For much of the last century, Delaware County was a suburban Philadelphia stronghold for Republicans.
Even with a blue shift in the last decade, Democrats didn’t see Pennsylvania House nominee Heather Boyd’s victory in the 163rd Legislative District as a lock.
“Delco is recently blue. There are still the remnants of a Republican machine. It may not win any more but it’s got a bit of fight left in it,” Trevor Southerland, executive director of the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee, told the Capital-Star. “You always take that with a little bit of nervousness.”
A full-throttle campaign backed by state Democrats to the tune of $1.5 million,and voters motivated by a looming threat to reproductive rights in Pennsylvania helped Boyd secure a commanding victory on Tuesday with 60% of the vote, according to unofficial election tallies.
“Our team dominated both on the ground and in the mailboxes, on the computers, on the television,” Southerland said.
“We knocked on 60,000 doors in basically four weeks. We took a race that could have been a very competitive race and made it a win.”
According to unofficial results, voter participation in the 163rd District race was about 36% of registered voters, significantly more than the county-wide turnout of around 20% in the last two municipal primaries.
Jennifer Toof, vice chairperson of the Upper Darby Democratic Committee for the 163rd District, said the committee had volunteers from all over the state on the streets for Boyd’s campaign.
“We mobilized, that’s what Democrats do. We’re a community where Democrats work together to mobilize voters,” Toof said.
Bob Bozzuto, director of the House Republican Campaign Committee, noted Republican Michael Stender’s victory in Tuesday’s other special election in the Northumberland County-based 108th House District will add experience from the perspective of a first-responder to the House GOP caucus.
Stender, a professional firefighter, defeated Democrat Trevor Finn with 60% of the vote, according to unofficial tallies.
But in the 163rd District, it took the endorsement of Gov. Josh Shapiro, President Joe Biden and a considerable investment by Democratic allies to win a district that was considered safe for Democrats, Bozzuto said in a statement.
Boyd, a former congressional staffer for U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, ran against Republican Katie Ford, a behavioral therapist and Army veteran, to replace former state Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware, who resigned in March amid sexual abuse accusations from at least three women.
Ford attacked Boyd for failing to keep Zabel from winning reelection after Boyd told The Philadelphia Inquirer in January that one of Zabel’s accusers had confided in her about a 2019 incident in which Zabel made unwanted advances.
Boyd told The Capital-Star she was powerless to keep Zabel from running and could not betray the trust of his accuser, who said she preferred to address the issue by changing House ethics rules to protect everyone who works with lawmakers.
But the big issue in the campaign tracked the national political fray over abortion access. Ford framed herself as a moderate conservative who would protect “reasonable and commonsense exceptions” while painting Boyd’s position as extreme with no limits.
Signe Espinoza, director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates,the political wing of the reproductive health organization, said the 2022 midterm elections, when Pennsylvania Democrats won a narrow majority in the state House, made clear that abortion was not only a major issue but a winning issue.
In addition to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the federal right to abortion, attacks on medication abortion, and attempts to pass new state abortion bans have popped up across the country, Espinoza said.
Pennsylvania is no exception. Last summer, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled General Assembly approved a proposal to amend the state constitution to state it does not guarantee the right to abortion or government funding for the procedure.
“What was at stake was banning abortion on the ballot,” Espinoza said.
Shapiro took to the airwaves on Boyd’s behalf to warn voters that a Republican victory in the special election would give the GOP the vote it needs to put the abortion amendment before voters in a referendum.
Although Ford said in a debate that she would not support the amendment, she was endorsed by pro-life groups and ultimately fell flat in her effort to come across as a moderate, Espinoza said.
“This is not the time for candidates or elected officials to be lukewarm,” she said, adding that Boyd was unequivocal about protecting women’s bodily autonomy. “That’s where Heather stood out as a candidate.”
Mustafa Rashed, president of the government relations and strategic communications firm Bellevue Strategies in Philadelphia, said abortion has become such a polarizing issue that it’s very difficult for any candidate to run as a moderate.
“That space just doesn’t exist anymore,” Rashed said.
And referendums in three red states last year defeating anti-abortion measures proved an abortion ban is not what Republican voters want, he said.
“This is something Republicans are not doing well with,” Rashed said.
Gabby Richards, a former communications director for Scanlon, worked closely with Boyd in Emerge Pennsylvania, a training program for Democratic women to run for office where Richards is a board member.
Boyd’s experience as a congressional staffer, a legislative staffer for state Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, chairperson of the Upper Darby Democratic Committee and as a leader in empowering women in politics made her an ideal candidate.
“She was built for this,” Richards said. “I think her entire career, her entire community service, her entire public service are like puzzle pieces that fit together to make her a stellar candidate and she’s going to be an even better representative.”