If you ask advocates for abortion rights where the most critical elections will be this November, they’re likely to name four states: Ohio, the site of a high-stakes referendum; Virginia, the last state in the South where abortion remains widely accessible (and where the governor has promised to “gleefully” ban the practice if his party gains control of the legislature); Kentucky, where the most outspoken advocate of the state’s near-total abortion ban is running against a pro-choice Democrat; and Pennsylvania, where a key seat on the Supreme Court is on the line.
One major Republican donor is pouring millions into groups funding the anti-abortion candidates in three of those contests: Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. He is also one of the largest personal shareholders in the viral social media network, TikTok.
According to a widely circulated origin story, Jeff Yass’ investing career started with a poker game in a SUNY-Binghamton dorm room. Yass went on to found the options trading firm Susquehanna Investment Group, and is now worth a cool $28 billion. One of Susquehanna’s richest bets was purchasing a 15 percent stake in TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, in 2012; according to the Wall Street Journal, Yass’ personal stake in the company is about seven percent.
A longtime member of the advisory board at the Cato Institute and a top donor to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Yass, 67, self-identifies as a libertarian — a political philosophy that would seem to be at odds with the desire to increase government control of women’s health care decisions.
A person familiar with Yass’ political spending insists that the single issue animating his largess is “school choice” — if the candidates funded by the groups he funds happen to also hold anti-abortion views, that is simply incidental, this person said. The same person did not respond when asked what Yass’ own position on abortion is.
ProPublica reported that Yass has avoided paying more than $1 billion in taxes in recent years. He’s also emerged as a GOP megadonor. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, his donations to outside groups funding GOP candidates have soared from $5.25 million in 2016 to an eye-watering $56 million in 2022. Yass, with his wife Janine, were the largest donors to outside political organizations in the country last year, behind George Soros, Richard Uihlein of the shipping supply company Uline, and Kenneth Griffin, CEO of the hedge fund Citadel.
This year, a significant portion of money already disbursed by groups Yass funds has gone to GOP candidates in critical abortion races.
Yass’ most direct involvement is in Virginia, where he has injected $2 million into a PAC steered by fellow “school choice” advocate Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Yass’ contribution makes him the second most-generous benefactor of the group, Spirit of Virginia, which has funneled contributions to anti-abortion hardliners in the state. Those contributions could have a major impact: Every seat in the General Assembly is up for grabs this year. If Republicans win control of the legislature, advocates worry about the fallout for women across the South.
“Governor Youngkin has made clear that he will sign any piece of anti abortion legislation that makes it to his desk — and we know their ultimate goal is to ban abortion,” says Jamie Lockhart executive director of Virginia League for Planned Parenthood. Lockhart points to Youngkin’s remarks that he would “happily and gleefully” sign “any bill that comes to my desk” restricting abortion.
The November election could have major consequences for women beyond Virginia, the last state in the South where abortion remains widely accessible. Virginia’s doctors are seeing increasing numbers of out-of-state patients. According to Virginia League for Planned Parenthood, 20 percent of patients now come from outside of the commonwealth, compared to about three percent prior to Dobbs.
Yass’ influence is also being felt in his home state of Pennsylvania. Last year, the then-GOP controlled General Assembly sought to pass a constitutional amendment that would have dramatically curtailed abortion access. A trio of PACs that have gotten more than 90 percent of their funding from Yass since 2018 — Commonwealth Leaders Fund, Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund and Students First — gave more than $6 million to members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly who supported that anti-abortion effort.
The gambit failed, but reproductive advocates point to that fight when talking about the stakes in this year’s supreme court race, pitting pro-choice Superior Court Judge Dan McCaffery against anti-abortion Montgomery County Court Judge Carolyn Carluccio. If not for a few races that broke in Democrats favor, a constitutional amendment limiting abortion could have — and may still at some point in the future — end up before the state supreme court.
“Republican leaders in Pennsylvania over the years have shown their cards, and we want to make sure that we’re able to have a champion on that front,” says Breana Ross, campaign director at Planned Parenthood Votes. Ross points too, to a case that will be before the court soon that could have a positive impact on abortion access: Allegheny Reproductive Health Center v. Pa. Department of Human Services has the potential to require the state to cover abortion through Medicaid — and also explicitly affirm the right to reproductive autonomy as part of the Pennsylvania constitution.
The single biggest donation to Carluccio’s campaign is from the Commonwealth Leaders Fund, whose funding in turn traces back to PACs funded by Pennsylvania’s richest man: Yass.
Carluccio’s views on the matter are clear: she has secured the endorsement of both the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation and the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania. (When she was asked on a candidate questionnaire whether she believed Roe was “egregiously wrong” from the start, Carluccio declined to answer, explaining that disclosing her views might force her to recuse herself from abortion-related cases in the future.)
Yass-funded groups are also active in Kentucky. The Louisville Courier Journal reports, “A trio of outside PACs largely bankrolled by Pennsylvania billionaire Jeff Yass have… spent nearly $6 million on TV ads” supporting Daniel Cameron, the current attorney general known for his staunch defense of Kentucky’s near-total abortion ban — a law that does not include any exceptions for rape or incest.
On a candidate questionnaire earlier this year, Cameron said he would “actively support” legislation that would make it a criminal offense “to perform, to assist with, or to pay for an abortion.” (The same questionnaire defined abortion as including several types of birth control.) Yass is one of the top supporters of Cameron’s campaign.
Tamarra Wieder, state director of Planned Parenthood for Kentucky, says there is a day-and-night difference between Cameron, staunchly anti-abortion, and the Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear, a supporter of reproductive rights.
She notes that under Beshear, the state of Kentucky went from having one abortion provider to two. “We’ve doubled abortion providers under Beshear, and we know that we will have secretaries that follow science and best practices of medical providers.”
A GOP governor would likely install starkly different personnel. “If we don’t have a Cabinet Secretary that knows the importance of birth control, if we don’t have a pharmacy board that knows how important it is to protect pharmacists, and access to birth control,” Wiedler cautions, “Things could get really difficult in Kentucky.”