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Challengers Ehasz and Stelson keep abortion policy front and center in U.S. House campaigns

Ashley Ehasz and Janelle Stelson are running against two incumbent congressmen in the post-Dobbs era (Credit: Pennsylvania Capital-Star)

Kim Lyons, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
May 13, 2024

At first glance, Janelle Stelson and Ashley Ehasz would seem to have little in common: Stelson is a former anchor at television station WGAL; Ehasz is a U.S. Army veteran and Apache helicopter pilot. But both women are running as Democrats seeking to unseat incumbent Republican congressmen in Pennsylvania districts that have until recently been considered safe GOP seats. 

And although it’s not the first time Reps. Scott Perry (R-10th District) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-1st District) have been considered vulnerable to challengers — both made National Journal’s “Most Endangered” list of lawmakers for 2020 — Ehasz and Stelson are women challenging incumbent congressmen in the post-Dobbs era, when abortion restrictions have proven a losing issue for Republicans in every election cycle since Roe v. Wade was overturned.

“Women are increasingly letting their voices be heard on this subject,” Stelson, who is running against Perry, told the Capital-Star. “And we’re not happy. We’re not happy.”

Ehasz told the Capital-Star she believes if Republicans win the White House, or a majority in Congress, “they will pass a national abortion ban. And I think voters know that as well.” She’s making her second bid to unseat Fitzpatrick, and the voters she’s connecting with want to talk about reproductive rights. 

“When I’m talking to voters at the doors, when I talk about choice, everyone’s like, ‘okay, yes, let’s engage on that,’” Ehasz said. “So it’s, unfortunately, a very natural conversation because at this point it has been made crystal clear that the GOP majority will continue to just keep this attack up on women’s reproductive rights.” 

 Ashley Ehasz speaks with volunteers at a recent canvass launch event. (Courtesy Ehasz campaign)

For Stelson, who won a six-way Democratic primary in PA-10, abortion access has been a central focus of her campaign. She was on set at WGAL on the day in 2022 that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, and remembers what it felt like to read the news on live on the air. 

“I had to … tell every woman watching that her rights had been rolled back years,” Stelson said. 

“Perry has for the past, I believe, seven years, sponsored legislation called the Life at Conception Act, and is in favor of a nationwide abortion ban with no exceptions for rape, incest, health of the mother, and has the same approach to IVF. And these are things that are deeply unpopular.”

Ehasz said the voters she’s connecting with over abortion rights are not always the ones she expects. 

“Being a woman service member and active duty service member, I fought to protect our rights overseas and to see them taken away from us here at home has been horrific,” she said. “And, especially when I share the stories of women who are still on active duty service, and they can’t choose what state they live in. So if they’re stationed in Florida, or Texas or anywhere else that are putting these just heinous abortion bans in place — is that the way we really want to thank our service members?”

Even more conservative voters respond to the idea that the Dobbs decision could pose a threat to personal privacy, she added. “These are folks who want to keep the politicians out of the doctor’s office,” Ehasz said.

Perry and Fitzpatrick on abortion

Perry, the former chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, has co-sponsored the Life at Conception Act every time it’s been introduced since 2017. He called the Dobbs decision a “monumental victory”  that “restores the rights of the States’ and Citizens’ to adjudicate this issue for themselves.” 

On his campaign website, Perry describes himself as “strongly pro-life” and mentions his efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and “block taxpayer funding for abortion.” 

Perry did not directly address his position on abortion in a statement to the Capital-Star but said voters had a “clear choice” between him and Stelson. 

“Our neighbors know me and they know I fight tirelessly to defend their freedoms, their financial well-being, and their safety and security,” he said. He criticized Stelson, who does not live in the 10th District but has pledged to move there if elected. 

“My opponent seeks to continue the burden of the destructive Biden Agenda on the people of the 10th Congressional District, while refusing to even move to the district,” Perry said. “I look forward to once again earning the support of voters of the 10th Congressional District as we fight to regain a stronger America and the growth, strength, and prosperity she once knew.” 

