Down In the Weeds: New Jersey

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Promoted from the diaries by streiff. Promotion does not imply endorsement.

The following scenario encapsulates what the GOP is up against in New Jersey- the 2018 Senatorial election pitting Democrat incumbent Robert Menendez against Republican Bob Hugin.  According to financial disclosures, Hugin spent $40 million to run against a sitting Senator standing trial who beat a federal corruption charge due to a hung jury only to lose by 11 points and about 300,000 votes.


A second problem is voter registration trends in the state.  The Democrat’s edge over the GOP reached the highest gap yet- 947,000- and is fast approaching the 1 million voter mark.  Worse, Democratic voter registration has inched closer to the unaffiliated and is within 147,000 voters of surpassing it.  This indicates that the GOP in New Jersey is quickly losing the hearts and minds of independent voters.  In only six counties do Republicans outnumber Democrats these days and the numbers are close.

However, raw registration numbers do not vote and minds and hearts can be changed.   For example, in four of the last nine gubernatorial elections, Republicans have won.  Three of those four won their reelection bids handily.  In that time period, only one Democrat managed to win their reelection bid (Brendan Byrne).

Instead, the New Jersey GOP finds itself in a strange Catch-22 negative feedback loop.  They are desperate to raise funds from a shrinking donor base and that which still exists is unwilling to open their wallets since the Republicans are not competitive.  This extends to the recruitment of good candidates who are unwilling to enter the fray absent organizational and financial support.

Where the GOP seems to pin their hopes is for a landslide presidential or gubernatorial election.  They will have to wait until 2021 for the latter and they have no chance of that with the former.  Even still, when Chris Christie won reelection in 2013, the coat tail effect failed to materialize, even though he won with 60% of the vote.  In some sense, things are so bad that in January, the Democrats convinced state senator Dawn Addiego to switch parties.  Her reason?  “Gridlock in Washington.”  What that has to do with events in Trenton or her Eighth senate district defies logical explanation.


It also does not help when you have prominent Republicans suddenly talking and acting like Democrats, or their willing allies, the NeverTrumper.  In 2018, Republicans at the federal level were ousted in every district except for Chris Smith.  Since then, he has joined the Democrats in Washington in supporting a $15 minimum wage and co-sponsoring Democratic-led gun control legislation.

In July, 2019 former Republican Governor Christine Whitman penned an article in the state urging Republicans to abandon President Trump.  Steeped in the language of #TheResistance/#NeverTrump, Whitman came to the defense of the four horsewomen of the socialist apocalypse.  This is what passes for Republican leadership in the Garden State.  In effect, in the coming year, Republicans in New Jersey, through their leadership, are asking an important question: Do they stand by the party’s standard-bearer hoping for second term salvation (whatever that means), or do they unhitch themselves from Trump?

The most recent state assembly races may offer a clue to the conundrum.  One did not hear too much about New Jersey this past Election Day on the mainstream news.  The reason is that despite this so-called negative Trump effect, the GOP held its own and may have picked up a couple of Assembly seats.  Republicans won by keeping their races local.  Governor Murphy’s so-so approval ratings may have helped also and Democratic attack ads in the 1st District appear to have backfired.  Overall, Trump Republicans did well where Trump is still popular, but fared so-so in other more moderate areas.  In effect, Trump-aligned candidates did not damage the GOP in two key districts (the 8th and 21st).


Also, the Democrats had a huge vote-by-mail push that largely failed to materialize.  Their gains in Virginia were attributable to higher turnout given the higher stakes (and a gubernatorial election in Kentucky).

Despite the rhetoric of Whitman and the actions of Smith, one has to consider the case of Ciattarelli, a former legislator from Somerset county who will run against Murphy in 2021 for governor.  In 2015, he described Trump as a “charlatan” who “preyed upon our worst instincts.”  Today, he is considerably less of a Trump-basher.  On the one hand, he cannot alienate Trump supporters, but neither can he embrace Trump lest he alienate the affluent lifeblood of the GOP in the state.  If the GOP has a chance of unseating Murphy in 2021, establishment Republicans fear an angry backlash from Trump supporters should their eventual candidate go all in against Trump in 2020.  Some longtime observers of politics in the state believe the GOP leadership is secretly hoping for a Trump loss in 2020 so that life will return to “normal.”  “Normal” is anything but Trump to the GOP establishment in New Jersey.

What does all this mean for 2020?  To regain the House, the GOP needs one or two seats from New Jersey.  Despite his attempt to inoculate himself with his vote against the impeachment inquiry making him one of two Democrats to do so, Jeff Van Drew’s tenure in the Second District may be numbered.  Likewise, the Democrat in the Third District- Andy Kim- may have to rely even more heavily on the Burlington county suburbs to offset the Trump-friendly areas of Ocean county.  Flipping the 7th and 11th Districts back to Republicans may be a tougher haul and a candidate would have to reverse recent trends in the suburban areas of those districts.  From all accounts, Democrats are livid with Van Drew and for his part he has stated as things stand now after the impeachment circus hearings, he would NOT vote for impeachment.


If anything, the 2019 state level elections were not the results Democrats were hoping for.  The state GOP got a reprieve from the never-ending death watch.  Of course, Trump will not win New Jersey come 2020 and when you have forces operating against you within your own party, that fact becomes even more obvious.  Winning one or two congressional districts would be a decent start.  With Trump back in the White House, perhaps then the state GOP can resign themselves to the fact he is President and they can concentrate on the 2021 gubernatorial election.

Next: Delaware and Maryland


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