New Jersey’s GOP tries to blunt Democrats’ election abortion attacks

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New Jersey Republicans did not get the memo on abortion.

Democrats and their allies are attacking GOP candidates on the issue in every competitive legislative district — even claiming the deep blue state “is just one election away from losing abortion access.”

The Republican response: Admit the procedure is legal in New Jersey and there’s no way they can change that.

“It’s just a political issue to scare their own voters,” John DiMaio, the Republican minority leader in the state Assembly, said in a phone interview. “In reality, we have full-term abortion in New Jersey that was passed about two years ago. The governor signed it. And there’s no real push that we’re going to do anything about that.”

DiMaio’s decision to write an op-ed saying so is just one high-profile example of how New Jersey Republicans are hoping to blunt the issue, which has proved politically potent for Democrats in other parts of the country since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

New Jersey Republicans’ approach bears little resemblance to national party talking points and largely contrasts with how their counterparts in other states have dealt with abortion since the fall of Roe. The issue is indisputably a winning one for Democrats in states where abortion rights are genuinely at risk, but New Jersey’s legislative elections in November — among the few key races this year — offer one of the last chances before 2024 for the GOP to prove it can mount a real defense in a state where those rights are firmly protected.

In Virginia, one of the few other states to hold legislative elections this year, Republicans are countering campaign attacks by saying Democrats are extreme because they don’t want to place limits on abortion and that they’re spreading “disinformation.” Republicans in Kentucky are making a similar argument in that deep-red state’s governor’s race. And Ohio Republicans passed a ballot initiative asking voters next month to decide whether to enshrine abortion protections into the state constitution or be the first to reject an abortion-rights measure since the end of Roe. 

One implication of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling is that the GOP feels pressure to surrender the abortion question in blue states. And now New Jersey Republicans are doing just that — attempting to gingerly sidestep the issue. The tactic follows several instances of the general public siding with abortion rights on ballot questions in far redder states. Backlash to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision is also widely attributed to staving off a “red wave” in the 2022 midterm elections.

Candidate responses in some of the state’s most competitive districts show how Republicans have recognized the strong support for abortion rights in New Jersey even if they do not necessarily agree.

In South Jersey, six state legislative candidates this month issued a statement distancing themselves from nearby Republican state Sen. Ed Durr (R-Gloucester) who wrote in 2020, before he was elected, that women have a choice to “close their legs” instead of getting an abortion.

Central Jersey Republican state Senate candidate Mike Pappas — who as a member of Congress in the 1990s opposed abortion even in cases of rape and incest — has refused to answer a reporter’s inquiry on whether he still holds that stance. Another candidate in a swing district in Central Jersey, Steve Dnistrian, wouldn’t take a stance on abortion when asked during an interview.

State Democrats have been battered by Republicans this summer on clean energy, dead whales washing up at the beach, sex education standards and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s lawsuits against school districts over LGBTQ policies. Now they’re trying to counter by saturating airwaves and mailboxes with ads suggesting that abortion rights will be less-protected if Republicans gain power.

Democrats hold a 25-15 majority in the Senate and a 46-34 majority in the Assembly. With their hopes buoyed by unexpected gains in 2021, in which they won six Assembly seats and one Senate seat, Republicans believe they may actually have a shot at taking control of one or both houses of the Legislature for the first time in 20 years.

Still, Democrats’ warnings that abortion rights are at risk can’t be simply dismissed. Even when Republicans have held partial power in New Jersey government, they’ve worked around the edges to curtail abortion access without attempting to ban the procedure.

Republican lawmakers, including both house’s GOP leaders, have in this legislative session introduced about a dozen bills that would restrict abortion in some way, from sweeping measures like a ban on abortions after 12 weeks to more narrowly tailored ones such as barring teaching students about it before sixth grade and then requiring schools to notify parents.

Former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who opposed abortion rights, cut millions of dollars in state funds from clinics that performed them and vetoed repeated Democratic attempts to restore the funding.

And more than 20 years ago, during the waning days of their hold on both houses of the state Legislature, Republicans fought to enact a parental notification law for minors seeking abortions. After it was overturned by the state Supreme Court, they unsuccessfully sought a constitutional amendment and have re-introduced the proposal ever since.

While New Jerseyans are overwhelmingly in favor of preserving abortion rights, certain restrictions on abortions aren’t necessarily unpopular with the public. A Monmouth University poll from February found a 39 percent plurality said abortion should be legal “with some limitations.”

When DiMaio referred to “full-term” abortion being legal in New Jersey, he was talking about the fact that the state does not bar abortion at any stage. While abortions in the third trimester are rare — and, according to advocates, usually performed for medical reasons — Republicans in New Jersey often appeal to the public by noting Democrats have allowed it up to the point of birth.

Despite that, some New Jersey Republican leaders demur when asked if they would pass any abortion restriction bills if they take power.

“I’m not going to speculate on that issue. We have members that are pro-life. We have members that are pro-life with exceptions. And we have members that are pro-choice,” state Senate Minority Leader Anthony Bucco said in a phone interview. “But as of right now, this issue is settled law in New Jersey. And that’s why I don’t think it’s going to resonate like they’re hoping for.”

Bucco himself is a co-sponsor of the “New Jersey Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.” And DiMaio sponsors the parental notification constitutional amendment as well as legislation that would require physicians to offer women seeking an abortion an ultrasound at least 48 hours before performing an abortion (There is currently no required waiting period for an abortion in New Jersey).

Some of the Republican abortion-related bills would:

— Bar the use of fetal tissue from elective abortions for use in scientific research

— Require female jail inmates to cover the full cost of abortions

— Roll back insurance mandates for abortions

— Bar the use of Medicaid funds to pay for abortions unless it’s medically necessary to save a woman’s life

New Jersey’s Republican base mostly favors at least some restrictions on abortion, with 57 percent of registered Republicans in the Monmouth poll considering themselves “pro-life” compared with 34 percent who said they’re “pro-choice.”

Even as New Jersey Republicans try to avoid talking about abortion rights, New Jersey Democrats over the past decade have become more explicit in their support for them. For instance, when Christie first cut $7.5 million in funding for family planning centers, Democrats characterized them as cuts to “women’s health” centers and stressed that the money did not directly fund abortions. Today, Democrats often refer directly to Christie’s cuts as targeting Planned Parenthood.

State Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), who’s made abortion rights the centerpiece of his campaign against the staunchly anti-abortion Pappas, said the defunding of Planned Parenthood clinics shows that the issue is far from a red herring.

“Believe what they do, not what they say. You start with the fact that with a Democratically-controlled Legislature and a Republican governor, Planned Parenthood was defunded,” Zwicker said in a phone interview. “That’s had an enormous impact for health care for women in New Jersey.”

Zwicker acknowledged that abortion rights wouldn’t be at risk with Murphy in office. But the next governor will be elected in 2025, and Murphy, who faces term limits, won’t be on the ballot.

“It’s a meaningless statement to say that if the Republicans control the Legislature they wouldn’t do anything. Well of course not, because Gov. Murphy would be governor for two more years,” Zwicker said. “But in the election after that in 2025, who knows who wins? And under the possibility of full-Republican control of the Legislature and a Republican governor, we see extreme abortion bills already introduced.”

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