New Jersey’s Republican Party is still licking its wounds from the bruising losses it sustained in last year’s midterm elections. Not only did the Grand Old Party lose four of the five seats it had held in the U.S. House of Representatives — some for decades — but it also lost local and county races in unexpected places: the Burlington County Freeholder Board is now under Democratic control; the county clerk’s seat there flipped, as well, and two Democrats won seats on the Somerset County Freeholder Board for the first time since the 1980s.
Some say shifting demographics are at least partly responsible for Democratic wins, but it is clear that the work of grassroots citizens groups with names that include Indivisible, Swing Left, Action Together and For Change played an integral part in the victories by mobilizing and energizing voters to work and vote for progressive candidates.
With all 80 seats in the state Assembly topping this year’s balloting, the question is what role such activists will play and whether that could lead to additional Republican losses. Already, the GOP holds just 26 seats in the lower house, matching a low of 40 years ago. Just 18 years ago, Republicans were in the majority, with 45 seats. At the start of this decade, they had 33 seats. In the intervening years, they lost two rounds of the redrawing of district lines, which put them at a disadvantage in several districts.
The Republicans’ last two seat losses — one in the 2nd District based in Atlantic City and the other in the formerly red-leaning 16th in Central Jersey — occurred in 2017, when Democrat Phil Murphy won an easy victory to become governor and there was plenty of post-Trump furor in the state. Anti-Trump sentiments led to the growth and strength of the progressive activist groups and was also believed responsible for Democrats’ ability to flip four House seats last November.
Matthew Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, said he expects a much smaller Trump effect in this year’s Assembly races.
‘…anti-Trump message resonates less’
“The U.S. Congress confronts Trump every day, so the connection is much stronger and more real for people than the state Assembly,” said Hale. “It is tougher to ‘stop Trump’ from an Assembly seat than a Congressional one, so the Anti-Trump message resonates less. Most New Jersey Republicans have been sprinting away from Trump and so it is more difficult for Democrats to connect Assembly candidates to Trump.”
While Assembly members may have little to no effect on national policy, representatives of several of the grassroots groups have pledged to remain politically involved. Recently, the universal outcry from many activists around the state helped to kill Democratic leaders’ effort to rewrite the rules that dictate how district boundary lines are drawn every decade as the proposed changes were seen as unfairly beneficial to the Democratic party.
“We focus on legislative elections,” said Sandy Gatelein, one of the coordinators of the Cape May County Indivisible organization. “We’ve done a lot of work the past 2 years. We focus on a local, state and federal level and we plan to be active in all of it moving forward.”
Hale added that Assembly races are local ones and said voters are less apt to “fire” their representatives when they are also known as local real estate agents, teachers and accountants.
In 2017, in the first post-Trump election, the GOP lost only two Assembly seats, but their margins of victory in deeply red districts were much smaller than usual. With off-election years typically attracting very low turnout — 22 percent in 2015, the last time the Assembly topped the ticket — a surge by either party’s supporters could make a big difference to the outcome.
With Democrats now seeming to have a firm hold on seats in districts that used to be considered swing or competitive, the dominant party may shift some of the battlegrounds this year to districts where Democrats polled well in 2017 and that are in congressional districts that Republicans lost last year. The Democrats will also be defending the seats they recently won.
Ones to watch
Based on 2017 election results, these are the races most worth watching:
1. 8th District
This district cover parts of Burlington and Camden counties and Hammonton in Atlantic County. The incumbents are Republicans Joe Howarth and Ryan Peters. Peters is a freshman who won his seat by just 350 votes over third place finisher Joanne Schwartz, a Democrat. Combined, the Republicans received 50.1 percent of the vote, while the two Democrats got 49.2 percent. This has long been a red district and in 2015, the Democrats did not even run any Assembly candidates. But Burlington voters last year elected a Democratic clerk and two freeholders — including one who had dropped out of the race due to past allegations of domestic violence after the deadline to have his name removed from the ballot. And the county pushed newcomer Andy Kim into the 3rd Congressional District seat over the Republican incumbent last year. Democrats also have a voter registration edge over Republicans of 32 percent vs. 28 percent.
