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Elections 2017

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Christie and Trump: The Best Friends New Jersey Democrats Ever Had?

Pollsters and pundits alike argue that dissatisfaction with the governor and the president helped put Democrats over the top in race after race

Democrats dominated in New Jersey in Tuesday’s general election for a host of reasons, including a bigger war chest and a better get-out-the-vote effort, but the two biggest reasons were Republicans who were not on the ballot: Chris Christie and Donald Trump.

Democrats won everywhere. They took seats at the county and local levels, including such unlikely positions as county clerk in Somerset County and mayor of Westfield. But at least as impressive were their large vote totals in staunchly red legislative districts where they did not win, but put a scare into entrenched Republican incumbents.

Of course, Phil Murphy handily took the governorship by a 13-point margin, and his party added two Assembly and one Senate seat to its already large margins in the Legislature.

In the 40 legislative districts across the state, Democrats won 58 percent of the vote, compared with almost 42 percent won by Republicans. The Democrats’ share of the total vote Tuesday was nearly 5 points higher than the party got in the 2015 off-year election, while the GOP’s share was more than 4 points less than it got two years ago.

Christie casts long shadow

Polls in the gubernatorial race and political pundits have been saying all along that Gov. Chris Christie, whose approval rating has been in the teens all year, would be the biggest factor in that race this year. The day after the election, most experts said Christie’s unpopularity was also a major reason why Republicans did more poorly this year across the state. They also blamed Trump and his unpopularity in the state — just 31 percent of New Jerseyans approved of his actions in the White House in the most recent poll last month — though differed significantly as to how big a role anti-Trump sentiments played.

“Chris Christie was not on the ballot, but he might as well have been,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “This was a big anti-Christie vote …Trump did not help Republicans, but he was not the determining factor in this election.” Dworkin cited exit polls that found almost six in 10 voters saying Trump was not a factor in their vote and less than three in 10 saying they were voting to express opposition to Trump.

Julie Roginsky, a Democratic strategist who worked with Gov.-elect Murphy and other candidates did not agree. She said much internal New Jersey polling did not detect “an almost silent majority” of voters who wound up casting ballots for Democrats as a “rebuke” of Trump. These were educated, suburban voters who polls did not identify as supporting Democrats, much, she said, as national polls last year did not identify white, working-class voters without a college degree whose support put Trump in office.

She cited three races in which polls showed Democrats either tied with or having small leads over Republican rivals, but which the Democrats won comfortably or by wide margins. In the 16th District in central Jersey, for instance, freshman Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, whose victory in 2015 split a traditionally red district, was running “neck and neck” in internal polling with the Republican ticket that included the woman he beat two years ago. Zwicker was the top vote-getter for the lower house seat, besting the highest polling Republican by more than 3,600 votes.

Repudiating Trump

“The polls did not catch necessarily the phenomenon that was happening with respect to this president,” Roginsky told a crowd at the annual election post mortem held at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University yesterday. “It was a repudiation of Chris Christie and Donald Trump.”

John Weingart, Eagleton’s associate director, agreed.

“My sense is that many local races may have been affected by national politics to an extent not seen before in New Jersey,” he said. “Moderate Republicans and independents as well as Democrats on some gut level  didn't want to be seen as endorsing the brand currently dominated by President Trump, and the energy of some of the voters who were appalled or alarmed by Trump was effectively channeled into Democratic legislative and other local campaigns.”

A number of groups seeking to harness the so-called Trump “Resistance” movement and channel it to trying to elect progressive candidates at all levels of government have popped up quickly in New Jersey, and they’ve been placing candidates in all sorts of races, even in affluent suburban areas currently represented by Republicans. Their educational, organizational, and get-out-the-vote efforts likely help explain why Democrats far outperformed their past tallies and what had been expected of them.

Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said these efforts also motivated people who had never considered political office before to run, yielding “a larger number of well-qualified nonincumbent candidates, and quality candidates.”

