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Despite midterm losses, Pa. Republicans appear unlikely to abandon combative agenda

by Katie Meyer of Spotlight PA and Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA |

Early results for the governor’s race appear on screen at Doug Mastriano’s election night watch party in Camp Hill, PA.
Republicans inside and outside Pennsylvania government say that despite a disastrous midterm election, they don’t see signs that their party is shifting its electoral or governing strategies.
Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — Republicans inside and outside Pennsylvania government say that despite a disastrous midterm election, they don’t see signs that the party is shifting its electoral or governing strategies away from contentious social issues like restricting abortion.

Some party insiders say that trend is a bad sign for GOP prospects.

After losing marquee races for governor and U.S. Senate, as well as control of the state House (though for now that remains contested), Republicans in Harrisburg, particularly in the lower chamber, have seemed to resume their previous combative agenda with gusto.

The week after the election, the House impeached Philadelphia’s progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner in a near party-line vote — a rare step, particularly as Krasner isn’t accused of any crime.

More than a dozen conservative members of the chamber also formed the Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus, joining a national network of conservative lawmakers. U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.), who is under investigation for his role in attempting to overturn the 2020 election, helped launch the effort last month, saying that “people don’t vote for Republicans to come to state capitols to negotiate backroom deals with far-left extremists.”

“I don’t think it’s a good sign for us,” said one Republican Party insider who spoke on condition of anonymity because of their close work with some of the politicians they’re criticizing. Conservative Republicans, they added, don’t seem to be reading the room.

“The Freedom Caucus stuff is not positive. That really spooks people from the southeast,” the operative said, referring to Philadelphia and its suburbs. “In statewide races, that hurts, and then [Democratic candidates use it against Republican candidates] in these races in the southeast.”

Southeast Pennsylvania is one of the most vote-rich areas of the state. Once a GOP stronghold, the region has become increasingly controlled by Democrats in the past decade. Democrats did well there in the midterms, ousting one of the state House’s long-standing Republican holdouts, state Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery), who was known for his willingness to cross the political aisle.

Stephens said he thinks this year’s new legislative map, which made his district more Democratic, drove his and other GOP losses — a theory echoed by chamber leaders. But he added that the maps do not account for Republican troubles at the top of the ticket in statewide contests.

Stephens said he thinks far-right Republican candidates like Doug Mastriano make it harder for candidates like him to communicate their own, more moderate values — and that’s where he sees deeper problems in the party.

“I think that the Republicans need to recognize that there are sizable populations that don’t live in rural Pennsylvania, that feel differently about things, particularly social issues,” he said. “If they want to compete for suburban voters, which I think they have to if they want to be competitive in Pennsylvania statewide, then they’re gonna have to reexamine some of their policies.”

Stephens highlighted several of the issues where he tended to deviate from his caucus: regulating gun access, ensuring LGBTQ rights, and preserving access to abortion.

Shortly after speaking with Spotlight PA, he shared an article reporting that one of the state House’s most socially conservative members, state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R., Clinton), had introduced a bill for the new session that would ban abortion in virtually all circumstances.

“Well,” Stephens wrote in a text message, “so much for that!”

Republicans across the political spectrum have echoed some of Stephens’ concerns about voters’ view of the GOP, criticizing the party’s lack of a pitchable policy agenda on the campaign trail.

Last month, moderate state Rep. Tom Mehaffie (R., Dauphin), told Spotlight PA that the past few years had resulted in “a lot of bad products in the House.” He did not name specifics.

Privately, other GOP sources have said they disagreed with leadership’s decision to force a late-night vote in July on a controversial bundled constitutional amendment. It would have included several disparate constitutional changes, including a measure to block courts from finding a constitutional right to abortion access, and another aimed at implementing stricter voter ID laws.

Forcing legislative Republicans to vote on the proposal brought the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade to the forefront of some races, and gave Democrats additional material to use against GOP candidates.

But more conservative members of the state House have drawn different lessons from the party’s poor midterm performance: that Republicans did not advance an aggressive enough agenda.

State Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R., Lawrence) told Spotlight PA that leadership would avoid votes on controversial bills by arguing it was too hard for some colleagues or by arguing that the timing wasn’t right.

However, with voters “tired of the status quo,” the caucus needed to do a better job of putting words into action, he said.

“The truth is we should be the party of fiscal responsibility, yet we refused to run the Taxpayer Protection Act,” Bernstine said, referring to a proposed constitutional amendment to cap state spending to the rate of inflation. “We are the party of school choice, but we refused to run a comprehensive school choice bill. We are the party of individual freedom, but we refused to run a constitutional amendment on medical freedom,” which would have banned vaccine mandates.

(Bernstine is also listed as a member of the new Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus, according to its website.)

Other GOP lawmakers seek to avoid too much finger-pointing.

State Sen. Dave Argall (R., Schuylkill), who chaired the chamber’s powerful State Government Committee during the past session, said his party needs to “find a message that resonates in both our rural areas, and in our suburban and urban areas.”

He has just a few priorities for 2023: pass a state budget that carefully takes into account the “iffy” economy, and overhaul and update Pennsylvania’s long-debated election laws.

Unless the courts intervene, in January the state Senate will also have to conduct a trial for Krasner.

Asked whether he wanted to spend legislative time that way, Argall laughed.

“We don’t have a choice,” he said. “We have an obligation. The House impeached, the Senate must proceed accordingly.”

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