Why abortion is a key issue for Democrats in NJ's 2023 legislative election | Stile

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The attack ad flooding social media feeds and cable TV in parts of Central Jersey in recent weeks begins with an ominous roll call of former Jim Crow states that are now hotbeds of MAGA extremism.

"Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina. Do we really want the culture wars that are tearing other states apart here in New Jersey?" the narrator intones.

And then it takes aim at its central target, Mike Pappas, an anti-abortion Republican making his second run for the state Senate in the 16th Legislative District. Pappas, the Bridgewater Township administrator, "wants to ban abortion — even in cases of rape and incest — and deny access to birth control," the ad says.

It's a hard-hitting ad, aired by Prosperity Rising NJ, an independent political action committee that has raised $500,000 and has set its sights on potential toss-up races around the state this fall.

Michael Pappas
Michael Pappas

But the same line of attack is also couched in softer tones. Another ad features a medical student, who is also Democratic incumbent state Sen. Andrew Zwicker's daughter, Louisa.

"'First, do no harm.' As a medical student, I’ll be proud to take that oath one day. But with Roe v. Wade overturned, women are being harmed by extreme politicians right now," she says, while being shown sitting in blue medical scrubs and listening to an instructor.

The early, multi-pronged attack on Pappas and his Assembly running mates signals the Democratic Party's desire to make abortion and reproductive rights defining issues this November, when all 120 seats in the Legislature are on New Jersey's ballots.

The strategy comes more than a year after questions about reproductive rights in the Garden State were put to rest when the Legislature enshrined the right to an abortion in New Jersey statute. Nonetheless, Democrats are sharpening their swords, hoping to ignite concern among women voters — and even though abortion rights are not on the November ballots.

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Kansas and Ohio motivate NJ Dems to put abortion 'in play'

Democrats, who briefly considered putting abortion rights formally on the ballot as a constitutional amendment but punted, are eager to harness sustained backlash over the U.S. Supreme Court's Dobbs ruling, which struck down the constitutional right to an abortion established in the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

When anger defeated high-stakes attempts to protect abortion restrictions in conservative states like Kansas and Ohio, those wins — on ballot questions — made abortion a too-potent-to-ignore issue in New Jersey, a state where 6 out of 10 people identify themselves as pro-choice, according to a recent Monmouth University poll. That's 8 percentage points higher than a decade ago, the poll found.

The New Jersey Statehouse.
The New Jersey Statehouse.

"They want it to be in play because its what's motivating people to come out and vote around the country, even in the reddest of red states," said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

And yet, Rasmussen offered a warning for Democrats hoping to localize the fight for abortion rights: It could be a tough sell in a New Jersey where most voters believe — perhaps correctly — that abortion rights are not in danger. The Monmouth poll found that as many as 61% of residents do not believe that access to abortion will change in the state over the next decade.

In fact, there is little chance of those rights being rescinded anytime soon. Even if there is a Republican takeover of both the Assembly and the state Senate in November — a long shot at best — Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, would veto any attempts at rolling back abortion rights protections while finishing out his term.

But Dan Bryan, an adviser to several Democratic legislative campaigns, argues that whether through polls or focus groups or talks with voters, it's clear that abortion rights remains a top-of-mind issue for voters.

Voters "have every right in the world to be concerned about it," said Bryan, a former leader of the Murphy administration's communications operation. "The laws of the state are only as strong as people. Is New Jersey in danger of what I view as extremist Republicans getting elected and having a majority and deciding to pass anti-abortion restrictions? Absolutely."

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MAGA extremism's grip on the party of Kean and Whitman

While the threat of losing abortion rights may be remote, Democratic strategists also see the issue as part of a wider voter warning of Republican Party extremism. The Democrats, who have controlled the agenda in Trenton for nearly two decades, are effectively warning that Republicans would roll back reproductive rights and gun control protections, curb LGBTQ rights and limit teaching about the country's racist legacy.

