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Abortion debate animates race between GOP candidates in 17th Congressional District

The Republicans competing in the primary for the 17th Congressional district; from left, Kathy Coder, Jason Killmeyer, and Jeremy Shaffer.
Courtesy the Coder, Killmeyer and Shaffer campaigns
The candidates competing in the 2022 Republican primary for the 17th Congressional district; from left, Kathleen Coder, Jason Killmeyer, and Jeremy Shaffer.

A Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade hasn’t landed yet, but the debate about what comes next is already shaping the race among Republican candidates competing in the May 17th primary.

And in Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District, the issue highlights differences between the three GOP candidates seeking to hold the seat now occupied by Democrat Conor Lamb.

The issue arose Tuesday night at a forum hosted by the Republican Committee of Beaver County, during which candidates were asked whether they would seek to limit abortion at the federal level or let states handle it.

Jeremy Shaffer’s answer has been the Republican default position for years: “I believe very strongly in our federal system of government, which means that when hopefully Roe v. Wade is overturned, it will revert back to the individual states” to decide.

Shaffer added that he believes any federal action should be in the form of a constitutional amendment. Otherwise, he warned, “any time the Democrats are in power, then it’s going to flip to the extreme.”

But Shaffer took fire from Jason Killmeyer, a conservative writer with a background in national security.

“What we just heard from Jeremy was first, ‘It’s a states issue only,’ all the way to ‘Now it should be a constitutional amendment,’” Killmeyer said. “I’m going to remain consistent.”

Killmeyer backs a federal “heartbeat bill” that would bar abortions after a heartbeat can be detected — usually around the sixth week of pregnancy, and often before anyone is aware of the pregnancy. He said that while the federal government’s powers are limited, they include “our right to life, liberty and happiness. And if there’s not life, then none of those other things follow.”

That response echoes a growing chorus within Republican ranks. Such a move would require a Republican president and a critical mass of anti-abortion-rights legislators willing to set aside states' rights concerns. But the debate itself reflects the shifting possibilities for a post-Roe world.

Kathleen Coder, the third candidate running for the 17th District, was especially upbeat, saying she “got chills when I saw that this is coming. … We have prayed, and we have watched. And I never thought in my lifetime that I’d see this.”

An overview of what's at stake in the race for the new 17th Congressional district, as well as candidate profiles of Democrats Chris Deluzio and Sean Meloy; and Republicans Kathy Coder, Jason Killmeyer, and Jeremy Shaffer.

Coder did not directly address whether abortion should be dealt with at the federal level. She said the important question is “What is it that we differ on? I have many Democratic friends that … believe in life” but disagree on when it begins.

“Whether that is a federal issue or it’s a state issue, it needs to be defined when life begins," she said.

While such questions indicate differing visions for the party, the candidates’ approaches also reflect the choices before Republicans in the 17th District, which includes Beaver County and a broad swath of Allegheny County’s suburbs.

The front-runner

Shaffer, a Ross Township resident who runs a firm that provides software for bridge and other infrastructure inspections, is by most measures the front-runner in the district race.

His roster of endorsements includes that of former Congressman Keith Rothfus, who once represented much of the area, along with a slew of other Republican elected officials and party leaders. The National Republican Campaign Committee also has identified Shaffer as eligible for party support in the fall. And he has vastly more money to spend than his rivals, though $500,000 of the nearly $670,000 he has raised so far is money he loaned to his own campaign.

But Shaffer said that he would not be a lockstep Republican.

“I am something of an enigma of a candidate. I stand up for what I believe in and what is right,” he told WESA during his interview.

But while he is a conservative, “I don’t necessarily hold to a view because it’s what my party says.” He said infrastructure is an area where he could help form a bipartisan consensus and that “I would have probably been one of the few Republican votes” for Joe Biden’s 2021 infrastructure law.

It’s a notable shift since Shaffer’s last high-profile race: a 2018 bid for state Senate. In that race, Shaffer successfully challenged incumbent Republican Randy Vulakovich — largely by criticizing Vulkakovich’s own support for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2013 gas tax hike, which funded infrastructure improvements. Shaffer went on to lose a razor-thin race against Democrat Lindsey Williams — a fact he ascribes to 2018 being a brutal year for Republican candidates.

Shaffer says the 2013 bill “was a giant kick-the-can-down-the-road” proposition. He notes that it saddled the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission with debt that the highway agency has been raising tolls to pay off ever since.

In any case, he said, the 17th represents a critical chance for the GOP to capture a seat currently held by a Democrat: “What Republican voters need to look at really is, who can win this district?”

The insurgent

But this year, Shaffer is the one taking fire from a conservative upstart. Killmeyer went after Shaffer repeatedly during Tuesday’s debate, criticizing him for not toeing a more conservative line and arguing that Shaffer “lost to a hard-left activist. ... Is that the risk we want to take again?”

Killmeyer said he sees his own bid as an “insurgent candidacy,” one focused on providing “an at times uncomfortable antidote to the establishment candidate you typically would see run.” He worked on the business side of Project Veritas, a conservative journalism venture that has been criticized for ethical lapses but has been hailed on the right.

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

And Killmeyer said he would disrupt politics as usual in Washington. Unlike other Republicans, he said, I may very well vote against increasing the debt limit,” even though economists warn such a move could dismantle key assurances on which the modern economy is built.

But Killmeyer said that because bankruptcy is “mathematically guaranteed,” the question was, “do we have the catastrophe now or do we have it later” when consequences will be worse.

Killmeyer writes on national security issues and has worked as a government consultant on terrorism issues and protecting supply chains from disruption by hostile interests. He says the United States needs to focus more on shadow warfare tactics such as cyber-attacks and economic gamesmanship.

“We're not at war right now with China or Russia, but this doesn't really feel like peace either, does it?” he said. “And what the United States doesn't necessarily remember how to do is fight those conflicts.”

The 'Beaver County Girl’

Coder, meanwhile, strikes a more upbeat note. She refers to herself as “a Beaver County girl,” and she recalls watching the lights from the long-gone J&L Steel works in Aliquippa illuminate her bedroom at night. She’s moved to Allegheny County — the small business owner is now a resident of Ben Avon after living and serving as a borough council member in Bellevue — but she says she hopes “to bring our Beaver County values to Washington.”

Coder previously ran for lieutenant governor in 2018 and finished second in the Republican primary. Like Shaffer, she says her work as a local official has shown she can be pragmatic and work with Democrats. She also touts her work with the Congress of Neighboring Communities, a University of Pittsburgh consortium of municipal officials who work together on regional problems.

Coder says her pragmatism — “I’m trying to be for things, not against them” — and her deep roots in the region make her the best choice.

“We have three good candidates who believe a lot of the same things,” she told WESA. “So it's a question of who can represent the people better and who can win in the fall.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.