2. 21st District
It encompasses parts of Union, Somerset and Morris counties. This is the home of Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, who is the GOP leader of the lower house, and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz. Bramnick, a vocal critic of Trump, is likely to pull out all the stops to retain his seat. Still, this is the district where the margin between Assembly candidates of both parties was second smallest two years ago. Bramnick and Munoz got 52.1 percent of the vote, while the Democrats won 47.9 percent. The Democratic candidates boosted their vote share by 7.3 percentage points from 2015 to 2017. And there are roughly 3,700 more registered Democrats in the district than registered Republicans, although those unaffiliated with any party comprise more than 40 percent of all those registered.
3. 25th District
Part of Morris County and Bernardsville in Somerset make up this district. Republican incumbents Anthony M. Bucco and Michael Patrick Carroll got a combined 52.3 percent of the vote in 2017, 5.3 percentage points less than two years earlier. Many of the municipalities in this district are also in the 11th Congressional District that Democrats decisively flipped in last year’s midterms. And Carroll is retiring, which could help or hurt the ticket, depending on who Republicans nominate. Still, the Democrats have been unable to win a seat at the county level in Morris County. The 25th is a long-time red district and voter registration statistics favor Republicans over Democrats, 34 percent to 28 percent.
4. 16th District
This district takes in parts of Somerset and Hunterdon counties as well as South Brunswick in Middlesex County and Princeton in Mercer County. Democrats Andrew Zwicker and Roy Freiman are the incumbents. Zwicker flipped one seat in 2015 and Freiman won the other two years later. This is still a purple district, though, with a Republican state senator. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 14,000. Zwicker and Frieman won with 53.3 percent of the vote in 2017, better than in 2015, but the Republicans had controlled this district for decades prior to Zwicker’s win.
5. 40th District
It covers parts of Bergen County, Cedar Grove in Essex County and Pequannock in Morris County. Republicans Kevin Rooney and Christopher DePhillips are the incumbents, having won with 53.1 percent of the vote. The Democrats keep getting closer, having bettered their vote share by almost 2 percentage points between 2015 and 2017. Still, the GOP has a nearly 9,000-person voter registration edge over the Democrats.
6. 39th District
Parts of Bergen and Passaic counties are in this district. Republican incumbents Holly Schepisi and Robert Auth won last time with 53.6 percent of the vote, but the Democrats increased their share of the vote by 6.6 percentage points. And the GOP has a relatively small voter registration advantage over the Democrats of 29 percent vs. 27 percent.
7. 11th District
This takes in part of Monmouth County, including Asbury Park. Democrats first broke through here in 2015, unseating two Republican Assemblywomen. Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey won again in 2017, and the Senate seat also flipped to blue. The Democrats’ victory margin was 10 points in the last election and the party has a voter registration advantage of more than 14,000 over the GOP.
Two other races could be interesting, although the Democrats have been increasing their victory margins in them over the last two elections.
One is the 2nd District that cover Atlantic City and nearby municipalities in Atlantic County. Democrats won both Assembly seats in 2017 but the district remained purple as Republican Chris Brown gave up his Assembly seat to win the Senate seat that had been in Democratic hands. Still, Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo and John Armato’s margin of victory was more than 12 percentage points two years ago and Democrats outnumber Republicans.
The other one is in the southernmost 1st District, which encompasses Cape May County and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland counties. This had been a purple district until 2015, when it turned blue. In 2017, incumbents Bob Andrzejczak and Bruce Land won handily, taking almost 61 percent of the vote. But there will be an open Senate seat on the ballot here, as well, with Jeff Van Drew now in Congress. And Republicans have a slim voter registration advantage over Democrats.