagnoses.
Wolf has vowed to “vigorously defend the progress so many of us have fought so hard for over decades” in the face of those challenges. That includes vetoing an abortion ban if Roe falls, while Wagner hasn’t committed either way.
That possibility alone may not be enough to get people on both sides to the polls.
“Very few people are single-issue voters,” noted Jennie Sweet-Cushman, assistant director of Chatham University’s Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics.
In Pennsylvania, guns and abortion are two areas where you see issue voters, she said. But those voters are already going to come out for the candidate who sides with them.
“People do often make the mistake that one particular issue is gonna have a big effect on turnout,” Pitt’s Kanthak added. “That’s just not really how politics works.”
What can make a difference in elections is a well-funded and well-targeted get out the vote effort, Kanthak said, like the one Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Votes is planning.
“They’re saying it’s important and putting it in a context of this election being particularly important for women,” she said. “That is the kind of thing that can turn out elections.”