High stakes for abortion rights as Pennsylvania votes on key judge pick | Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania voters will select a new member of the state’s supreme court on Tuesday in a judicial election that has become the unlikely focus of Republican billionaire donors, political action committees and abortion rights advocates.

Democrat Daniel McCaffery is facing off against Carolyn Carluccio, a conservative judge whose apparent opposition to abortion access has drawn the ire of Planned Parenthood and other reproductive justice groups.

As McCaffery and Carluccio compete for a seat on the Pennsylvania supreme court, total spending in the race surpassed $17m, according to the Associated Press – an unusually high price tag for an election that typically sees low voter turnout. But Democrats and abortion rights advocates hope Pennsylvania voters view Tuesday’s ballot as a proxy for reproductive freedom in Pennsylvania.

“This election, Pennsylvania voters have a choice between Carolyn Carluccio, who has tried to hide her anti-abortion positions and dodge questions about the judiciary’s role in protecting abortion rights, and Daniel McCaffery, a proven champion of reproductive freedom,” said Breana Ross, campaigns director of Planned Parenthood Votes Pennsylvania.

Abortion rights advocates hope to energize Pennsylvania voters by casting Carluccio as an existential threat to abortion access. This strategy delivered liberals a resounding victory in the Wisconsin supreme court race earlier this year, when record numbers of voters turned out to elect Janet Protasiewicz, a Democrat who pledged to defend abortion rights. Protasiewicz’s conservative opponent, Dan Kelly, refrained from voicing his opinion on voting rights.

Carluccio’s campaign, taking its cues from Kelly’s unsuccessful playbook, has avoided sharing her views on abortion. After winning the primary election in May, Carluccio removed information about her opposition to abortion from her campaign website, according to a May report from the Keystone.

Carluccio’s campaign site previously vowed to defend “all life under the law”.

“When we redesigned our website, we chose to no longer include a résumé link. Judge Carluccio listed on her résumé that she would ‘defend all life under the law’, and she meant just that: under the law,” Rob Brooks, a spokesman for Carluccio’s campaign, told the Guardian.

Carluccio has frequently branded herself as a non-political actor who operates outside the bounds of traditional partisanship.

“I reject calls to rule based on partisan or ideological grounds and instead rule according to our laws,” Carluccio wrote in an August op-ed about her candidacy.

Despite Carluccio’s insistence on her own ideological neutrality, her campaign has invited the support of distinctly rightwing groups. In a February letter to the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform, Carluccio disclosed that her candidacy was endorsed by the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, a leading anti-abortion group in the state.

According to campaign finance reports, her campaign received over $4m from Commonwealth Leaders Fund, a political organization funded by the billionaire GOP donor Jeffrey Yass.

Pennsylvania Democrats said Carluccio is hiding her ties to the anti-abortion movement in a disingenuous bid for primary voters. The general electorate is supportive of abortion access – 64% of all Pennsylvania voters in the 2022 midterms said abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to polling from the Associated Press.

“Her campaign is clearly trying to portray her as acceptable to a primary audience,” said JJ Abbott, executive director of Commonwealth Communications, a progressive political consulting firm. “They know abortion is a motivator for voters, since the Dobbs decision, voters are more likely to engage in elections because of what is at stake for abortion.”

But the stakes of Tuesday’s election are not straightforward. Unlike Wisconsin, where the threat of the 1849 near-total abortion ban loomed overhead, the outcome of Pennsylvania’s supreme court race will not directly affect abortion access in the state. Tuesday’s race will not change the composition of Pennsylvania’s high court – four of the seven seats on the current bench are held by Democrat-affiliated justices. Carluccio is operating in what appears to be a much less dire political environment than Kelly, whose campaign struggled to avoid the topic of abortion while Wisconsin was feeling the effects of the 1849 ban.

Still, Planned Parenthood and other reproductive justice advocates said the abortion rights movement needs to look ahead to the 2025 election, when three of Pennsylvania’s Democratic justices will appear on the ballot.

The long-term maintenance of Pennsylvania’s liberal supreme court majority is a priority for abortion rights advocates. In September, Planned Parenthood Votes launched a seven-figure advertisement campaign against Carluccio, the largest ad buy in the group’s history.

As anxieties mount, abortion rights supporters are hopeful that Pennsylvania voters, as in Wisconsin, will heed the warnings offered by Planned Parenthood on the long-term consequences of Carluccio’s candidacy.

Dr Benjamin Abella, a medical professor and emergency physician in Philadelphia, said voters like him are “paying attention” to Carluccio’s efforts to hide her campaign’s ties to rightwing anti-abortion groups.

“The public understands that we should not be lulled into a false sense of security on abortion rights, especially if a judge is keeping quiet on their intentions and positions,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a safe state any more and that any and every election poses a risk.” High stakes for abortion rights as Pennsylvania votes on key judge pick | Pennsylvania

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