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A local Pennsylvania election puts national issues like abortion and Israel to the test

In Pittsburgh, a hotly contested election for county executive is turning into a battle over national issues. Adding to the intrigue is a fierce battle for district attorney.
Sara Innamorato, left, and Joe Rockey.
Sara Innamorato and Joe Rockey. Arturo Fernandez / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP; Gene J. Puskar / AP

The county executive in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, doesn’t have much, if any, power when it comes to abortion rights. And the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas doesn’t fall under its purview, either.

Yet it’s those national issues that are likely to play a huge role in Tuesday’s election for the most powerful local office in the state’s second-most populated county.

Insiders and strategists on both sides have cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the results of the Pittsburgh-area battle between Democratic former state Rep. Sara Innamorato and Republican former banking executive Joe Rockey, as well as a hotly contested district attorney battle in the county. But the races will take the temperature of a pivotal voting bloc ahead of next year’s presidential contest and test whether progressive momentum in this Democratic enclave of western Pennsylvania can march on or be met with blowback after years of advances.

‘A dress rehearsal for 2024’

In the battle for county executive, Innamorato and Rockey are seeking what is the most powerful local office in this part of the state — one that comes with the ability to oversee billions in spending and control local agencies, including the county board of elections. 

Innamorato, a progressive who was first swept into office amid a surge of local left-wing success in 2018, has sought to portray her opponent as a Trump-aligned Republican who would jeopardize abortion access and put local elections at risk. Innamorato also has discussed efforts to increase affordable housing, purify the county’s air and water supply, and other quality of life concerns. But it's those national issues, she said, that will be front of mind for voters on Tuesday.

“A lot of people don’t know what the county executive does or doesn’t do,” Innamorato said in an interview, describing the election as “a dress rehearsal for 2024.” “So … a lot of the national issues that we hear about — people go to the ballot box and think about those things.”

Rockey, who’s campaigned as a moderate, pro-business Republican and has distanced himself from Trump, has said abortion rights are irrelevant to the race because the role has little if any ability to influence abortion policy. He’s also praised the work of the county elections board, suggesting he would not seek to enact broad changes to local election policy.

The first-time candidate, who did not respond to interview requests, has sought to make inroads with independents and more moderate Democrats concerned about the county moving too far left. 

He has seen significant spending on his behalf, including from a group largely funded by Jeffrey Yass, a prominent GOP megadonor based in Pennsylvania. Rockey has sought to frame the race around crime, homelessness, job growth and his opposition to a countywide property tax reassessment. But in recent weeks, he’s spotlighted Innamorato’s past ties to the Democratic Socialists of America in light of the left-wing organization’s anti-Israel stand after last month’s Hamas terrorist attacks. 

Hours after Rockey called on Innamorato to reject the organization, she did, writing on the social media site X: “I strongly denounce the recent anti-Israel actions and statements of national and local DSA chapters, which coldly ignores the gruesome attacks on innocent Israelis.” She added she had not been affiliated with DSA since 2019 and later said she wanted to make clear “there’s no question that I stand with my Jewish neighbors.”

The Israel-Hamas war has stirred up divisions among local Democrats. Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., whose rise locally was intertwined with Innamorato’s, was one of several Democratic House members to call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and voted against a pro-Israel resolution condemning Hamas because she said it did not acknowledge the war’s impact on Palestinian civilians, journalists and aid workers. (Lee has said the Hamas attack was “horrifying, unjustifiable, and must be condemned.")

On the other hand, Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., a fellow Pittsburgh-area progressive, has taken a staunchly pro-Israel stand, sparking backlash across the state from pro-Palestinian rights activists and even some former staffers. At a rally to boost Democrats, including Innamorato, on Sunday, Fetterman was interrupted by a pro-Palestinian rights protester who was escorted from the event by police, as NBC affiliate WPXI reported.

Allegheny County is home to a substantial Jewish population of roughly 50,000 people. It also just marked the five-year anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history, which took place in Pittsburgh.

Speaking with NBC News, Innamorato called the effort to tie her to DSA “lazy,” adding that she’s a “pragmatist” who has been able to effectively govern and deliver for her state House district. On Israel and Gaza, Innamorato said the Hamas attacks “opened up a lot of wounds and a lot of pain” for residents who lived through the Tree of Life shooting, adding she views her role here as “reassuring the Jewish community that we stand with them, we see them, we can not accept antisemitic behavior.” 

