Pink “Fetter-woman” shirts and gray hair dotted the line that snaked around the block outside John Fetterman’s first rally here in Philadelphia since his stroke in May.
Spurred to action by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June, these women – especially those who fought for the right to an abortion before Roe was decided in 1973 – wanted it known they are angry, motivated and ready for a fight. They have helped boost Fetterman’s campaign as the Democratic candidate recovers from his stroke, powering his candidacy against Republican Mehmet Oz in one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country. The evenly divided Senate has heightened the importance of every Senate race this midterm, but none more than Pennsylvania, where the retirement of Republican Pat Toomey has created an opportunity for Democrats to pick up a seat in a state President Joe Biden won in 2020.
“We fought for this right, dammit,” said Kathy Jarn, a 71-year-old from Chester County. “We did the marching. We did the talks. We did the rallies, and we won. And it has been law that has been challenged and defeated a couple of times already and then just to come in with that and take it away, it’s unbelievable to me. It is just unbelievable.”
Jeri Rumsey, a 70-year-old from Montgomery County, put an even finer point on it: “My generation fought for that. And it’s gone. And I don’t like it.”
Abortion has become the premiere issue to Democratic campaigns in 2022. After spending much of the first half of the year being swamped by the focus on a sputtering economy and poor approval of Biden, Democratic campaigns received a boost when the Supreme Court overturned the long held federal right to an abortion in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision.
Democrats have since made abortion the central issue of most campaigns, helping the party win special elections in Alaska and New York and score a surprising victory in Kansas, where voters chose to keep abortion protections in their state constitution.
And Fetterman is following that momentum.
After his stroke, the candidate’s stump speech has primarily focused on attacking Oz, with little time devoted to any specific policy proposals. The one exception: Abortion.
“Dr. Oz might be a joke. He might be a joke, but it’s not funny. Because (abortion) is on the ballot here in Pennsylvania right now,” Fetterman told the audience in Philadelphia. “I fought for Philadelphia, and I am going to fight for abortion rights here in Pennsylvania and in America.”
A recent poll by CBS News/YouGov found the fight over abortion made Fetterman supporters are more likely to vote than Oz’s backers.
The poll found that 70% of likely voters who say abortion is very important to them favor Fetterman, compared to 30% for Oz. And the same survey found the Dobbs decision made 55% of registered Democrats more likely to vote, compared to only 15% of Republicans.
This is similar to other Senate races, like in Georgia, where the same CBS poll found 67% of likely voters who said abortion was “very important” were supporting incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, compared to 32% for Republican Herschel Walker.
Fetterman’s campaign believes abortion could be their key to winning in the suburbs. Their biggest rally to date, noted Fetterman spokesman Joe Calvello, was an event earlier this month in Montgomery County that focused specifically on abotion.
It’s the reason women like Kate Campbell – another 71-year-old from Chester County – are so drawn to Fetterman.
“We did not fight for our granddaughters to not have the same rights that we did,” said Campbell. “Abortion is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of denying women and pother people their rights. … If they are able to take that right, what is the next right?”
Republican operatives have worried for months about polls that show the party struggling with women voters who are skeptical of their candidates. Some Republican nominees, once they emerged from their primaries and are now facing a broader, less conservative electorate, have attempted to soften their positions on abortion – an acknowledgment of a series of polls that have shown abortion among the top issues for voters.
Oz, like other Republicans, has attempted to thread the needle on the issue, appealing to his party’s far right – many of whom were skeptical of Oz during the primary – while also trying to make good on his promise to win over independents and lean Democrats in the suburbs around Philadelphia.
Oz has said he does not support criminal punishment for doctors or women who get abortions and his campaign has said he supports exceptions to strict abortion laws for rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is at risk.
But Oz has not said how he would vote on a new federal bill proposed by Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham that would ban abortion after 15-weeks. And the Daily Beast reported in August that Oz told a tele-town hall audience during the primary that he believes “life starts at conception.”
“If life starts at conception, why do you care what age the heart starts beating at? It’s, you know, it’s still murder, if you were to terminate a child whether their heart’s beating or not,” he said, according to the Daily Beast.
“Dr. Oz is pro-life with three exceptions: life of the mother, rape and incest. And as a senator, he’d want to make sure that the federal government is not involved in interfering with the state’s decisions on the topic,” said Brittany Yanick, an Oz spokesperson.
Doug Heye, a longtime Republican strategist and former communications director for the Republican National Committee, said the problem for the party – whose candidates would rather talk about crime, the economy and the border – is that the overturning of Roe has turned “cycles of really bad Republican rhetoric” on abortion into more than just talk.
“It’s legislation, trigger laws that has moved this issue from theory into practice,” he said.
What will decide whether abortion is solely motivating hardened Democrats, Heye concluded, is whether women, like those at the Fetterman rally on Saturday, are doing more: “If all they are doing is going to a rally and buying a T-shirt, that isn’t doing anything. If they are, after the rally, going to phone bank and calling voters, that matters.”
It wasn’t just in deep blue Philadelphia – the zip code Fetterman spoke in on Saturday backed Biden with 96% of the vote in 2020 – where the Democratic candidate focused on the issue. Fetterman also spoke about abortion in Northampton County, a swing area that voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020 – a sign of how the issue is resonating with more than just solid Democrats.
Katie Dyer, a retiree from nearby Lehigh County, said she saw the Supreme Court ruling as a “travesty” because she is “of the age when I was rejoicing when abortions became legal.”
“It’s not Dr. Oz’s concern, it’s not Mastriano’s business. It is the woman’s business,” she said, referring to Doug Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania. “I really did not think that day would come.”
It’s not just older women who have been moved to political action in the wake of the decision, either.
This is “definitely the first time I had ever purchased a T-shirt and I did sign up to volunteer for the campaign,” said Kim Maynard, a 37-year-old from Philadelphia. “Honestly, prior to 2020, I didn’t vote in anything but the presidential elections.”
Becca Geiger, a 40-year-old from Philadelphia who waited in line outside Fetterman’s event with Maynard, said it “never crossed my mind” that Roe could be overturned, and the decision spurred her to come to the Philadelphia rally – something she had never done before.
Maynard said her action was spurred by both the abortion fight, but also what the loss of a right signals for the future.
“It’s the thought of, ‘If they can do that, what else are they going to do?’” she asked rhetorically. “What else should I not be counting on that I have been?”