Will 8th District Republicans vote for an incumbent who has fully embraced President Donald Trump in the June 4 primary for a New Jersey Assembly seat, or will they back a ticket that has been endorsed by the local party?
That’s the question facing GOP voters in a swing district that elected two Republican Assemblymen in 2017 by razor-thin margins, and where the recent defection of the sitting state senator, Dawn Addiego, to the Democrats has encouraged that party’s hopes that the district is tilting its way.
Republican Assemblyman Joe Howarth of Marlton, one of the two incumbents, lost the backing of the Burlington County GOP for the primary earlier this year after reports that he too had considered flipping to the Democrats. Since then, he has been running as a “MAGA Republican,” showing his allegiance to the president’s “Make America Great Again” slogan in an attempt to differentiate himself from the party’s official primary candidates, fellow incumbent Ryan Peters of Hainesport and former Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield of Westhampton.
Howarth, who did not respond to several requests for comment, showed a hardening pro-Trump stance in March when he introduced two bills that would tighten restrictions on immigrants. He is running on a ticket with R. Jason Huf of Lumberton.
One of the bills (A-5250) would ban any company that employs an undocumented foreign national from getting public contracts, while the other (A-5251) would require driver’s licenses to contain proof of the holder’s U.S. citizenship or legal residence in the United States. Both bills are before Assembly committees but are not expected to become law in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Trump factor a wild card
It’s unclear whether an anti-immigrant stance will resonate with a majority of GOP voters in the parts of Burlington, Camden and Atlantic counties covered by the district. But there’s evidence from other New Jersey contests that pro-Trump policies can win primary elections for their advocates even if they lack the organizational support that is traditionally key to winning primaries in New Jersey.
In the congressional mid-terms in 2018, Seth Grossman, a strong Trump supporter, upset the front-runner to win the GOP nomination for the 2nd District. In the 5th District, John McCann, another pro-Trump candidate, beat Steve Lonegan in a tough primary. Both Republicans subsequently lost the general election to Democratic incumbents.
Both Grossman and McCann prevailed in the primaries because they were able to activate a section of Republican voters in low-turnout races, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
“What Howarth is betting on is that they are also low-information voters, and the only thing they will know about him is the information that he has put out in his campaign literature with the slogan under which he is running, and they don’t know anything about his record as an incumbent,” said Murray.
There’s evidence from other states that pro-Trump candidates win GOP primaries against candidates that are seen as mainstream Republicans, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University.
But he said that Howarth’s reported dalliance with Democrats, followed by his hard-right turn toward Trump could be seen by his critics as opportunistic.
“We will have to see whether the organization for the other two candidates will overcome whatever grassroots fervor the ‘MAGA’ affiliation will carry,” Dworkin said.
A district that may be up for grabs
Many of the 20 bills for which Howarth, 63, has been a primary sponsor in the current session are uncontroversial compared with the immigrant-related measures he introduced in March. The other bills include one that would prohibit the sale of emergency warning lights to unauthorized motorists, while another would provide counties and municipalities with more discretion when leasing public land for agriculture.
In 2017, Howarth and his then running mate, Ryan Peters, were elected by margins of less than 1 percentage point each over their Democratic rivals, clearly showing a closely fought district. Voter registration data from the 2017 poll also suggest the district is up for grabs, with registered Democrats outweighing Republicans by a margin of 31 to 27 percent, while unaffiliated voters represented 41 percent of the electorate.
For his part, Peters avoided referring to any influence that Trump might have on the primary, and focused instead on property taxes and setting conservative fiscal policies as the cornerstones of his campaign.
“I’m seeking the Republican nomination so I can rally the families and middle class of New Jersey and bring the affordability to the Garden State that they’ve been demanding,” he said in a statement.
Peters, 37, a car dealer, said he wants to reduce property taxes and make the district more affordable.
“My district is a wonderful place to live but it doesn’t matter if regular families can’t afford to live there,” he said. “We have to change the way this state spends and funds the government, based on necessity, not want.”
He blamed high property and corporate taxes and unfunded state pensions on the Democratic majority, and said that the state needs Republicans to start enacting fiscally conservative policies.
Peters’s running mate, Stanfield, did not respond to requests for comment.
‘Let down by our state government’
Huf, a lawyer, said he’s seeking the GOP nomination because he wants to oppose “skyrocketing” property taxes, “burdensome” regulations, and cuts in state funding that he said have hurt local schools.
“We have been let down by our state government,” said Huf, 46, who is not endorsed by the local GOP. “State aid has been cut from our schools and sent north. Our representatives have failed to oppose tax increases.”
Despite his criticism of the Assembly’s majority Democrats, Huf said that if he wins the GOP nomination, he will run “a positive campaign, something our country hasn’t seen in quite a long time.”
Huf did not respond to a request for comment on whether he too is a “MAGA Republican.”
For Howarth’s candidacy, the question will be whether Republican voters are concerned by his reported flip-flop from the GOP to the Democrats and then to hardline Trumpism, said Murray.
“Nobody said politicians run on principle,” he said. “They run to win.”