(*The photo caption in the emailed version of this column incorrectly identified Kelsey Leigh, of Allegheny County, who appears in the Planned Parenthood ads. )
Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.
With just weeks to go before the Nov. 2 election, and even as thousands of Pennsylvanians start casting their mail-in ballots, two of the major forces in progressive politics are reminding those voters — especially Democratic ones — of what’s at stake this campaign season.
In addition to voting for local school boards, township commissioners and borough councils, among other local offices, Keystone State voters also will be casting their ballots in county Courts of Common Pleas races, and in consequential elections for Pennsylvania’s three appellate courts.
It’s safe to say the results in these races are the canary in the coal mine for 2022, when Pennsylvanians will choose a replacement for retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who will be finishing up the constitutional maximum of two, four-year terms.
With an eye on that long game, both the Democratic National Committee and the political wing of Planned Parenthood are respectively out this week with six-figure campaigns to focus voters’ attention as they fill out their ballots at home or get ready to walk into the voting booth, the Capital-Star can exclusively report.
For Democrats, it’s hard to imagine two races that will command more immediate attention than next year’s fight for U.S. Senate and the Governor’s Office.
For the last seven years, Wolf, a former Planned Parenthood volunteer, has used his veto pen to block every piece of anti-abortion rights legislation that the Republican-controlled General Assembly has put on his desk. And emboldened by Texas’ deeply restrictive abortion law, Pennsylvania Republicans already are looking to the post-Wolf era.
Similarly, a Democratic win in the U.S. Senate is critical to Democrats’ preserving their slender majority in the upper chamber, and with it, control over future appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, where abortion rights are most definitely on the line.
But before those contests, Planned Parenthood wants voters to cast their ballots in this year’s appellate judicial races — the state Commonwealth, Superior, and Supreme Court — where the state-level battles over abortion rights will be waged.
High court justices elected as Democrats currently hold a 5-2 majority. And the open seat is currently held by a Republican, so the balance of power would not be materially affected by a potential GOP win in November. Even so, progressives aren’t leaving anything to chance.
In its new ads, put together in part by Rolling Lemon, a woman-owned, Harrisburg-based agency, Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, the reproductive rights’ group’s political wing, hammers home the enormity of the judicial contests, as it tries to get “infrequent progressive voters” off the bench and into the polls.
The intent is to have them “make their voices heard in the 2021 election to protect abortion rights and reject judges supported by groups seeking Texas-style abortion bans,” the group said in a statement.
To do that, Planned Parenthood is featuring Kelsey Leigh, a Pittsburgh woman who had an abortion at 21 weeks when doctors discovered fetal abnormalities during a routine ultrasound that were not compatible with life. That year lawmakers were debating a 20-week ban that, if it were in place, would have forced Williams to bring her fetus to term, to horrific effect.
In the years since her experience, Leigh has emerged as a forceful voice for the abortion rights cause, and has lent her presence and retold her heartbreaking story on a number of occasions. She is a devastatingly effective messenger.
“Anti-abortion judges getting lifetime appointments to our highest courts is a long-term threat to the rights of all people in Pennsylvania to access the health care they need,” Signe Espinoza, the group’s executive director, said in a statement released to the Capital-Star. “Extremists seeking Texas-style abortion bans are currently backing judges on the ballot this year. Why? Because with Roe v. Wade under attack by [former President Donald] Trump’s Supreme Court, state courts could decide whether dangerous abortion bans like those moving through our legislature become law in Pennsylvania’s future.”
In its statement, Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates said its six-figure campaign “will include digital advertising and direct mail to voters that support abortion rights but do not consistently vote in non-presidential elections.”
The campaign by the DNC similarly has its eye on the long game — but wants to start by getting voters motivated for next month’s municipal and statewide contests.
In a statement provided to the Capital-Star, the DNC said it’s pouring its energy and cash into mobilization efforts for races across the state, notably the race for Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where one seat is up for grabs, and four county-level races across the commonwealth.
The funds, the DNC said, come on top of preexisting efforts to help the state Democratic Party’s own organizing efforts, and also will “begin to build out crucial infrastructure in every corner of the state in advance of next year’s midterm elections,” the DNC said in its statement. The money also will pay for digital advertising to boost statewide turnout in these notoriously low-turnout contests.
Next month’s elections also will mark the first time the national party will put its expanded “I Will Vote” initiative to work in the Keystone State. It includes statewide analytics and polling look-up tools for voters.
