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Abortion rights are on the line at the Supreme Court in historic arguments over the landmark ruling nearly 50 years ago that declared a nationwide right to end a pregnancy. (Dec. 1) AP Domestic

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Lacey Cotter Rzeszowski was so furious with the U.S. Supreme Court's failure in October to block an anti-abortion law in Texas, the Democratic activist unleashed an "off-the-cuff rant" — and a warning to local voters.

"This is how it starts. This is how it's been going. They turned back 50 years in Texas,'' she said in an unscripted video after the court refused to halt the Texas law that effectively outlawed abortions after six weeks. 

Rzeszowski believes her activism helped reelect two Democrats to the Summit Common Council and elect a third who is a newcomer. But she believes that is only a microcosm of the congressional midterm battles looming in 2022. 

The court's decision last month to let stand the Texas law has already ratcheted up anxiety among abortion and reproductive rights supporters.

But a ruling involving a Mississippi law that halts abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy could be handed down in late June, just as the midterm races kick into gear. Both the Texas and Mississippi laws directly flout Roe, which allows for abortions up to 22 to 24 weeks, the point of "viability" when a fetus can live outside the womb.

If the court's 6-3 conservative supermajority dismantles the Roe precedent — which it seems inclined to do, based on questioning during oral arguments in the Mississippi case — some abortion-rights activists believe it will spark a bitter consolation prize of backlash.

"Women are often undervalued in our society, and we know that we're under attack and our human rights or basic human rights are under attack,'' said Rzeszowksi, who distributed her video to activists and voters in the region. "I think this will be a huge component of how next year's election goes down."

For many strategists, this could boost the fortunes of Democrats seeking reelection in swing districts, who will likely need any help they can find this year. The president's party usually loses ground in the midterms, and with President Joe Biden's popularity plummeting and inflation rising, many Democrats are bracing for the worst in November: a Republican takeover of the House.

Some even believe that moderate Republicans will join the backlash, angered at former President Donald Trump's appointees for gutting Roe and eager to hold their own party responsible.

"For a party that purports to support individual rights, these attacks on a woman’s control of her own body in TX, just upheld by the [Supreme Court of the United States], should not be celebrated,'' tweeted former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, a pro-choice Republican. 

"Yet, it is the #GOP who are driving these laws. Now the #Dems have a compelling issue for the 2022 elections,'' she wrote.

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But other political observers from both parties and veterans of past campaigns are not convinced. While most polls show that New Jersey residents broadly support a woman's right to choose, it rarely has spurred legions of voters to flock to the polls over the issue.

And some believe the issue will take a back seat to more immediate voter concerns: the rising cost of goods, surviving the pandemic, property taxes, transit needs, education.

Julie Roginsky, a veteran Democratic consultant in New Jersey who began her career as a researcher at Emily's List, a national pro-choice group, says voters are consumed with pocketbook issues of survival.

"Voters have consistently sent a strong message that life is becoming unaffordable, unbearably so,'' said Roginsky, a longtime supporter of abortion rights and donor to Planned Parenthood. Abortion rights "is only a motivator for a small sliver of New Jerseyans who have the luxury of worrying about something larger than their own day-to-day survival,'' she added.

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There are other indications that the Supreme Court ruling may not make much of a difference at the ballot box in November.

While a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll showed that most Americans favor keeping abortion legal, just 32% of respondents said a candidate’s abortion stance would determine their vote, compared with 42% who would be willing to vote for someone whose position didn’t align with their views on abortion.

But others analysts argue that views echoed in past focus groups or even current polls are largely irrelevant. Looming on the near horizon is an existential threat to abortion rights. Past laws chipped away at those rights. The court may very well wipe them out. To many, that could trigger a political earthquake that has never been measured.

Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University, believes a ruling striking down or limiting Roe would galvanize voters in some of the more affluent, suburban districts like the 11th, represented by U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-Montclair, or the 7th, represented by Democrat Tom Malinowski.

Both were elected as part of the "Blue Wave" of 2018 led by grassroots groups and moderate women from both parties disgusted by Trump's presidency. But Hale said a landmark ruling in June could also draw a fair share of pro-choice Republicans to defect to Democrats.

"I think there are people within the Republican Party that might move on this issue," he said. "In a race with razor-thin margins, that could make all the difference."

Hale was referring to the 7th District in 2020, when Malinowski defeated Republican challenger Thomas Kean Jr. by a little more than 5,000 votes, or less than 1% of the total. Kean and Malinowski are likely headed for a rematch this year, but it is a district that includes more Republican-leaning territory under the latest redrawing of congressional district boundaries.

On paper, at least, Malinowski has a steeper hill to climb this year. That might explain why he sponsored legislation last month that would impose a 100% tax on people who win $10,000 court settlements for suing Texas abortion providers.

Rzeszowski, who was part of the effort that helped Malinowski flip the Republican-leaning 7th District in 2018, is ready for the new challenge in a less favorable district.

"I think that's actually the jobs of our representatives, to talk to folks and understand what it means if you've always voted Republican," she said. "You should be talking to them to understand where we're at odds."

The Supreme Court will likely sharpen those differences come June.

Charlie Stile is a veteran 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 

Twitter: @politicalstile 

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