The next big abortion battleground: Pennsylvania

The next big abortion battleground: Pennsylvania

PHILADELPHIA — Less than a month after their double-digit victory on abortion rights in Ohio, Democrats are preparing to pour millions of dollars into the next big battlefront over the hot-button policy.

Across the border in Pennsylvania, a seat on the state Supreme Court is up for grabs this November, and a Democrat who has vowed to protect “women’s reproductive rights” is running against a Republican who’s promised to defend “all life under the law.”

The major showdown over a state Supreme Court seat signals that these once little-noticed elections have become expensive, high-stakes affairs after the fall of Roe v. Wade last year. A pro-Democratic super PAC is quietly gearing up to make abortion the centerpiece of the campaign. Planned Parenthood has already waded into the contest. And some top Democrats in the state are even predicting that the race may be a repeat of this year’s Supreme Court election in Wisconsin, in which a liberal candidate won decisively after putting abortion front and center.

“The abortion issue will likely be the single biggest issue in the Pa. Supreme Court race,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.). “Just a few months ago, in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, abortion was the single biggest reason why Democrats won by over 10 points. I could see something similar happening in Pa.”

Both parties will be watching the state Supreme Court race in Pennsylvania as a bellwether in a key battleground state ahead of the 2024 presidential election. For Democrats, the outcome will offer clues about whether voters are still mobilized by abortion more than a year after Roe v. Wade was struck down — and if the party can keep outrunning President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings. For Republicans, it will demonstrate whether they can finally crack the code on how to navigate the post-Roe world.

Control of the state Supreme Court is not at stake this year, but the election will help set the stage for upcoming races that could tip the balance of power. Three Democrats on the court are up for retention in 2025.

Political operatives on both sides of the aisle said that this year’s race will likely be one of the most expensive state Supreme Court elections in the state’s history.

“You’re probably looking at something in the range of $20 million, $25 million,” said J.J. Abbott, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist with ties to abortion rights groups. “There’s really significant repercussions nationally in terms of access to reproductive care if Pennsylvania were to limit it.”

To many party officials and operatives in the GOP, though, the entire thing is a made-up issue. They said they had expected Democrats to seize on abortion again after the party overperformed in the 2022 midterms. But they argue that abortion is not actually on the ballot this year since the procedure is legal in Pennsylvania and Democrats currently control the governor’s office and the state House.

“There is not going to be any abortion bill coming out of Harrisburg anytime soon,” said Josh Novotney, a GOP consultant in Pennsylvania. “This is a diversionary tactic to not talk about the real issues, including schools and jobs.”

Democrats, however, insist that their current 4-2 majority on the seven-member court is critical for upholding abortion rights in the state. They point out that Republicans last year nominated a staunchly anti-abortion candidate for governor, Doug Mastriano, who opposed exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

Dan McCaffery, the Democratic nominee for the state Supreme Court seat and a current Superior Court judge, has made abortion a key part of his campaign. On the trail, he has talked about how he disagrees with the Dobbs decision and touted an endorsement from Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania’s political action committee.

In an interview, McCaffery said that “it’s pretty clear from a personal standpoint that I believe those particular issues are best decided between a woman, her conscience and her doctor.” From a legal perspective, he said, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy in Pennsylvania, “and I will obviously uphold the law.”

McCaffery’s allies are already attacking his GOP opponent, Carolyn Carluccio, president judge of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, over abortion.

The super PAC Planned Parenthood Votes launched a six-figure digital ad campaign this month that accuses Carluccio of “hiding her extreme anti-abortion views,” a reference to the Republican removing a resume from her website that described her as a defender of “all life under the law.” The spot also slams her endorsement by the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation.

Another pro-McCaffery super PAC, Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness, is also planning to lean into Carluccio’s record on abortion, according to a person close to the group who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Thirty-eight percent of Pennsylvania voters said abortion should be legal in all circumstances, while an additional 48 percent said it should be legal in certain cases, according to a poll conducted this month by Franklin & Marshall College. Only 13 percent said it should be illegal in all circumstances.

Asked about her position on abortion, Carluccio told POLITICO that judicial rules limit what she can say about the issue. At the same time, she positioned herself as an above-the-fray judge who would not disrupt the status quo on abortion rights.

“I have to follow the judicial canons so I can’t take stances on anything that might come before me,” she said. “I can say that I am not an activist judge. I believe in upholding the law, regardless of anyone’s personal or political beliefs, and women’s reproductive rights are protected under Pennsylvania law.”

As for the language taken off her website, Carluccio consultant Rob Brooks described it as meaning the following: “Defending all life under the law is exactly that … under the law. Judge Carluccio spent her career protecting freedoms, supporting victims, and upholding the law.” He reiterated that “in Pennsylvania, women’s reproductive rights are protected by law” and “she will uphold the law.”

Though Republicans may not display as much outward confidence as Democrats, they are cautiously optimistic about the race. The GOP establishment got its preferred candidate in Carluccio, who beat out a more conservative Republican who was an ally of Mastriano’s in the primary.

Republican insiders in the state describe Carluccio as moderate and believe the fact that she is a woman from the Philadelphia suburbs who has worked closely with Democratic judges in her county makes her an ideal candidate to grapple with the inevitable abortion attacks.

“She is not extreme on any issue,” said Novotney. “For that reason, Democrats are worried. They don’t have an extreme candidate to focus on.”

Democrats and liberals are already working to persuade voters that Carluccio is, in fact, too conservative. Ryan Stitzlein, NARAL Pro-Choice America’s vice president of political and government relations, said that “though Carolyn Carluccio has tried to scrub her anti-abortion extremism from her website, Pennsylvanians know a phony when they see one.”

McCaffrey, meanwhile, said he’s seeing his abortion message resonate as he campaigns. 

“The main issue that we’re hearing about, I mean almost ad nauseam in every single stop we make, is women’s reproductive rights,” said McCaffery. “Historically, judicial elections were sleepy affairs. You would get somebody who would talk about their experience. You would get somebody who would talk about the fact that they’re going to be fair and impartial. Now the issues that really come up are women’s reproductive rights.”

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