In a statement, DNC Chairperson Jaime Harrison said the national party is “invested in ensuring help for Democrats to win in these crucial races. Pennsylvania Democrats have fielded a diverse and visionary group of candidates, and we’re excited to help them make history on November 2.” With that kind of mobilization and cash in play, this year might well be the year that these races finally shed the dread “off-year” election tag.
Marijuana legalization may hit partisan stumbling blocks in Harrisburg, but lawmakers in both parties have united around a new drug policy — letting Pennsylvania researchers look into how psychedelic mushrooms can be used to address mental health issues. Stephen Caruso has the story.
A Pennsylvania legislative panel affirmed Gov. Tom Wolf’s school mask mandate on Thursday morning, ruling that the Democratic governor had properly implemented it under his administration’s existing powers, Stephen Caruso also reports.
This year’s round of redistricting is already crumbling into partisanship and court challenges in multiple states, even as voters pay more attention than ever to new political maps that will shape elections for a decade, National Correspondent Dan Vock reports.
With homicides still on the rise, officials in Philadelphia are looking for marginal wins as they try to contain other kinds of crime, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health confirmed 4,998 new cases of COVID-19 in the commonwealth on Thursday, up from Wednesday’s tally of 3,584 new cases, bringing the statewide total to more than 1.52 million cases since the start of the pandemic, I report.
U.S. Senate Republicans blocked the advance of voting rights legislation Wednesday, the second time this year—thwarting again Democrats’ attempts to pass federal protections for voters amid a slew of new state elections laws, Capital-Star Washington Reporter Allison Winter writes.
On our Commentary Page this morning, the ongoing fight over raising the minimum wage shows why the data is so important, a SUNY-Old Westbury scholar writes.
En la Estrella-Capital: Con el aumento del uso de polisustancias, la agencia estatal ‘expandirá’ el enfoque de la epidemia de opioides. El inicio del programa de asistencia energética para el hogar para la temporada de invierno del 2021-22. Y ‘Esta historia no se trata de mí, se trata de la adicción y la curación,‘ por Q’Hubo News.
Gov. Tom Wolf was in Pittsburgh on Thursday, where he called on the Republican-controlled General Assembly to pass paid sick leave, a higher minimum wage, and other ‘worker-protection’ measures, the Post-Gazette reports.
The Inquirer explains how PSERS keeps its communications secret from the public.
PennLive explains how political tensions in local school board races — including one in Cumberland County we told you about last week — are starting to mirror national contests.
A newly filed lawsuit alleges that a 911 dispatcher in Lehigh County hung up on a Spanish-speaking caller in an Allentown fire that killed a 14-year-old, the Morning Call reports.
Mail-in ballots in Luzerne County include an error for one local Board of Supervisors race, the Citizens’ Voice reports.
Delaware County’s district attorney is disputing claims that onlookers stood by as an alleged rape took place on a SEPTA train, WHYY-FM reports.
Higher wages and sick pay are now attached to state grants and tax breaks, the Associated Press reports (via WITF-FM).
GOP Erie County executive candidate Brenton Davis is facing questions about the accuracy of his military record, vaccination status, and some of his past comments, GoErie reports.
The Observer-Reporter talks to local educators about a state Senate bill intended to address a teacher shortage.
Talks over the appropriations bills now before Congress include debate over two-year spending caps, Roll Call reports.
Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day.
What Goes On
The desk is clear. Enjoy the silence.
Gov. Tom Wolf heads to suburban Philadelphia for a pair of events today. At 10 a.m., he’s in Coatesville to celebrate the groundbreaking for a new train station. at 12:15 p.m., he’s in nearby Montgomery County to pitch his new ‘worker protection’ plan currently giving a GOP Senate leader fits. It includes a higher minimum wage and paid sick leave.
You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out well in advance to Capital-Star Associate Editor Cassie Miller, who celebrates on Sunday. Congratulations, and enjoy your big day.
We’ll go out this week with a pretty epic tune from British rockers Feeder. Here’s ‘Just the Way I’m Feeling.’ If you want to hold your phone aloft with the flashlight on to mimic the stadium experience, you should totally go for it.
Friday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link
Undefeated Carolina bested the winless Montreal Canadiens 4-1 on Thursday night. ‘Canes forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who joined the team from the ‘Habs in the offseason, scored his first goal of the season against his former team.
And now you’re up to date.
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