Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in Insider NJ
New Jersey – On paper, several weeks out from Labor Day, it appears that despite the great national tumult over the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the Roe vs. Wade decision, longtime Republican Right-to Life leader Congressman Chris Smith, is likely to survive the earnest challenge from his much younger Democratic opponent Matthew Jenkins, a small businessman from Colts Neck.
Smith’s strong position is in the face of polling by the Rutgers Eagleton poll which found that even before the Supreme Court tossed out the Roe vs. Wade precedent, two thirds of the state’s voters surveyed were worried about the fallout with a majority of voters wanting New Jersey to pass laws to make it easier to access abortion.
“Over half (54 percent) would generally like to see New Jersey pass laws that protect and expand access to abortion care, while 25 percent would like to see the state make it more difficult to get an abortion; 11 percent choose neither option, and 9 percent are unsure,” according to Eagleton. “Four in ten New Jerseyans say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate running for office in New Jersey who supports the Reproductive Freedom Act – double the number who say they would be less likely to do so [21 percent]. Just over a quarter [28 percent] say it would make no difference to their vote, and 11 percent are unsure.
“Abortion rights have always had support in New Jersey for as long as the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll has asked the issue,” said Ashley Koning, an assistant research professor and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling (ECPIP) at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. “In fact, New Jerseyans have continually been opposed to any state laws restricting abortion access for the past about three decades.”
True to form, on his Congressional website right after the controversial decision came down, Smith heralded the majority opinion.
“There is nothing humane, compassionate or benign about abortion,” he wrote. “Abortion is not healthcare, unless one construes the precious life of an unborn child to be analogous to a tumor to be excised or a disease to be vanquished.”
He continued. “The 1973 Supreme Court anti-child decisions and several that followed like Casey have enabled the violent death of unborn baby girls and boys by dismemberment, decapitation, forced expulsion from the womb, deadly poisons, and other violent methods at any time and for any reason until birth.”
A call to Smith’s press office was not returned.
Decade in and decade out, Smith has sailed to re-election with over 60 percent of the vote in a state that’s become increasingly blue. In 2018, a wave election when Democrats took back the House of Representatives, Smith’s spirited Democratic challenger Joshua Welle managed to break an impressive 43 percent, drawing 127,000 votes.
While Smith has been Congress’s most zealous critic of abortion, thanks to his opposition to so-called free trade and his pro-labor votes, he has enjoyed the consistent support of New Jersey’s AFL-CIO. Last month, the state’s largest umbrella union once again endorsed him, along with former Democrat turned Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who switched parties to pledge his allegiance to Donald Trump in 2019.
“For me, the cause of working families and the critical importance of unions in the never-ending fight for fair wages and benefits, workplace protections and other important terms of employment achieved through collective bargaining is a core conviction,” Smith said in 2020 when he got the NJ AFL-CIO endorsement… “My father was a teamster and instilled in me the strong belief that without unions working families would be marginalized, divided and exploited. Unions even the playing field and make both the workplace and America itself more just and fair,”
Conventional wisdom within the labor movement is that betting against a Congressional incumbent is a fool’s errand and that it’s the incumbents who can deliver results for members. Historically, the nation’s labor movement has counted on an alliance at the national and state level with the Catholic Church on issues related to immigrants’ rights as well as labor rights. For the half a century that Roe was the law of the land, unions have successfully avoided having to pick a side in the abortion debate.
LIFE & LIBERTY-JUST WHERE IS LABOR?
Now, however with access to abortion being struck down, pro-choice women in the labor movement and their male allies contend that reproductive rights are foundational to labor rights its historic neutrality maybe harder to maintain. Right after the leaked Roe opinion surfaced, Liz Shuler, the AFL-CIO’s newly elected national president, tweeted “Access to health care without fear and intimidation is every person’s right. We must be able to control our own bodies — which has a direct impact on economic justice and the ability of working people to make a better life for themselves and their families.”
“The leaked draft opinion from the radical right wing Supreme Court would be a massive and sickening step backwards in this country,” said Kyle Bragg, president of SEIU 32 BJ which represents 135,000 workers. “It would inflict the largest rollback of basic rights in a generation and unwind decades of progress for women. The justification for this opinion rests on a medieval worldview and it sets the stage for an even larger assault on fundamental freedoms and protections. It’s an opinion cooked up by an illegitimate majority who advances a vision of America that caters only to Christian straight white men. What an utter disgrace.”
Up until word of the over turning of Roe, political analysts were projecting that Democrats, buffeted by inflation and an unpopular President Biden, were certain to lose control of Congress in the fall.
