HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — As they try to pad their state Supreme Court majority in a presidential battleground, Democrats in Pennsylvania now hope to harness the same voter enthusiasm for protecting abortion rights that has already helped their side to a string of high-profile election victories.
Democrats and their allies are bringing up talk of abortion rights at their rallies and in their ads and are casting a contest for a Pennsylvania high court seat as an existential response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority.
Some Democrats say voter energy is ever-present as moves to roll back abortion rights in conservative states generate a torrent of news after the U.S. Supreme Court ended nearly a half-century of federal abortion protections by overturning Roe v. Wade last year.
“The Republicans made it an issue when they chose to strip away a woman's right to choose, when they went to court to do that, when they continue to introduce legislation in Pennsylvania to restrict safe, legal abortions,” said Pennsylvania's Democratic Party chair, Sharif Street.
Others are pragmatic about the difficulties in motivating supporters in an odd-year election more than a year later when most voters know little — or nothing — about the race.
“I don’t think there's any problem motivating our base," said Jamie Perrapato, of the liberal group Turn PA Blue. "But the question is, ‘Is our base big enough to beat their base?’”
The race between Democrat Dan McCaffery and Republican Carolyn Carluccio in the Nov. 7 election will fill an open seat on the seven-seat court and won't change the balance of power. Democrats currently hold a 4-2 advantage on the court.
But Democrats nonetheless want protection ahead of 2025, should voters reject any — or all — of the three Democratic justices who must run that year to serve another 10-year term.
In the past three years, the court’s Democratic majority has been instrumental in turning back Republican efforts to restrict voting laws and to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump.
The court is currently weighing cases involving gun rights and abortion rights, including whether to overturn a law barring Medicaid from covering abortions.
Keeping abortion legal was a winning issue last year in Pennsylvania when Democrats decisively won open seats for governor and U.S. Senate.
According to AP VoteCast, a broad survey of the electorate, 64% of Pennsylvania voters in the 2022 midterm elections said abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
Democrats have other reasons to be optimistic.
Neighboring Ohioans this month resoundingly rejected a Republican attempt to impose hurdles on amending the state constitution — a proposal that would have made it more difficult to pass an abortion rights measure in November.
In Wisconsin in April, Democrats flipped a conservative seat on the state’s high court as they made abortion rights a focus of the campaign.
In Pennsylvania, abortion is legal up to the Roe v. Wade standard of 24 weeks, and newly elected Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro has vowed to reject any attempt by lawmakers to restrict it.
Ads in the race between McCaffery and Carluccio have just begun, and Planned Parenthood's national political arm has launched digital ads attacking Carluccio. In it, the organization — which has endorsed McCaffery — said Carluccio is “hiding her extreme anti-abortion views.”
At Progress PA's Rally for our Rights last week, McCaffery accused the U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority of overturning precedent to strip away rights.
It is, he said, critically important to elect justices who will protect women’s reproductive rights, workers’ rights and same-sex marriage rights.
“I don’t mean just a piece of paper, I mean the rights that we Democrats have fought for for 60 years,” McCaffery said. “Women's reproductive rights. You think about that: That’s literally been rolled back and rolled into state court.”
McCaffery, an appellate court judge from Philadelphia, has left little doubt about whether he supports abortion rights, and Planned Parenthood's endorsement said it “wants voters to know which candidates are on the side of our reproductive freedom.”
Carluccio has taken a lower profile on the topic.
In the primary campaign, Carluccio, a Montgomery County judge, on her website called herself a defender of “all life under the law.”
She has since removed that wording.
In a statement, Carluccio did not take a position on abortion, saying she should not take stances on issues that might come before her on the court.
She believes in “upholding the law regardless of anyone’s personal or political opinions. Women’s reproductive rights are protected by Pennsylvania law,” she said. “I will uphold that law, and only the governor and legislature can change it.”
Carluccio also is endorsed by a pair of anti-abortion groups, the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation and Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania.
A Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation spokesperson said the organization endorsed Carluccio on the basis that she would not “make up” laws.
Michael McMonagle, president of the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania, said the organization's endorsement is based on his conversation with Carluccio in which she said she’s "pro-life" and campaign literature that said she is “pro-family.”
But McMonagle said Carluccio is using an “ostrich strategy” — taking no stance on abortion rights publicly while foes accuse her of wanting to ban abortion — that has doomed other candidates in the past.
“I told Caroline that she's not going to be able to avoid this issue,” McMonagle said. “The other side is going to make this front and center.”
AP polling director Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report. Follow Marc Levy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/timelywriter
Marc Levy, The Associated Press