“And we will mobilize resources to ensure their safety and security and that we’re stamping out any inkling of antisemitism, because antisemitism comes from the same seed as Islamophobia, and racism, which is hate and white supremacy, and it just won’t stand in our administration.”

One western Pennsylvania Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Democratic splintering over the war in Gaza is hurting Innamorato locally, with Rockey having a “significant impact” with his well-funded effort to tie her with the DSA. 

“In Pittsburgh, it’s just become a big issue,” this person said of Israel.

“What’s also interesting right now in both campaigns: Sara wants to talk about abortion; Joe Rockey doesn’t want to talk about abortion,” this person added. “Joe Rockey wants to talk about Israel. Sara doesn’t want to talk about Israel. Neither issue has anything to do with the executive.”

Innamorato, for her part, has sought to pierce Rockey’s moderate image by tying him to abortion opponents and election deniers, highlighting donations he’s made to Trump-aligned Republicans and his involvement with religious anti-abortion rights charities.

Abortion rights are also taking center stage in the biggest statewide race on Tuesday, which is for a state Supreme Court seat.

The state Supreme Court race “is very much being fought over abortion,” Abigail Gardner, a Democratic strategist and informal adviser to Innamorato, said. “And I think with the Ohio referendum next door, there’s still a lot of focus on Roe and abortion on all sides.”

And then there is the issue of controlling the county board of elections, as the county executive effectively serves as the swing vote for all decisions made by the panel, which features one Democrat and one Republican. Whichever party controls the board will be able to shape policy on drop box placement and pre-canvassing of votes, and is tasked with certifying the vote.

To me, the reason that it is worth it for Republicans to spend [millions] to try to win a long shot county executive race is because that’s who certifies elections in 2024,” Gardner said.

Innamorato pointed to Allegheny County GOP Chairman Sam DeMarco, the Republican on the elections board, as evidence for why Democrats should be worried about a GOP takeover. DeMarco was one of the alternate Trump electors in Pennsylvania and was interviewed at his home last year by the FBI. (Speaking with NBC News, DeMarco said elections “will be administered according to the law and in full compliance with the law,” adding he believes Allegheny County does “an excellent job” in conducting elections.)

He said the slate of Trump electors would have only been used in the event of an unappealable court decision that ruled him the winner, adding he viewed the effort as procedural only and “in no way an attempt to” nullify President Joe Biden’s victory.

Republicans have not won the seat in 24 years. Surveys show a race that’s within their reach in the overwhelmingly Democratic county.

“I think they ran a good candidate,” Gardner said. “The Republican brand is so toxic that they almost don’t want to tell you he’s a Republican. It’s really about ‘he’s a moderate.’” 

“I don’t think he’s going to win,” she added, “but maybe it is going to be really close.”

Democrats in the state are trying to reinforce Innamorato in the race’s stretch run. Gov. Josh Shapiro cut an ad for her while Sen. Bob Casey campaigned for her.

“Sara probably wins,” Democratic strategist Mike Mikus said. “Rockey will have to get at least 30%, probably 35% of Democrats. And that’s going to be tough. In the post-Trump world, it just doesn’t happen anymore.”

One Democrat faces another — who’s running as a Republican

The other hotly contested Allegheny County election is for district attorney, where chief public defender Matt Dugan, a Democrat, is running against sitting district attorney Stephen Zappala, a Democrat running on the Republican ticket who lost the primary to Dugan this spring. Many of the same themes impacting the county executive race are being contested here, too — particularly a battle over progressive ideals on criminal justice. (Republicans have targeted Dugan for being funded almost entirely by a group backed by liberal billionaire George Soros.)

“Steve Zappala does not share Democratic values when it comes to criminal justice, or really the Democratic Party writ large,” Dugan said. “He doesn’t represent the current Democratic Party, both nationally, but especially here locally. He doesn’t respect the Democratic Party here.” 

Ben Wren, Zappala’s campaign manager, said Democrats locally are seeking to frame the races around anything other than the economy and crime, top issues for local voters. He said Zappala is “the same law and order Democrat he’s always been,” saying he will not be changing party registration and has appeared previously on the Republican line.

DeMarco said local voters can send a message to both parties on Tuesday.

“We could send a message to the Republicans, that if you want to be competitive in these urban environments, you need to run good qualified candidates who are moderate and not far-right ideologues,” he said. “And at the same time, they could send a message to the Democrats and tell them that the progressives have taken them too far to the left.”