In short, the New Jersey Republican Party is no longer the party dominated by the moderation of Christine Todd Whitman and Thomas H. Kean Sr. Instead, the state GOP is held in the feverish grip of Donald Trump MAGA anger.

Pappas is a back for a rematch against Zwicker, who defeated him by 5,200 votes in 2021, or by a 53% of the vote in a year when Democrats found themselves on the defensive in the waning months of the COVID pandemic. In a statement last week, he accused Zwicker as the one out of step with mainstream New Jersey values and voters.

"Andrew Zwicker clearly has no respect for his constituents," Pappas, who served one term in Congress in the late 1990s, said in a recent statement. "His ads are a smoke-and-mirrors political parlor trick to distract from his failed record of radical policies. He has strongly advocated for an extreme liberal agenda that is out of touch with New Jersey values and has resulted in parents’ losing rights in our schools, families watching their communities suffer from overdevelopment and bank accounts drain from new taxes and fees."

The Democrats' line of attack also serves another role — as a counternarrative to the Republican candidates' embrace of the "parental rights" crusade that has inflamed school boards and the party's grassroots.

The GOP is unified in opposition to State Board of Education guidance barring school officials from notifying parents of a child who is considering a transition to another gender, even though that policy flows from a bipartisan law signed by former Gov. Chris Christie in 2017.

Another recent Monmouth poll suggests that the GOP is aligned with a majority of voters on the issue, and it will likely be a useful message in competitive districts. It's among several localized wedge issues, such as the controversial installation of wind turbines off the Jersey Shore, that Republicans are hoping will build momentum this fall.

“I think [abortion is] one of the top issues, and I think it’s a legitimate issue. I think some of those other issues … are manufactured issues. They’re not real," Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, told reporters at a Planned Parenthood event last week.

Meanwhile, Democratic operatives have combed through the Republican record in Trenton, looking for GOP-sponsored bills or party-line votes that, Democrats say, will serve as Exhibit A of extremist policies that the GOP will advance if they take power in Trenton.

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They cite a proposed ban on abortions after 12 weeks, sponsored by state Sen. Ed Durr, R-Salem, the furniture delivery truck driver who stunned the political world in 2021 by defeating Senate President Stephen Sweeney on a shoestring budget.

An anti-trans bill from state Sen. Michael Testa, R-Vineland, would require student athletes whose gender is disputed to provide a doctor’s note confirming the student’s “internal and external reproductive anatomy.”

And there will be the unearthing of party-line votes that placed the GOP beyond the traditional boundaries of New Jersey Republican centrism.

Most Assembly Republicans either voted against or abstained on legislation that barred New Jersey from extraditing people who sought abortions in New Jersey back to their home states with strict abortion laws. As one operative noted, "Republicans in New Jersey can't decide if they oppose sheriffs from Texas knocking on their door in the middle of the night and asking women if they've had an abortion."

What if Democrats had gone further?

One of the ironies here is that Democratic leaders briefly considered creating a permanent guarantee to abortion by amending the constitution, a step that would have meant putting the issue on the November ballot to let voters decide.

It would have helped spur turnout and allowed Democrats to openly embrace it on the campaign trail. But the move was opposed by Planned Parenthood, the leading abortion and women’s health clinic provider and a close Murphy ally.

At the time, the group didn’t see the need to spend millions to promote a ballot measure after the Legislature and Murphy codified the right to an abortion in state law. Abortion protection, it seemed, was a foregone conclusion. The plan was scrapped.

But now, the Democrats are going to make the case that maybe it isn’t a foregone conclusion and that the campaign is now a referendum on protecting those rights.

Last week, Planned Parenthood released its endorsements for the legislative races. It pledged its support for 97 candidates — all Democrats.

“In this critical election year, the future of reproductive freedom in New Jersey hangs in the balance," said Jackie Cornell, executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey.

To listen to Democratic allies, reproductive rights are only part of what is hanging in the balance.

Charlie Stile is a veteran New Jersey political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: stile@northjersey.com

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ abortion rights: Democrats push issue in 2023 election