Abortion rights advocates announced on Thursday record spending on this year’s race for a seat on the Pennsylvania supreme court.
Planned Parenthood Votes, a Super Pac that supports abortion access, launched a scathing television advertisement against the conservative candidate Carolyn Carluccio. The advertisement calls Carluccio “a threat to our abortion rights” in Pennsylvania.
The seven-figure ad buy marks the Pac’s largest investment in a state supreme court race.
The move by Planned Parenthood underscores the enduring importance of Pennsylvania as an abortion safe haven for the surrounding region. A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood said Pennsylvania clinics saw an influx of out-of-state patients over the past year, as neighboring states like West Virginia enacted sweeping bans on the procedure.
Pennsylvania first emerged as a bitterly contested battleground on abortion in last year’s midterms, when supporters and opponents of abortion vied for the governor’s seat–. Voters overwhelmingly opted for the Democratic candidate, Josh Shapiro.
At first glance, the stakes of this year’s election appear far less dire for Pennsylvania voters who support abortion. The results of the November election will not shift the composition of the state’s high court – four of the seven seats on the current bench are secured by Democrat-appointed justices.
But Planned Parenthood said it is looking ahead to the 2025 election, when three of those Democratic justices will appear on the ballot.
“This election is essential because, if we aren’t able to continue a 5-2 majority, we’re going to be up against a tougher race in 2025,” said Breana Ross, campaign director of Planned Parenthood Votes.
Even the 2025 judicial race is an unlikely subject of Pac interest. The three Democratic justices face a retention election in 2025, not a traditional race. In a retention year, justices do not face off against an opponent: voters simply select yes or no to decide if a justice should remain on the bench.
“No one loses retention elections in Pennsylvania,” said David S Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University. “It’s incumbency on steroids.”
Only one justice has ever been ousted by Pennsylvania voters in a retention election.
Still, Cohen said abortion rights supporters and opponents alike are unwilling to take any risks about the composition of Pennsylvania’s high court.
“It doesn’t matter if you already have six justices on your side, you want to make sure that every single one of those open seats is filled by someone that supports your position,” Cohen said.
After the US supreme court overturned Roe v Wade, abortion rights advocates –– particularly in states where lawmakers are hostile to abortion –– have turned to the courts to safeguard access. Many state constitutions offer stronger privacy protections than the federal constitution.
But the strategy has brought uneven success for the abortion rights movement. Planned Parenthood’s South Carolina affiliate celebrated in January, when the state supreme court struck down a six-week ban on the procedure. Then in August, the court upheld a near-identical ban.
In the months between the two rulings, one justice retired and was replaced by a Republican appointee.
“The South Carolina supreme court ruling reversed because one person changed,” Cohen said. “You can’t take any of these numbers for granted, every seat matters.”
The seven-figure price tag of the new anti-Carluccio advertisement comes one month after the South Carolina supreme court’s stunning reversal of precedent.
Ross said Thursday’s legal landscape demanded a new strategy by Planned Parenthood “to communicate with voters early and often around the impact that courts can have on abortion access”.
In a statement announcing the new advertisement, Planned Parenthood Votes said Carluccio tried to “to shade her views from the public eye, but she cannot pull one over on Pennsylvania voters”.
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.
In a February letter to the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform, Carluccio disclosed that her candidacy is endorsed by the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation.
During the primary race, Carluccio’s campaign site said she would defend “all life under the law”.
Positioning herself as an abortion opponent helped Carluccio secure her party’s nomination earlier this year. Republican voters in Pennsylvania have become more conservative since 2000, according to recent polling from Franklin & Marshall College.
But Planned Parenthood and other reproductive justice advocates hope Carluccio’s opposition to abortion will doom her campaign in November. Overall attitudes on abortion have softened –– 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.
As the November election nears, Carluccio’s campaign has sidestepped questions about abortion.
“Judges are often in the position of ruling on matters where passions, beliefs, and ideologies run deep,” Carluccio wrote in an August op-ed about her candidacy. “I reject calls to rule based on partisan or ideological grounds and instead rule according to our laws.”