Bloomberg News reported that more recent polling by Morning Consult/Politico indicated the over turning of Roe would “energize” Democrats asserting that “half of U.S. voters support the abortion rights guaranteed by Roe and don’t want the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling.”
“About 42% of voters who lean Democratic — and 45% of Democratic women — said it’s more important to vote for a candidate who agrees with their stance on abortion, even if they disagree on other issues,” Bloomberg News reported. “That number has increased by five points since last December.” By contrast, only 31 percent of Republican voters polled thought that abortion was more important in the midterm elections for Congress and other offices.
“That trend reverses more than a decade of polling that showed Republicans have been more motivated by the abortion issue,” Bloomberg News said. “Last year, Gallup found that 30% of self-described ‘pro-life’ voters said they would only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion, compared to 19% of those who support abortion rights.”
That enthusiasm gap is the lifeline that Smith’s opponent Matt Jenkins appears to be counting on. “Emails are coming into me directly,” Jenkins told NJTV News in a recent interview. “They are coming into the Democratic Party. They are coming into the state party. People want to get involved in my campaign.”
According to his campaign website, Jenkins was born in New Jersey and raised in Toms River. “He first attended Ocean County College and spent some time as a substitute teacher before completing his degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick,” the official bio says.
According to published reports, he has worked as a biochemistry researcher, did custom furniture and has worked in homebuilding and fitness sectors.
He lists “generational change, making New Jersey work for working families, fighting for justice and opportunity for all Americans as well as Woman’s Rights, LGBTQIA+, Healthcare, Energy and Climate Change as his core issues. Efforts to reach him by email and through social media were unsuccessful.
In 2020, Smith’s Democratic opponent was held to just 38.3 percent of the vote. Even though President Biden beat Trump close to a million votes statewide, Trump added over 300,000 additional votes to his 2016 total, much of it coming from Smith’s district which includes Ocean county where the former president won close to 64 percent of the ballots cast.
The latest redistricting has made newcomer Jenkins up hill climb even steeper. The new 4th’s make-up includes 36 percent registered Republicans, 23 percent Democrats and 40 percent who are listed as unaffiliated voters. The reconfigured district lost the eastern portions of Mercer County where the Trenton suburbs of Hamilton Twp. and Robbinsville where traditionally more friendly to Democrats. On the eastern coastal edge of the district, Smith lost Neptune Township, where his 2020 Democratic opponent Stephanie Schmid bested him 10,000 votes to 5,000.
Smith, 69, just prevailed in last month’s primary contest where he was challenged by Trump acolyte Mike Crispi. Crispi, a podcast host, had the backing of General Michael Flynn, Rudy Giuliani, Roger Stone and 101.5 drive time host Bill Spadea and did manage to garner over 20,000 votes. Smith got close to 32,000.
Smith earned the Trump junta ire when he exhibited his traditional independence and was one of only one of 35 Republicans to vote for a 9/11 style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection. That measure passed the House and had the bi-partisan endorsement of former Rep. Lee Hamilton and former Governor Tom Kean, who were co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission. The bill died in the U.S. Senate.
MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON AND STAYS
Smith was first elected to Congress in 1980 when the district not only included the shore towns in Monmouth and Ocean Counties, but went as far west as Trenton where Smith grew up and his family operated a wholesale sporting goods business where he worked after getting his BA from Trenton State.
Included in the district back then were not only portions of Mercer but Burlington and Middlesex.
He had held no elected office prior to his running for Congress, but in 1976 became the executive director of the New Jersey Right to Life Committee. His first time out running for Congress he got over 95,000 votes, besting veteran Democratic incumbent Rep. Frank Thompson by 27,000 votes. Thompson had originally won election back in 1954.
Over Thompson’s 26 years in Congress he had been a champion of civil and labor rights and was one of the architects of the landmark Landrum-Griffin Act, a kind of bill of rights for rank and file union members that promotes transparency and democracy in the way unions operate. He spearheaded John F. Kennedy’s voter registration efforts for an election that saw 91 percent of New Jersey’s voters turnout, an historic high.
It didn’t hurt Smith’s cause any that in June, before the campaign got into full swing, Thompson, was indicted on federal corruption charges in the FBI’s Abscam sting. That controversial corruption probe snagged New Jersey’s U.S. Senator Harrison Williams as well as a half dozen members of the House of Representatives including Thompson whose lawyers mounted a vigorous yet unsuccessful defense.
He was convicted in December of 1980, a month after voters had rejected him at the polls.