The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How the GOP threat in 2022 just got much uglier after Roe

Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, Republican candidate for governor. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Democrats were shocked earlier this month when a poll showed Republican Doug Mastriano trailing by only four points in the race for Pennsylvania governor. This was despite Mastriano’s hard-right extremism: He bused protesters to D.C. before the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, is brimming with messianic Christian nationalism and has appeared at QAnon events.

But Mastriano poses a concrete threat in another way, now that the Supreme Court has struck down the constitutional right to abortion. Mastriano is only four points away from both banning abortion entirely in Pennsylvania and criminalizing it there, as he has pledged to do.

Mastriano is only the most glaring example of a central post-Roe threat to abortion rights: the move to dramatically restrict abortion or ban it entirely in blue-leaning swing states, not just in red ones.

Right now, Republicans control the state legislatures in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, and a Republican could win the gubernatorial race in any one of them. GOP candidates in all three have pledged to ban or dramatically restrict abortion.

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All this has other hidden implications as well: For instance, if abortion is banned in a state such as Pennsylvania, that would remove an important option in seeking reproductive care for people from neighboring states that have also banned it.

You may have noticed that Republicans have cast the court’s ruling in unthreatening tones, by claiming it merely returns the issue to “democratic control” in states. That’s sorely complicated by aggressive GOP gerrymanders of many state legislatures, including in states often won by Democrats.

But this also seems designed to lull Democratic voters into complacency. Voter turnout tends to drop off in midterms, particularly for the party in the White House. How many voters in places like Pennsylvania will make a direct connection between this fall’s gubernatorial elections and the fate of abortion rights?

“This is a real and present danger here in Pennsylvania if Mastriano wins,” Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general and Democratic nominee for governor, told me.

Mastriano has declared that administering abortion will be a crime if he is governor. He favors no exceptions to the abortion ban he would impose.

What’s more, the Republican-controlled legislature has sought to pass new restrictions on abortion. The Democratic governor has vetoed them. So would Shapiro. Mastriano would not, and with him as governor, he and GOP legislators would likely push as extreme a ban as possible.

“Is the next governor going to sign that bill into law, or veto it?” Shapiro asked.

As the Supreme Court’s liberal justices noted in dissent last week, states can now go to new extremes. They might try to ban travel out of state for an abortion, ban residents from receiving abortion medications from other states or criminalize the provision of funding and information to enable those things. Given Mastriano’s messianism, it’s likely he’d stake out such new frontiers.

In Wisconsin and Michigan, GOP legislatures’ efforts to further restrict abortion have been vetoed by Democratic governors. An 1849 Wisconsin abortion ban may now be in effect, but the Democratic governor and attorney general said they would not enforce it.

Meanwhile, a 1931 Michigan abortion ban has suddenly become germane, but it’s been temporarily blocked in state court. As Jonathan Cohn reports, this has created widespread confusion in the state while underscoring the precarity of abortion rights there.

Here’s the rub: If Republicans win the gubernatorial races in those two states, this will no longer be in doubt. GOP candidates in those states have hailed the court ruling. There’s little doubt they’d sign much more dramatic restrictions or possibly outright bans.

But even beyond the possibility of abortion bans in these states, we could see other ripple effects. First, such bans would close off another option for women in other neighboring states where abortion is already banned.

“As these states fall, domino after domino, the distance people have to travel will increase,” Leah Litman, a University of Michigan law school professor, told me.

Second, note that anti-choice activists and Republicans in some states are now discussing laws that would allow people in their states to sue people in other states where abortion is legal for helping the first state’s residents get abortions.

That is similar to what Texas’s extreme anti-abortion law does. That law has stirred fears that more states will adopt such “vigilante” mechanisms.

This again illustrates the high stakes in these gubernatorial contests. Democratic governors and attorneys general who are fully committed to abortion rights could put resources behind challenging such vigilante lawsuits and defending their states against them.

“It will be helpful to have a Democratic elected leader positioned to defend their residents,” Litman told me.

Looming behind all this is a vexing paradox. When Republicans say that the issue has now been returned to the democratic process, you’d think that would jolt voters to high alertness about state-level contests that will decide the women’s health regimes they will live under. But that could just as easily engender complacency instead.

In Virginia, Democrats ran millions of dollars in ads pointing out that Glenn Youngkin, now the GOP governor, had been caught on video suggesting extreme antiabortion views. It didn’t matter, and Youngkin has now called for a 15-week abortion ban. Will voters sense more urgency, now that the court has ensured that abortion rights are directly on the ballot?