From left, Barry Lynn Schwartz of the National Council of Jewish Women Bergen County, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, and Assemblywoman Lisa Swain in Westwood on Jan. 22, 2024. (Courtesy of Gottheimer’s office)
It was 32 degrees in Westwood on Monday morning and Rep. Josh Gottheimer was standing on a Third Avenue sidewalk with no coat on.
Gottheimer, the three-term Democrat who represents a swath of North Jersey in Congress, was in this leafy Bergen County suburb to target New Hope Pregnancy Resource Center. Located in a two-story brick building with pictures of babies decorating its front windows, New Hope advertises itself as a place that offers support for women with unwanted pregnancies — a cover, abortion advocates say, for its real purpose: to prevent women from accessing legal abortions.
“Women go to these so-called clinics thinking they’ll get real medical help. But instead, they are greeted and referred to by people with no medical background and whose goal is to push their own ideological agenda, to stop a woman’s right to choose, even if there’s an urgent medical crisis,” Gottheimer said.
(New Hope’s director, Barbara Mezzina, objected to Gottheimer’s characterization of New Hope, saying it doesn’t call itself a clinic and the women who come there have “chosen to have their baby and New Hope is there to provide anything they may need for that baby.”)
Monday was the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down abortion laws nationwide. The decision was reversed in 2022 by the court’s Dobbs decision, which paved the way for Republican-led states to reestablish laws curbing the procedure. Now, 21 states ban abortion or restrict the procedure earlier in pregnancy than the Roe standard.
Gottheimer is among the Democrats, in New Jersey and nationwide, who used Monday’s anniversary to remind voters what’s at stake this year as they decide whether to reelect President Biden and give more control of Congress to Democrats, or side instead with probable challenger Donald Trump and the GOP.
Gottheimer characterized the choice voters face as “extremism versus common sense.”
This focus seems smart for Democrats. Biden’s job approval is terrible — Gallup put it at 39% at the end of 2023, lower than the previous seven presidents’ ratings at the end of their first terms — and if abortion can help Democrats win at the polls in states as conservative as Kanas, it may be able to drag a hobbled Biden across the finish line in November and help other Democrats nationwide.
But as voters consider Biden versus Trump, will abortion be a deciding factor? Biden’s campaign sure thinks so: Vice President Kamala Harris was in Wisconsin Monday rallying for abortion rights, Biden joined Harris in Virginia Tuesday to do the same, and on Sunday the campaign released a new ad featuring a woman who said she had to leave Texas to get an abortion because of “Donald Trump overturning Roe v. Wade.”
What about here in New Jersey? The presidential race is probably not going to be a contest, but Democrats want to take the 7th Congressional District back from Rep. Tom Kean Jr., and focusing on abortion will surely factor into their plan.
Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling and an assistant research professor at Rutgers University, said polling has consistently shown that the economy and taxes are the No. 1 issue for New Jersey voters. But abortion can rank higher when federal races are at the top of the ticket. In advance of the 2022 midterm elections, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed abortion was the second most important issue. Ahead of last year’s legislative races, it was lower.
With this being a presidential race year, abortion may be a potent campaign issue for Democrats, but it still may not be No. 1 on voters’ minds, Koning said.
“The economy and taxes are top issues for New Jerseyans and, at the end of the day, that’s something they’re going to vote on,” she said.
Republican Sen. Holly Schepisi represents Westwood in the Legislature. Schepisi told me Gottheimer and other Democrats are using the Dobbs decision to scare women into thinking their reproductive rights are in jeopardy in New Jersey. They aren’t, Schepisi said.
“New Jersey has the strongest abortion laws in the country. Patients in New Jersey have a right to an abortion regardless of gestational age up until nine months with no waiting periods, no requirement for parental notification, no requirement for anything, and yet they go out and scare women into believing something different,” said Schepisi, who noted she is pro-choice.
Gottheimer, she added, is trying to “prop himself up for a gubernatorial run.”
This led to some sniping between the two, with Gottheimer saying Schepisi “might be confused about her own flip-flopping record on reproductive freedom” and Schepisi telling me she “has always been pro-choice and publicly stated so.”
This could be a preview of our governor’s race next year. Gottheimer is widely believed to be eyeing the governor’s mansion, and a Schepisi candidacy is not out of the question.
When Gottheimer was in Westwood Monday, I asked him whether he thinks abortion will be an effective issue for New Jersey Democrats next year, too.
“Until the court overturns Dobbs, I think this is going to be an issue that’s front and center in every election across the country,” he said.
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