Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick attracts an anti-abortion challenger

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is an active target of Democrats in 2024, but now he’s drawn a primary challenge from the right.

First-time candidate Mark Houck is an anti-abortion activist who filed paperwork to run in Pennsylvania’s 1st congressional district on Thursday. Houck was recently acquitted of criminal charges after an altercation with an abortion clinic escort outside of a healthcare clinic, and told a local radio host last week that he doesn’t support abortion access or exceptions for rape and incest.

His entry into the race sets up a potentially messy primary — one with a focus on abortion rights — between a conservative activist and one of the most bipartisan members of Congress in a swing seat that the GOP must win in November to try to hold onto a majority in Congress. Fitzpatrick is one of 18 Republicans who represents a district that Democratic President Joe Biden won in 2020.

“I believe that those exceptions are not exceptions at all: When it comes to rape, incest and life of the mother, you know, my faith informs me on some of that. But let me say rape and incest, look, the child does not commit the crime,” Houck said on 1210 WPHT radio station.

“The child doesn’t deserve the death penalty, and the reality of it is, we are further victimizing the mother. And, so, once we start recognizing that, we’ll realize that rape and incest is not a good excuse to terminate a human being,” he said.

Though the GOP base tends to be much more likely to oppose abortion access, that stance can be toxic in general elections. Abortion is widely credited with swinging key races in the midterms, including in Pennsylvania, where now-Gov. Josh Shapiro and now-Sen. John Fetterman also won Fitzpatrick’s district in 2022.

Radio host Dom Giordano interrupted Houck to say he didn’t think that opposing abortion access would win over voters in Bucks County, a swing county that makes up a majority of the congressional district.

A spokesperson for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, said they don’t think abortion will be the decisive issue in Fitzpatrick’s primary and pointed to the incumbent’s past electoral success.

Fitzpatrick has fended off challenges from his right flank before. And last cycle he won about two-thirds of the vote against his primary challenger and then 54 percent of the vote in the general election.

The National Republican Congressional Committee plans to spend on the incumbent’s behalf, including in a primary race, if necessary.

But even as a longshot candidate, Houck will help Democratic opposition say that the GOP is extreme when it comes to abortion access. Democrats successfully highlighted restrictive abortion positions held by GOP candidates in the midterms, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already pledged to make abortion a top campaign issue in 2024.

The first-time candidate already has a track record as a fundraiser and some notoriety because of the abortion clinic case, which was heavily covered by conservative and religious press.

After the FBI arrested him for the altercation at the abortion clinic, Houck raised more than $400,000 for his legal defense fund on GiveSendGo (an alternative to GoFundMe).

Houck was acquitted last January and his attorney told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the case was “nothing but an intimidation tactic from the Biden Justice Department” against those who oppose abortion access.

Fitzpatrick is a moderate in the Republican delegation and the district doesn’t have a record of supporting “hardcore pro-lifers,” veteran Republican strategist Christopher Nicholas told POLITICO.

“I’m sure he’ll run a spirited primary,” Nicholas said of Houck. “But the road is littered with Republicans who thought they were going to successfully primary challenge Fitzpatrick, and I see no evidence yet that he won’t join them.”

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