Challengers Ehasz and Stelson keep abortion policy in the spotlight of the U.S. House of Representatives campaign

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

And while this isn’t the first time Reps. Scott Perry (R-10th District) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-1st District) have been identified as vulnerable challengers — both were named to National Journal’s “Most Endangered” list 2020 Legislators — Ehasz and Stelson are among the women challenging incumbents in the post-Dobbs era, when abortion restrictions have proven to be 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 issue,” Stelson, who is running against Perry, told the Capital-Star. “And we are not happy. We are not happy.”

Ehasz told the Capital-Star that she thinks if Republicans win the White House or a majority in Congress, “they will pass a nationwide abortion ban. And I think voters know that too.” He’s trying to unseat Fitzpatrick for a second time, and the voters he’s contacted want to talk about reproductive rights.

“When I talk to voters at the door, when I talk about the choice, they all say, ‘OK, yes, let’s get on with it,’” Ehasz said. “This is unfortunately a very natural conversation because at this point it has become crystal clear that the GOP majority will continue to continue their attack on women’s reproductive rights.”

Ashley Ehasz talks to volunteers during a recent event kicking off the advertising campaign. (Courtesy of the Ehasz Campaign)

For Stelson, who won the six-person Democratic primary in PA-10, abortion access was a central issue of her campaign. She was on the set of WGAL the day in 2022 when the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, and she remembers what it felt like to read the news live on the air.

“I had to… tell every woman watching that her rights had been revoked for years,” Stelson said.

“Perry has, I believe, sponsored legislation for the last seven years called the Life at Conception Act, and he advocates for a nationwide abortion ban with no exceptions for rape, incest, and maternal health, and he takes the same approach to the issue of in vitro fertilization abortion. And these are deeply unpopular things.”

Ehasz said the voters she contacts about abortion rights aren’t always the ones she expects.

“As a woman and an active-duty service member, I fought to protect our rights overseas, and to see them taken away from us here at home was terrifying,” she said. “And especially when I share the stories of women who are still on active duty and can’t choose what state they live in. So if they are stationed in Florida or Texas or wherever that puts them in the position of simply having obnoxious abortion bans in place – is this really how we want to thank our service members?”

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

Perry and Fitzpatrick on abortion

Perry, former chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, is a co-sponsor of the Life at Conception Act everyone time his left introduced since 2017. He called the Dobbs decision “a monumental victory” that “restores the rights of states and citizens to decide this issue for themselves.”

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

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

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

“My opponent seeks to continue to burden the people of the 10th Congressional District with Biden’s destructive agenda by refusing to even move to the district,” Perry said. “I look forward to once again gaining the support of the voters of the 10th Congressional District as we fight to reclaim a stronger America and the growth, strength and prosperity it once knew.”

Perry’s latest financial report shows he is beating Democratic rivals while spending more than he raised

Fitzpatrick voted for a national abortion ban, which in 2017 would criminalize abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy, later referring to the bill as a “good starting point” for states creating abortion laws after the Dobbs decision.

He also voted against the Women’s Health Protection Act twice 2021 AND 2022, legislation that would codify the right to access abortion into law. For 2020 March for Life rally, Fitzpatrick was among Republicans who were thanked by name by former President Donald Trump.

Will neighborhoods turn blue?

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee PA-10 and PA-01 were identified because among more than two dozen districts, in the 2024 cycle, she has set her sights on trying to overturn her efforts to give Democrats control of the House.

Stelson’s campaign announced Tuesday that a novel poll shows her in a virtual tie with Perry. Public Policy Polling shows Stelson at 43% and Perry at 45%. Just before the primary election, the Cook Political Report, a national ratings outlet, changed its rating for the PA-10 race from “Likely Republican” to “Lean Republican.”

Still, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Stateabout 44.4% of registered voters in PA-10 are Republicans and about 38.5% are Democrats. In 2022, however, it was a district where more voters cast their ballots for Democrat Josh Shapiro in the gubernatorial election than Republican Doug Mastriano.

The same public opinion poll found that 65% of PA-10 voters oppose a national abortion ban, with no exceptions for rape and incest.

“There are still a lot of people who are undecided on how they want to vote in the next election,” Stelson said. “And I think the survey of those undecided on this issue showed that they overwhelmingly do not want a nationwide ban on abortion. They don’t want the things that Scott Perry tried to pass but failed to get done, 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 outperformed all major Democratic candidates in support in the final quarter just over $490,000 from the beginning of January to April 3. However, his campaign spent just under $525,000, according to campaign finance records.

Stelson didn’t raise as much as primary opponent Mike O’Brien during the same period, raking in $290,000 compared to O’Brien’s $320,000 between January and April 3.

But Stelson defeated O’Brien in the primary, won by 20 points. Her campaign says it raised more than $110,000 for the general election in the 24 hours after the primary.

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

“He can say he is moderate all day long. I can tell you that I am Big Bird all day long. That doesn’t make me Big Bird,” Ehasz said. “And I tell people, ‘Don’t pay attention to the hand he’s trying to turn you away with. Look what he actually does.” He adds that this includes voting for Republican Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) for House speaker last fall, notes Ehasz, one of the most right-wing Republicans in Congress who favors a nationwide abortion ban.

PA-01: Fitzpatrick still ahead of Ehasz in Q4

Mike Marinella, a spokesman for the campaign, responded to a request for comment sent to Fitzpatrick’s campaign The National Republican Congressional Committee emailed a statement to the Capital-Star.

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

Fitzpatrick defeated Ehasz in the 2022 election, 54.1% to 45.9%. However, Ehasz says she is better prepared this time; She says that although her campaign worked strenuous and reached out to voters during her first campaign, it lacked resources. On the other hand, her 2024 campaign has the support of Emily’s List and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

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

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

Similarly, Stelson said running in the primary against five other Democrats, all of whom she says reached out after the primary to offer their support, helped her focus and prepare for her November matchup with Perry.

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

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