Democrats highlight abortion on campaign trail as they fight for their legislative majorities
Republicans say abortion is a non-issue for voters
With anti-abortion ballot measures failing in even the most conservative of states, New Jersey Democrats hope the issue will motivate voters here in November. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
This November, Democrat Christine Clarke wants to flip a New Jersey Senate seat held for decades by Republicans.
Clarke hopes highlighting her pro-choice stance on abortion may help her do it.
New Jersey is not among the states that have implemented stricter limits on abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court ended the federal right to the procedure. In 2022, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act, which protects the right to abortion in the state and is one of numerous pro-abortion actions the Murphy administration has taken in recent years.
But a Republican majority in the Legislature, Democrats like Clarke say, could jeopardize all that.
“I don’t think abortion rights are guaranteed, especially in the coming years. There are some big, consequential elections in front of us,” said Clarke, who is seeking to be the first woman to hold the Senate seat in the 25th District.
After seeing abortion rights advocates win at the ballot box in places like Kentucky and Kansas, New Jersey Democrats like Clark are hoping a focus on abortion will help them at the polls in November, when all 120 legislative seats are on the ballot.
Republicans argue this is a distraction from the real problems New Jersey families are facing. Clarke’s opponent, Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris), said Democrats find themselves in “trouble” and have chosen abortion to fixate on because it motivates their base.
“I don’t see polling data that shows that this is on the minds of everyone — what’s on their minds is being able to pay the bills and have a quality of life in New Jersey,” Bucco said.
Bucco argues that Republicans in the Legislature have so many different positions on abortion they would not be able to repeal the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act. But Democrats and abortion rights advocates argue it’s plausible that the GOP, if it gains control in the Legislature and wins the governor’s seat in 2025, could chip away at women’s access to reproductive health.
“If pro-reproductive health majorities don’t hold in the Legislature, you might see this whittling away of access. In year one, they take away funding, then year two, something else. They can do it very incrementally, and you wake up in a few short years and the landscape can look radically different,” said Jackie Cornell, executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey.
Clarke has painted Bucco as a longtime politico disconnected from how residents feel about abortion in the 25th District, a collection of mostly Morris County towns.
Bucco voted against the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act and a measure to protect abortion seekers from being extradited if they come to New Jersey from states with abortion restrictions.
25th Legislative District candidates:
Sen. Tony Bucco* (R)
Christine Clarke (D)
Assemblyman Christian Barranco* (R)
Assemblywoman Aura Dunn* (R)
Diane Salvatore (D)
Jonathan Torres (D)
Clarke called Bucco’s positions “odious” and “too extreme.”
“It makes me really nervous that he’s the senate minority leader and he has these hateful views on women,” she said.
She added: “There are some people who don’t realize how close these elections are going to be this year and how things could change, but a quick conversation with these folks about Bucco and his role and the entire Legislature being on the ballot, it’s very motivating for people.”
Democrats statewide are hoping Clarke is correct.
In the Jersey Shore’s 11th District, Sen. Vin Gopal and Assembly candidates Margie Donlon and Luanne Peterpaul — all Democrats — have hammered their GOP opponents on abortion, saying Republican Assemblywomen Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner and Senate candidate Steve Dnistrian would “partner with other extremists in Trenton who’ve already tried to ban most abortions in New Jersey.”
In North Jersey, an ad in the 38th District, where Democratic incumbents Sen. Joseph Lagana, Assemblywoman Lisa Swain, and Assemblyman Christopher Tully are being challenged, claims “Texas-style abortion bans” could land in New Jersey should Republicans take control of the Legislature. The Democrats are being challenged by Republicans Micheline Attieh, Gail Horton, and Barry Wilkes.
Abortion is also on the lips of Democrats in the 16th District. There, Mitchelle Drulis is running for the Assembly on the Democratic ticket with running mates Sen. Andrew Zwicker and Assemblyman Roy Frieman.
Drulis is a mom of a daughter in middle school who is already considering where she wants to go to college. Drulis says access to health care, including abortion, is on both of their minds when it comes to looking at colleges out of state. That’s not something she wants New Jerseyans to worry about, she said in a recent interview.
