GOP candidates for Pa. governor find common ground restricting abortion, expanding fracking

Written by on April 28, 2022

GOP candidates for Pa. governor find common ground restricting abortion, expanding fracking

By Katie Meyer / WHYY
April 28, 2022

Clockwise from top left are Lou Barletta, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, David White and Bill McSwain. (AP Photos)

No matter who wins Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial primary, the candidate will probably be someone who supports restricting abortion, reversing no-excuse mail-in voting, and expanding natural gas drilling. 

Indeed, throughout an hourlong debate in Harrisburg on Wednesday night — the first debate in which all the frontrunners shared a stage — the four candidates had very few policy disagreements. 

Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, and businessman Dave White are all essentially battling to prove who can be most conservative — and most like former President Donald Trump. 

They all set out to demonstrate it in different ways. 

Mastriano spoke of his efforts to identify fraud in the 2020 election — to prove Trump’s theories that the process was unfair to him. Barletta noted his history of Trump-like anti-immigration policies as mayor of Hazleton, long before Trump came on the political scene, and his quick embrace of the former president’s candidacy. Dave White argued that as a former union steamfitter and small business owner, he can keep bringing the kinds of disaffected Democratic voters into the party that Trump did. 

Trump appointed McSwain as U.S. Attorney for Pennsylvania’s eastern district, but McSwain apparently fell out with Trump after he didn’t investigate Trump’s baseless claims of rampant voter fraud. Trump recently issued his only public statement on the gubernatorial race: McSwain is a “coward” and voters shouldn’t support him. 

McSwain tried to skirt addressing that non-endorsement head-on, saying only that he is the “only candidate who actually served in the Trump administration” and that he can “unite all facets of the party.” 

Several of the positions championed by all four candidates could bring significant changes to Pennsylvania. 

Abortion in particular could be severely curtailed, or effectively outlawed, if one of the four Republicans in Wednesday’s debate wins the governor’s seat.

With a conservative U.S. Supreme Court that appears primed to repeal Roe v. Wade, which protects abortion rights nationwide, many states have already put laws in place that would curtail or outlaw abortion soon after a major court ruling. Pennsylvania hasn’t — partly because state Republicans haven’t quite coalesced around a bill, and partly because Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has pledged to strike down any attempt to restrict abortion. 

That dynamic could change with a conservative GOP governor. Mastriano and White both said they support a total ban on abortion, without any exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or medical emergencies in which the life of a mother is at stake. 

Mastriano took pains to underscore that position, bringing up commentator Kathy Barnette, who he is supporting for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination. 

“She is a product of rape,” he said. 

Barletta and McSwain also say they support total abortion bans, but would also support those limited exceptions. 

The primary election is May 17. Attorney General Josh Shapiro is the only Democrat running for governor. With no primary challenger, he will face the Republican nominee in the November general election.

Another issue that saw the GOP candidates in near-lockstep Wednesday night would have major ramifications for Pennsylvanians: voting. 

In 2019, Pennsylvania expanded voters’ ability to cast ballots by mail. Previously, they’d needed an excuse in order to do it, and the practice had been limited. Since the law changed, voters have overwhelmingly embraced mail-in voting — in 2020, more than 2.6 million voters cast ballots by mail, and about 4.2 million voted in person. 

In their calls for its abolition, the candidates in the debate claimed without evidence that drop boxes are widely being stuffed with fraudulent ballots, that dead people are voting, and that the process needs to be overhauled because some voters no longer trust elections.

White argued the fact that getting election results now takes longer is a sign that mail-in voting needs to be axed. Results have been delayed since Pennsylvania expanded use of mail ballots, but county election officials have told state lawmakers that they can correct the issue if they adjust state law to allow them to begin processing ballots ahead of Election Day, as other states do. 

State lawmakers have so far been unable to agree on a bill that makes the adjustment. 

All four candidates expressed support for slashing various taxes and cutting state spending. McSwain championed cutting Pennsylvania’s gas tax and all the candidates railed against corporate net income taxes. All except Mastriano balked at saying they’d oppose additional spending for nursing homes. 

Perhaps more than anything, the candidates were unified on energy. They want to get Pennsylvania out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. They want to relax regulations on drillers and extract more natural gas from the ground. 

“Fracking like you wouldn’t believe,” Mastriano promised. White envisioned an influx of “six-figure jobs, fifty to sixty thousand of them.” McSwain pitched gas and the state’s rich shale deposits as the key to “supercharge our economy.” 

And Barletta painted a picture of a Pennsylvania crisscrossed with new pipelines, adding that he thinks it’s “ludicrous” that Shapiro has prosecuted pipeline developers

“Drill baby drill,” he said. “This is Pennsylvania’s future.” 

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