Some especially notable legislative races included:

  • In the 24th District in the extreme northwest, Democrats polled more than 11 points better this year than in 2015. One of the reddest districts in the state, Republicans outnumber Democrats two-to-one in voter registration, and it is the only district in the state where registered Republicans outnumber unaffiliated voters. Democrats comprise just 20 percent of those registered. In 2015, the Democratic candidates received just 27 percent of all votes cast. Last year, Clinton took about 34 percent of the vote. This year, the Democratic legislative candidates won nearly 39 percent of all votes cast.

  • In the 25th District, centered in Morris County, the Democrats took almost 48 percent of the votes cast, losing by less than 5 points in a district where they usually lose by double digits. Morris County has not elected a Democrat to the Legislature since the post-Watergate wave gave the party its largest margins ever in both houses – 29 to 11 in the Senate and 66 to 14 in the Assembly in 1974-1975.

  • In the 8th District, encompassing parts of Burlington and Camden counties and Hammonton in Atlantic, the Democrats typically have not put up much of a fight this decade and they did not even challenge for two Assembly seats in 2015. This year, the three Democratic candidates captured almost 49 percent of the vote. As of midday Wednesday, just 213 votes separated the Republican who was the second-highest vote getter and the Democrat who came in third with some mail in and provisional ballots still to be counted.

Flying under the radar

None of those races was on anyone’s radar. At points Tuesday night, while the votes were still being tallied, it also appeared that at least one Democrat was ahead in the 39th District in northern Bergen and Passaic counties and the 21st, the home of the GOP leaders of both the Senate and Assembly, based in Union County. Republicans wound up holding onto all seats in those districts, but they took less than 54 percent of all votes cast, a drop of 6 points in the 21st and 7 points in the 39th from 2015.

Democrats did win the Senate seats in the 7th and 11th Districts in Burlington and Monmouth, respectively, turning those districts, which had been split, fully blue. The 11th had only become split in 2015 when Democrats unseated the Republican Assembly incumbents. Democrats lost the Senate seat in the 2nd to popular GOP Assemblyman Chris Brown, but a Democrat won the seat Brown vacated, one of two Assembly seats the party would pick up. The 16th District seat Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli relinquished when he ran for governor, losing to Kim Guadagno in the primary, is now also in Democratic hands.

Roginsky said the Democrats might have done even better — keeping the 2nd District Senate seat, taking the Senate seat in the 16th District, and winning one or both of the Assembly seats in the 8th — had the party not spent so much effort and money in the 3rd District helping Senate President Stephen Sweeney fight off a Republican challenger backed by the New Jersey Education Association. That race, which Sweeney wound up winning easily with 59 percent of the vote, was the most expensive legislative race in state history, with $16.6 million spent just through October 24.

“Democrats had a great night last night, but it could have been even better,” said Roginsky.

Krista Jenkins, director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind polls and a political science professor, said Trump was a factor but “Christie was clearly casting the longest shadow” over the election here.

“I’m not arguing that Trump and the national show in D.C. didn’t play a role, but after eight years of a strong Republican executive, voters were looking for a change,” she said. “It didn’t help that Christie was so tethered to Trump.”

Harrison said the Trumpian tactics Guadagno switched to emphasizing during the last six weeks of her campaign — her fear-inducing ad about Murphy’s support of making New Jersey a sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants — may have done more harm to her campaign and possibly other Republicans.

“In some of the more rural areas, the ‘sanctuary state’ ads resonated and created fear giving those Republicans reason to go to the polls,” Harrison said, “but I think for a larger number of Republicans, that pivot right by Guadagno smacked of desperation, and was antithetical to where many Republicans in New Jersey — who tend to be socially liberal but fiscally conservative — stand.”

At the same time, she said, the Democrats must get credit for the role that their “well-funded GOTV operation had in driving up Democratic numbers, particularly in their strongholds, and particularly through vote-by-mail efforts.”

The result of last night’s elections and all the factors that played into them will mean that “some of these incumbents who won last night in tighter races will be perceived as vulnerable moving forward, much in the way that Jennifer Beck was perceived as vulnerable moving into yesterday's contest,” Harrison added, citing the 11th District Republican senator who lost to Democrat Vin Gopal on Tuesday.

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