While out knocking on doors, she said, she is asked by both Republicans and Democrats about her stance on abortion. She’s not just hearing from young voters but also older women who remember what it was like before the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide, she said.
She brushed off criticism from Republicans on this issue.
“Whether it’s access and funding that we saw under Christie, or legislation that they’ve already introduced, we know what to expect from them,” she said. “If someone tells you who they are, you kind of have to believe it.”
Though abortion advocates have had success in conservative states when it comes to abortion-related ballot initiatives, Cornell said abortion on the ballot does not necessarily equal victory for Democrats. She noted that Republicans flipped a House seat in California in 2022, the same year a ballot measure protecting abortion rights succeeded.
“While abortion measures can be advantageous to Democrats who serve at the top of the ticket at a statewide level, there’s actually no evidence that shows this is a winning issue for Democrats,” Cornell said. “It motivates conservatives just as much as it can motivate progressives.”
Does abortion matter?
Abortion rights are popular with New Jerseyans.
Sixty-two percent of New Jerseyans describe themselves as pro-choice, up from 54% 10 years ago, according to a Monmouth University poll from February. And 58% support putting abortion protections in the state constitution, which would require voter approval, the poll found.
Last year, a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll found 51% of New Jersey residents say that they unconditionally support a woman’s right to have an abortion.
But Bucco called it a “mistake” for Democrats to put so much weight on this issue.
16th Legislative District candidates:
Richard Byrne (Libertarian)
Michael Pappas (R)
Sen. Andrew Zwicker* (D)
Mitchelle Drulis (D)
Assemblyman Roy Freiman* (D)
Ross Traphagen (R)
Grace Zhang (R)
In the Senate Republican caucus, he said, lawmakers are pro-choice, pro-life with exceptions, and fully pro-life.
“I wouldn’t even begin to speculate what would be changed if there was a Republican majority. If they think this is what’s on the minds of people when they go to bed at night, I think they’re making a big mistake,” he said.
Instead, Bucco said, he hears from voters about crime rates, parental rights, a push toward electric cars and heating, and state spending. More people are concerned about the dolphins and whales washing up dead at the Jersey Shore than the law protecting abortion access, he said.
And he disputes that he’s extreme, calling himself a center-right candidate and common sense legislator. He said he’s helped bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to Morris County women’s shelters, organizations helping unhoused people, local arts centers, and a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.
“That, to me, doesn’t sound like an extreme agenda. That, to me, sounds like a legislator that understands the community and is doing his best to protect those that are more vulnerable,” Bucco said.
Durr agreed. He said repeatedly that parental rights, a hot topic for Republicans this cycle, weighs more heavily on voters’ minds than abortion.
“I’d say about 70 to 80 percent of people in my district, they’re not in favor of a bill where it’s abortions up until birth,” he said. “But that’s not the issue parents are talking about — they want to know why their young kids are being taught sex education and how to have sex.”
Durr has faced attacks from his Democratic opponent, former Assemblyman John Burzichelli, over abortion. A Burzichelli campaign mailer noted that Durr, before he joined the Legislature, posted on Facebook that “A woman does have a choice. Keep her legs closed!”
Durr, who did not disavow that post, said he’s looking to move past those comments. Instead, he wants to focus on his plans for a second term, like a bill boosting funding for first responders to fight electric car fires and more legislation to help the agriculture industry.
“I know they’re trying to turn this election into an abortion issue, but New Jersey has already passed a law, so I don’t know why they’re trying to ride that issue again and again,” Durr said. “I don’t understand, but that’s their given choice.”
Murphy, speaking to reporters after an abortion-related campaign event in the 16th District, slammed Republicans who say Democrats are taking advantage of the fall of Roe v. Wade to motivate their base. He said he doesn’t need polling to know the right to reproductive health care matters to women.
“I think defending women’s health care choices in their freedoms is not changing the subject with all due respect, I would say to them, give me a break. They’re the ones trying to change the subject,” he said. “We will defend women’s reproductive freedoms and their rights to an abortion at all costs. That is a central issue in this campaign.”
Election Day is Nov. 7. Early in-person voting starts Oct. 28. Find out how to register to vote.
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