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How abortion is impacting the crowded Democratic primary for Schweikert's seat

The six candidates running for the Democratic nomination in Arizona’s Congressional District 1 have staked out mostly identical positions on abortion access, a top issue for Democratic voters. That’s making it difficult for any individual candidate to stand out from the crowd.

At a debate hosted by Arizona PBS in April, each candidate criticized the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

“Old men in Washington have no business in a woman's doctor's office or in people's bedrooms,” Conor O’Callaghan said.  

The other candidates — Marlene Galán-Woods, Amish Shah, Andrei Cherny, Andrew Horne and Kurt Kroemer — shared similar sentiments on stage that night. They all said health-care decisions like abortion should be made by an individual in consultation with their doctor. 

In fact, all the candidates expressed support for efforts to protect the right to access abortion at the state or federal levels.

“If elected to Congress, the first piece of legislation I'm going to sponsor and co-sponsor will be an act to put Roe v. Wade back into being the law of the land,” said Cherny, a former chair of the Arizona Democratic Party.

But Democrats need a majority in the U.S. House to make that happen.

Knowing that, the candidates largely pivoted to making the case that they’re the only one capable of beating the district’s incumbent Republican Congressman David Schweikert, who praised the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe. 

Democratic consultant Eric Chalmers said that will be key to winning over Democratic voters in a district where the party has fallen just short of unseating Schweikert for two straight cycles. 

In 2022,  Schweikert beat out Democrat Jevin Hodge by just 0.8%.

"We have come within 1 to less than 1%,” Chalmers said. “And the question if I'm a primary voter is, who has the ability to get me that final half percent that has just eluded us."

O’Callaghan pointed to his fundraising advantage over other candidates in the field other than Cherny. Both campaigns have raised nearly $1.9 million. The next closest candidates, Shah and Galán-Woods, have raised around $1.2 million.

O’Callaghan was also the only candidate during a second debate in May to directly attack his competitors, knocking Galán-Woods and Shah for previous ties to the Republican party.

“If you were part of the problem for 40 years, you are complicit and that should be disqualifying,” O’Callaghan said, referencing the fact that Galán-Woods was a registered Republican for most of her life. 

Galán-Woods said she left the GOP because the party changed in the Trump era, arguing her values have stayed the same. 

That claim rang hollow for some of her competitors.

“The Republican Party has never been for a woman's right to choose,” said Kroemer, the former CEO for the American Red Cross in Arizona. 

Galán-Woods also pointed to the list of organizations who have endorsed her, including Emily’s List, a group seeking to elect Democratic women who support increasing access to abortion.

O’Callaghan also needled Shah for allegedly voting for Trump in the Republican primary in 2016.

“If you are a registered Republican and you voted for Donald Trump for any reason at any time, that should be disqualifying,” O’Callaghan said.

Shah declined to respond to O’Callaghan’s attack but previously told the Arizona Agenda he switched his registration to Republican briefly in 2016, in what described as a strategic decision to help Democrats.

Despite O’Callaghan’s attacks, Democratic consultant Stacy Pearson says Galán-Woods and Shah may actually have a leg up with primary voters who care about abortion access.

She pointed out that Galán-Woods has the advantage of being the only woman in the race. 

“The gender of the elected official matters on this issue more than any other issue in my lifetime,” Pearson said. “Nobody understands unless they've been pregnant that when you're spotting or bleeding at 14 weeks or 12 weeks or 20 weeks, what that profound panic is.”

Galán-Woods made a similar point after the debate in May, saying she was disappointed that moderators did not ask about abortion.  

“And maybe it's because I am the only woman here talking about this, fighting for this,” she said. “This is a personal assault, what is happening in this country when it comes to reproductive health care and access to abortion care.”

Pearson said Shah could see a similar bump due to his background as a physician, a point he drove home after the second debate.

“Do we want a medical professional who understands these issues extremely deeply, and can communicate them not just to Democrats … but also people who don't necessarily agree with us on all issues?” Shah said.

Someone, though it is unclear who, may be attempting to undermine that edge. In CD1, a billboard went up earlier this year featuring photos of Galán-Woods, Shah, Schweikert and former President Donald Trump, claiming that in 2016 they were all quote “anti-choice” Republicans.

But Pearson said that kind of attack is unlikely to influence Democratic primary voters in CD1. She thinks voters will actually be turned off by any campaign that leans into similar messaging.

“I think a billboard like that is an experiment that’s gonna fail,” Pearson said. 

The billboard includes a disclosure that it was paid for by Democracy Rising, but a nonpartisan political organization that goes by that name said it does not sponsor political advertising for or against any candidate.

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Wayne Schutsky is a broadcast field correspondent covering Arizona politics on KJZZ. He has over a decade of experience as a journalist reporting on local communities in Arizona and the state Capitol.