Pennsylvania’s supreme court election this month is as good a place as any to study the problems facing Republicans statewide.

In 2021, Republican Kevin Brobson narrowly won an open seat on the high court, a narrow 50.5 to 49.5 percent win over Democrat Maria McLaughlin that suggested the state party was regaining its strength and popularity. Two years later in another open-seat race for the same court, Republican Carolyn Carluccio lost to Democrat Dan McCaffery, 53.5 to 46.5 percent.

What changed in two years? The most obvious answer is Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the 2022 federal Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. 

Should a federal court decision matter to a state court election? Not directly, but the abortion rights movement has been galvanized by Dobbs and abortion supporters turned out to vote for Democrats in increased numbers. That turnout itself is the first takeaway from the election: Carluccio tallied 35,000 more votes than Brobson did in his winning campaign, but McCaffery won 272,000 more than McLaughlin had. Turnout was up, and the increase went mostly to the Democrats.

The Democrat’s biggest gains were in the eastern part of the state, especially the Philadelphia suburbs. That’s part of a trend of the west getting more Republican and the east getting more Democratic as the former party attracts more working-class voters and the latter becomes more closely tied to more well-off suburbanites. But it’s also hard not to see the abortion issue at work here, with voters who might have been pro-choice Republicans once now turning to a party that aligns with their stance on that topic.

Certainly, the Democrats used their massive financial advantage to drive home a fear about abortion to suburban women. Over-the-top ads painted Carluccio as a judicial activist and reactionary, despite a distinct lack of evidence of such traits in her judicial career thus far. Democrats generally countenance no limits on the right to abort an unborn child, but they succeed in the messaging game, painting Republicans as the ones with extreme views. In this, they stole a march on their opponents and turned the issue to their advantage. It was a cynical scare tactic — and it worked.

That ad barrage might also explain one of the few bright spots of the night for Republicans in the state. Carluccio won Erie County, which usually goes to the Democrats. Donald Trump won it in 2016, but he was the first Republican presidential nominee to do so since 1984. He lost it in 2020 and Brobson lost it in the Supreme Court race in 2021. Yet Carluccio won there comfortably this year, a 7.8 percentage point increase.

What accounts for the shift? One analyst, Kyle Kondik of the UVA Center for Politics, suggested that McCaffery’s inattention to the county in his advertising let Carluccio run away with it. “Overall, McCaffery and his allies enjoyed an ad spending edge statewide — but not in the Erie media market, which might have been a factor in why the Republicans did relatively well there compared to their showing statewide. Democrats also did well in some other Erie County races, which may suggest the importance of the ad spending edge in the specific state Supreme Court result.”

There is a limit to what’s possible through advertising. In a presidential race, the candidates get defined pretty quickly and each successive ad does little to change voters’ minds. But in lower profile races like this one, ads can move the needle. This, along with on-the-ground get-out-the-vote efforts, can make the difference even in a county where Republicans usually struggle.

Kyle Sammin is Broad + Liberty’s editor at large. 

10 thoughts on “Kyle Sammin: 2023 supreme court race shows troubling trend for Republicans”

  1. Sammin’s article is poorly written because it buries the lede: Democrats hold massive advantages in campaign money, in establishing the media narrative, and in ballot harvesting – no matter the issue du jour.
    Moreover these advantages cannot be erased anytime soon. Democrats are the party of big/bigger government, dangling billions before campaign contributors. And ballot harvesting is much easier in population dense areas like Philadelphia and its suburbs.

  2. What passes for a Pennsylvania Republican party muffs the process once again. The voter registration has actually been moving toward the Republicans yet the party still manages to lose elections. A serious look at the candidates and their campaigns is necessary if the Republicans want to win such races. Twelve years ago the gap was greater in the Democrat’s favor and yet Republicans won more in PA than they do now.

  3. In this case, it wasn’t so much the candidate spend as it was the outside interest group spend and a population of single-issue, high propensity voters ready to be activated by that spend. PA Republicans have no comparable issues, so off year elections reliant on turnout are going to be bad for the foreseeable future.

    We’ll see if next year brings enough turnout as a Presidential election year to overcome that bumped Democratic turnout advantage.

    1. But the Republicans do have comparable issues:
      The Democrats want abortion for any reason at any time, at taxpayer expense, and without conscience clauses for doctors, nurses, or hospitals.
      And Democrats want open borders, open jails, and open locker rooms – all of which harm women.
      The Democrats have a massive money advantage from the public sector unions, NGOs, international commies, big tech, and Hollywood.

  4. Democrats who registered for mail in ballots will continue to edge out Republicans. Republicans need to embrace mail in votes. The advantage is simple. Knock on a constituents door October 25th. Deliver your message. It resonates with the voter. They fill out their ballot after you leave and either drops it in the mailbox or Dropbox that day. There is no more static or mixed messages after that. Their vote is locked in. Their election day is over and you got their vote.

  5. I’d like to know – is there any legal jeopardy for our GOP leaders or B&L or other media outlets to call a spade a spade?
    In this article, Kyle Sammin states “Over-the-top ads painted Carluccio as a judicial activist and reactionary, despite a distinct lack of evidence of such traits in her judicial career thus far.” Our GOP leaders didn’t even go that far. What the democrats did this election is out-and-out lie about Carolyn Carluccio! Why can’t we just say that – it’s absolutely true! I have met Carolyn many times and she is definitely a moderate and has stated time after time that she will not legislate from the bench and has even said “she would protect women’s “right to choose” as stated in PA Law. Also, there is not a shred of evidence that Carolyn is an “extremist” in any way. Still the democrats wrapped a whole campaign, with many TV ads costing millions of dollars, around the idea that Carolyn is an anti-choice “extremist”. Carolyn called all of this what it is – I saw her tell democrats to their face, in her own nice way, that their leaders were lying about her and that she is certainly no “extremist”. Yet the lies won the day. Can’t we call a “spade a spade” and a “Lie a Lie”????

  6. Jerry Moore,
    Your use of phrase is ideal to answer your question.
    The phrase “a spade, a spade” supposedly originated in Greek in Plutarch’s Apopthegmata Laconica. The original phrase was “call a fig a fig,” “call a trough a trough,” and “call a bowl a bowl.” It was first translated into English in 1542. When the phrase was translated into English, the word trough was replaced with spade, and the phrase has been “call a spade a spade” since. Some people get offended by it because they chose to cling to victimhood. However, it raises the question: how do any of us know how Carluccio would have behaved in the future, or that the story-of-origin of “a spade, a spade” is correct? We believe what we want to believe. We want our R.I.N.O. leaders to win but have not accepted yet most of them are content with the status quo. As such, the few poor humans who want to be free are under a concerted and relentless effort by others to compel us to think and behave. Their first step was to create “political correctness.” Then they started changing definitions: baby/fetus, female, etc. Incidentally, the Communists cheaters were exposed once again in the Louisiana election for Caddo Parish sheriff. I expect to not hear too much about it.

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