Fitzpatrick voted in favor of a national abortion ban that would have criminalized abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy in 2017, later referring to the bill as a “good starting point” for states crafting abortion laws after the Dobbs decision.

He also voted twice against the Women’s Health Protection Act in 2021 and 2022, legislation that would have codified the right to access abortion into law. At a 2020 March for Life rally, Fitzpatrick was among the Republicans former President Donald Trump thanked by name. 

Will the districts flip blue?

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee identified PA-10 and PA-01 as among more than two dozen districts it was targeting in the 2024 cycle to try to overturn in its push to give Democrats control of the House. 

The Stelson campaign announced Tuesday that a new poll has her in a virtual tie with Perry. The Public Policy Polling poll shows Stelson at 43% and Perry at 45%. Just before the primary election, the Cook Political Report, a national ratings outlet, shifted its rating for the PA-10 race from “likely Republican” to “leans Republican.”

Still, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, roughly 44.4% of registered voters in PA-10 are Republican, and about 38.5% are Democrats. But in 2022, this was a district where more voters cast their ballots for Democrat Josh Shapiro for governor over Republican Doug Mastriano. 

The same Public Policy Poll found 65% of PA-10 voters oppose a national abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest.

“There are still a lot of people who are undecided about how they want to vote in this next election,” Stelson said. “And I think when you poll the undecideds on this issue, overwhelmingly they do not want a nationwide abortion ban. They do not want the things that Scott Perry has tried to legislate and failed to advance and that’s going to be a very big part of this election.”

 PA-10 candidate Janelle Stelson greets voters at the polls Tuesday April 23, 2024 (Capital-Star photo by Ian Karbal)

Perry outraised all the Democratic primary hopefuls in the most recent quarter, bringing in just over $490,000 from the beginning of January to April 3. But his campaign spent just under $525,000, campaign finance records showed. 

Stelson did not raise as much as primary opponent Mike O’Brien in that same period, taking in $290,000 compared to O’Brien’s $320,000 between January and April 3. 

But Stelson bested O’Brien in the primary, winning by 20 points. And her campaign said in the 24 hours after the primary, it raised more than $110,000 for the general election.

In PA-01, the gap between registered Democrats and Republicans is much narrower than in PA-10, and is likely why Fitzpatrick has sought to portray himself as a moderate. He was the only Republican member of the state’s U.S. House delegation to represent a district that Biden won in 2020

“He can tell you he’s a moderate all day long. I can tell you I’m Big Bird all day long. Doesn’t make me Big Bird,” Ehasz said. “And I tell folks: ‘don’t pay attention to the hand that he’s trying to distract you with. Look at what he’s actually doing.’” That includes, she adds, voting for Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) in the battle for Speaker of the House last fall, Ehasz notes, one of Congress’ most hard-right Republicans who favors a national abortion ban. 

In response to a request for comment sent to the Fitzpatrick campaign, Mike Marinella, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, emailed a statement to the Capital-Star. 

“Rep. Fitzpatrick has been ranked the most independent member of Congress year after year, and Ashley Ehasz lost her last campaign by double digits because she’s too radical for Pennsylvania,” Marinella said. 

Fitzpatrick beat Ehasz in the 2022 election, 54.1% to 45.9%. But Ehasz says this time around she is better prepared; she says while her campaign worked hard and did voter outreach during her first campaign, it lacked resources. Her 2024 campaign, on the other hand, has the backing of Emily’s List and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. 

Fitzpatrick has a significant war chest, however, entering April with $3.6 million cash on hand, compared to Ehasz’s $820,000 on hand. Her campaign has raised a total of $1.4 million this cycle.

“I see my job as a candidate as not only obviously running a really great campaign but giving voters the information they deserve to have about Brian Fitzpatrick’s record,” Ehasz said.

Likewise, Stelson said running in a primary against five other Democrats, all of whom she says reached out after the primary to offer their support, helped her get focused and prepared for taking on Perry in November. 

“I think people are fed up,” Stelson said. 

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.