It may not qualify as a “blue wave,” but New Jersey did its part Tuesday in returning Democrat Bob Menendez to the Senate and flipping at least three congressional seats from red to blue. Political observers said the overarching issues were the dislike of President Donald Trump and a lopsided Democratic vote from women, youth, and people of color.
One Congressional District, the 3rd, in which incumbent Republican Tom MacArthur is still battling with Democrat Andy Kim to keep his post, was not decided last night. At least 2,000 provisional ballots remain to be counted, more than the MacArthur margin of victory. If he should lose, it would mean that Rep. Chris Smith (R-4th) would be the sole Republican in the New Jersey congressional delegation.
Democrat Mikie Sherrill won the 11th district seat formerly held by Rodney Frelinghuysen in a district that was gerrymandered to be Republican. Incumbent Republican Leonard Lance lost a close contest with Democrat Tom Malinowski in the 7th district after 10 years in office. And after a surprising night of nail-biting in the 2nd district, Democrat Jeff Van Drew beat back Seth Grossman — who had lost the backing of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) after making what were considered racist comments.
The special legislative elections to fill vacancies in Trenton were solid blue. Voters in seven districts were asked to decide a total of 10 races — one for a seat in the state Senate and the rest in the Assembly. As expected, all went the way of the Democratic candidates.
“I’m going to call it a blue wave in New Jersey, “said Democratic strategist Brendan Gill. “If we can flip three out of five Republican seats and return Bob Menendez to the Senate, I’d consider it a blue wave.” There was an impact on down-ballot races as well, although it will take a few days to determine how large. Democrats were elected to the Somerset County freeholder board for the first time in years; Burlington Democrats took control of its freeholder board; and Gill pointed to town council wins around the state, including Millburn and the mayor of Highbridge.
The Senator’s baggage
Menendez’s comfortable victory over Hugin proved easier than expected after what had been a vicious campaign on both sides, especially in the closing days. It was the Senator’s baggage related to his recent scandals against a pharmaceutical CEO with deep pockets to exploit them.
So, it was part elation and part relief in the Hoboken ballroom as Menendez came out about 10 p.m. to speak to some 200 supporters.
With no need to name his opponent, Menendez said it was a victory of “hope over hate, for facts over fiction, for inclusion over division, for hard work over ripping people off.”
“I’m so proud that New Jersey has rejected the politics of personal destruction and the false, negative, salacious ads, “Menendez said, referring to Hugin’s 11th-hour television ads that highlighted debunked personal accusations against the Senator.
Hearing from the pundits
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the recent salacious ads accusing Menendez of being involved with underage prostitutes may have done more to hurt than help Hugin. At that point, he said, most voters had made up their minds and they tuned out the ads.
Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said exit polls showed that a large percentage of voters chose Menendez despite the fact he was personally unpopular. “This was an anti-Trump vote.”
Others pointed out that New Jersey is truly a blue state, with a Democratic registration advantage of about 930,000, and getting more so. In off years, including most midterms, Democrats do not turn out at the polls. This year was different, with a little less than 50 percent turnout of registered voters, before many mail-ins and provisional ballots are counted.
The vote is in the mail
Gill said there were about 350,000 mail-in ballots (out of about 558,000) already sent in. Many counties have not counted them yet.
Harrison said the mail-in ballots did make a difference, since voters under 30 years of age broke two to three in favor of Democrats. That’s partly due to a new law mandating that anyone who had received a mail-in ballot in 2016 was sent one this year as well. Harrison noted that many college students vote by mail, and that her daughter — who despite having graduated college received a ballot in the mail this fall — decided to just send her vote in early. Usually, there is a drop off in voting when college students come home and start working.
Calculating the gender gap
Statewide, according to Harrison, there was a 19 percent gender gap in favor of women voting for Democrats. African-Americans voted 87 percent for Menendez. And the Senator, a Latino himself, got a large boost there. Murray said one interesting fact is that throughout the Northeast, Latino men vote for Democrats in about the same percentage as Latino women, which is somewhat different than elsewhere in the country.
A majority of voters who are white, however, voted for Hugin, said Murray.
Menendez’s Hoboken event drew some of the state’s top Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and state Sen. Teresa Ruiz. Others were notably missing, including U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, whose staff said he was working the phones and social networks into the night for other Democrats across the country.
Menendez’s communications chief, Steve Sandberg, said the Senator’s campaign team never worried that the race would be close. Sandberg said they saw the crowds coming to the Democratic campaign events in the state, and not just Menendez’s. Gill agreed. He said the enthusiasm on the part of the Democrats was evidenced by three times as many people showing up to events than is typical.
The race for Menendez was called early — about 8:15 p.m. And Hugin and his wife Kathy seemed to be expecting the loss as they roamed through the crowd greeting supporters. He was hoping there wouldn’t be a clear winner until late in the evening.
“We’re going to be here for as long as it takes,” Hugin told supporters to applause.
Later, he left observers wondering what his future political plans may be, as he told the crowd in his concession speech, “A Marine never gives up. We are going to fight onward.”
—John Mooney and John Reitmeyer contributed to this story.