He used to be an anti-abortion Democrat. Now he’s Biden’s secret weapon

Planned Parenthood v Casey, a case that placed restrictions on abortion, bears his father’s name. Now, former pro-life Democrat Bob Casey has had a change of heart, Eric Garcia reports, and it could play a pivotal role in November’s election

Sunday 09 June 2024 11:21 BST
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Senator Bob Casey (right) has been friends with Joe Biden for years, while his father, Bob Casey Sr (left) was one of the strongest opponents of abortion in the Democratic Party
Senator Bob Casey (right) has been friends with Joe Biden for years, while his father, Bob Casey Sr (left) was one of the strongest opponents of abortion in the Democratic Party (Getty)

In the upscale Philadelphia suburb of Glenside last month, Senator Bob Casey turned on the charm at a campaign office opening.

A lesser-known, longtime veteran of the Senate, Casey’s pullover sweaters and nice-guy demeanor have earned him comparisons to another son of Pennsylvania — Mister Rogers — as well as the nickname “Mr Pennsylvania” by his state counterpart, Senator John Fetterman.

But beneath this folksy, Biden-esque persona is a steely operator who’s supposed to prove a critical asset to the president in the 2024 race.

A New York Times/Siena College poll showed Casey has a five-point lead in Pennsylvania against Republican Dave McCormick, a sign of Casey’s high name recognition and popularity. But that doesn’t mean he’s in for a smooth ride in November. Last month, a super PAC supporting his former hedge fund executive rival, Dave McCormick, dropped $4 million on an ad buy, and it plans to spend $30m for him overall. Republicans know the importance of knocking off Casey is that it would end the Democrats’ one-seat majority in the Senate. Much is at stake.

But Casey’s recent change of heart when it comes to his stance on abortion could be what shifts the needle. For a long time he remained one of the few anti-abortion Democrats in Congress. But he says the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v Wade in 2022 changed his mind.

“If they can take a 49-year right away from women, they can take a right away from workers in the same court,” Casey said at a campaign speech in Glenside in May. He went on to promise that he plans to concentrate primarily on protecting women’s rights and voter rights.

During an interview with The Independent, he notes: “I think most Americans are looking at the issue of abortion with a very stark contrast in mind, which is: Do I want to ban abortion or not? And that’s where the Republican Party is.”

Biden’s secret weapon: Bob Casey pictured with the President
Biden’s secret weapon: Bob Casey pictured with the President (Getty Images)

Abortion rights have become a lightning rod in this year’s election race, and if the midterms are anything to go by, a winning issue for Democrats. In Pennsylvania — a critical brick in the blue wall that Biden needs to win to regain the White House — 56 percent of voters think abortion should legal in either all or most cases.

Yet McCormick is anti-abortion except in very rare instances. Since the Dobbs case and its fallout, he has tried to pivot from a previously hardline stance. But in 2022, when he ran for Pennsylvania’s other Senate seat, he said, “I believe in the very rare instances [when abortion should be allowed], there should be exceptions for life of the mother.”

Now, his website says he “is opposed to a national abortion ban, and supports exceptions in the cases of rape, incest, and saving the life of the mother.” McCormick is a former official in the Treasury Department during George W Bush’s administration — but he is also married to Dina Powell, Trump’s former deputy national security adviser.

Considering McCormick’s stance, it’s clear that Casey is seen by reproductive rights advocates as the lesser of two evils, even if both are out of step with the more liberal views of Pennsylvania voters.

A Democrat criticizing the court for ripping away Roe is not uncommon. But a Democrat with the last name Casey doing so is remarkable. That’s because along with being a staple of Pennsylvania politics, the Caseys have been the biggest opponents of abortion rights within the Democratic coalition.

Like the Kennedys in Massachusetts and the Bidens once they moved from Pennsylvania to Delaware, the Caseys, a family heavily steeped in state politics, symbolized the Democratic Party’s working-class Irish Catholic voting base for decades. And like many devout Catholics, the Caseys ardently opposed abortion. In 1989, Senator Casey’s father, Governor Bob Casey, signed legislation in Pennsylvania that required patients seeking an abortion to wait for 24 hours after making their decision and inform either their husbands or, if they were minors, their parents.

In response, Planned Parenthood’s southeastern Pennsylvania arm sued.

That same year, Governor Casey was prevented from speaking at the Democratic National Convention, which he claimed was because of his views on abortion.

A decade later, his son continued in much the same tradition. The younger Casey ran for Senate in 2006 as a “pro-life” and “pro-gun” Democrat, blowing out incumbent Republican Rick Santorum. His stance helped him win over voters in rural and working-class counties like Berks, Beaver and Luzerne County where Democrats have struggled, as well as suburban counties like Bucks and cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Two years later he spoke at the DNC and noted during his speech that, even though Barack Obama supported abortion rights, they mutually respected each other.

Casey also voted for both of Obama’s Supreme Court nominees — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — who leaned progressive on abortion rights, and voted against all three of Trump’s nominees. In 2022, he voted to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the court.

That same year, he went even further following the overturning of Roe, and announced he would support Democrats’ legislation to codify abortion rights into law.

Sue-Ann DiVito, a Democratic activist and realtor based in Philadelphia, said at the Glenside event that she appreciated Casey’s switch.

“I am very excited that he’s supportive of women’s rights. I believe some people evolve and we should welcome that,” she told The Independent.

Unsurprisingly, McCormick’s campaign sees things differently.

“No Senator has made a more radical change to his position on abortion than Bob Casey Jr, and his extreme stance is out of step with Pennsylvania, with America, and with his own late father,” Elizabeth Gregory, the Republican’s communications director, told The Independent in an email.

Asked by The Independent what he thought of Casey’s change of heart on abortion, John Fetterman told The Independent that he believes his colleague is “firmly on the side of choice” and tried to paint McCormick as out of touch given the Republican hails from Connecticut.

“And of course, McCormick is against that,” Fetterman — who recently flipped a Republican seat in Pennsylvania largely due to female voter anger at the overturn of Roe v Wade — continued. The two go way back: When some voters feared Fetterman could not do the job after he suffered a stroke, Casey criss-crossed the state for Fetterman. And Casey’s low-key charm and family background balances out Fetterman’s more bolshy, hoodie-wearing personality nicely. Little wonder that Casey is seen by Joe Biden as a friend and somewhat of a secret weapon: the president affectionately refers to Bob Casey Jr’s father as “Bob,” while he calls the currently serving Casey “Bobby”.

The general consensus among Democrats is that winning a state in a post-Roe world now relies on putting the Fettermans of the world alongside the Caseys, and telling a story about reproductive rights that looks sensible and nuanced as opposed to highly ideological.

It helps, too, that Fetterman and Casey have strong roots in the counties they intend to represent.

“I am always going to be 100 percent supportive of my friend and ‘Mr Pennsylvania’,” Fetterman added. “Especially over that guy from Greenwich.”

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