Over the last two election cycles, Democrats have been edging closer to the Republicans in the two General Assembly seats for the 21st Legislative District, and they hope that opposition to President Trump and growing Democratic voter registration will push them over the top in this year’s contest.
Republican incumbents Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz saw a big reduction in their winning margin in 2017 when they edged their Democratic challengers by only four percentage points compared with almost 19 points in 2015.
That may reflect an increase in Democratic registration in the district that covers parts of Morris, Somerset and Union counties where Democrats now enjoy an advantage of around 4,000 registered voters, representing a turnaround from a GOP edge a decade ago.
The challengers are also encouraged by the fact that every town in the district is now represented by a Democrat in Congress, said Lisa Mandelblatt, one of this year’s Democratic candidates.
“I think we’ve got an electorate that is engaged, and understands what’s on the ballot,” she said. “They understand that we can’t hold our breath for the federal government to do anything, so the decisions that come out of Trenton are more important than ever.”
Whether the presence of more Democratic voters is enough to overcome the advantages of GOP incumbency may depend on whether Democratic candidates can convince voters to back their policies on hot-button issues like persistently high property taxes, soaring health care premiums and gun violence, political analysts said.
Is there a Trump factor?
It may also depend on whether the congressional impeachment inquiry produces new information about President Trump’s conduct that helps or hinders the GOP candidates in the runup to the Nov. 5 election.
Bramnick, the Assembly minority leader, has attempted to distance New Jersey Republicans from Trump, saying last year that he would not endorse some of the tweets or “conduct” coming out of the White House.
He doubled down on that in a recent statement, calling for “civility and respect” in politics. “I have spoken out many times against the name-calling by President Trump and the extremists who refuse to have a policy-driven discussion on either side of the aisle,” he said.
That could cost Bramnick the votes of some New Jersey Republicans who are loyal to the president, warned Brigid Harrison, professor of political science and law at Montclair State University.
“I’m not saying that people voting in this election are viewing this as a mandate on President Trump but there are a fairly strong number of Republicans in this district and some may take issue with the fact that he is not 100 percent behind the President,” she said, referring to Bramnick. “He’s a much more moderate New Jersey kind of Republican.”
It’s ‘not about national issues’
Munoz, too, signaled her concern about the risk of voters linking her with Trump. “I work for the residents of New Jersey’s 21st district,” said Munoz, 65, a retired registered nurse who lives in Summit. “I am not beholden to any party or President. When I talk to voters, they want to hear about how we can make New Jersey a better place, not about national issues.”
Bramnick, who has held the seat since 2011, would be a major scalp for the Democrats because he is the minority leader, and because he is one of the names that are mentioned as a possible rival to Gov. Phil Murphy in the 2021 gubernatorial election, Harrison said.
The minority leader, 66, a lawyer from Westfield, said he is running to counteract “one-party rule” in Trenton, and to make New Jersey more affordable. He said he and Munoz will work to cap annual increases in state spending at 2% and to cut income taxes by 10%.
The GOP candidates pledged to oppose court-ordered high-density housing projects because they strain local services and communities, and to stop the requirement for pre-approval of treatment by health insurers. “When a doctor prescribes treatment, it should be covered by your insurance,” Bramnick said.
John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, predicted the Republicans will hold onto the 21st District but acknowledged that Democrats have been making inroads in recent years, so it would not be a huge surprise if they tilted the race their way.
“The Democrats have been running spirited, well-funded race against the incumbents,” he said. “Although Republican candidates are still favored, that race is getting closer to a tossup. A Democratic victory would be an upset but not a startling upset.”
Cutting costs and taxes
As for the Democratic candidates, Mandelblatt, 55, an attorney and educator who lives in Westfield, said she is running to make New Jersey more affordable, to bring down health care costs, and to curb gun violence.
To control health care costs, she advocates boosting preventive care in an effort to avoid more costly procedures. She cited her own case in which a colonoscopy found polyps that required an early follow-up which her insurer refused to pay for, forcing her to pay out of pocket for the second procedure, which also found polyps.
“Had I waited, it may have turned into colon cancer, and the cost becomes much greater for myself, for my insurance company, for everybody involved,” she said. “If you multiply that by every single person in this state, you’re talking about real money here.”
If elected, Mandelblatt said her priorities will include fighting for full restoration of direct train service from her Westfield neighborhood to New York City, a trip that currently requires peak-hour commuters on the busy Raritan Valley line to change trains and platforms, and which she said is taking its toll on the local economy. “They are going to call me the crazy train lady,” she said. Munoz, too, said she would fight to restore “one-seat rides” to New York on the Raritan Valley line. (On Oct. 14, NJ Transit restored direct service on the line to Penn Station in Manhattan during off-peak hours, but rush-hour riders will still have to change at Newark.)
Mandelblatt also pledged to fight for the restoration of state funding for women’s health clinics which were hit by cuts under the Christie administration.
On gun violence, she said New Jersey should close loopholes in gun laws, and find ways of preventing guns entering illegally from other states, especially Pennsylvania. As a former substitute teacher, she ran lockdown drills with young students, who she said are paying a heavy emotional price for being threatened with gun violence in their schools.
“This generation is being traumatized in a way that I don’t think anyone fully understands at this point,” she said. “The solution is not more lockdown drills and more guns. The solution is fewer guns, better rules about who can have guns and what kind of ammunition they can have. It can’t be a five-year-old standing up to a gun. It’s got to be legislators standing up to the NRA.”
Focusing on the environment
Her running mate, Stacey Gunderman, said she’s committed to improving environmental quality because “if we don’t protect and improve the planet we live on, we will cease to exist.”
Gunderman, 39, a sales professional who is also from Westfield, said she will fight for better public transit to take cars off the road, and education that invests in innovative technologies.
Gunderman, who like Mandelblatt has never held elected office, said she got involved in politics by organizing buses to attend the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017, and then revived the New Providence Democratic Club in an effort to boost local democracy in a district that she said has been poorly represented in Trenton.
“For too long the 21st District has been failed by disconnected politicians who oppose gun violence reforms, worsened our tax burden, and neglected our public transportation, infrastructure, and schools,” she said in a statement.
The district is also being contested by two Independent Conservative candidates, Martin Marks and Harris Pappas, who said they are running because of “frustration” with the performance of the Republican incumbents.
In a statement on their Facebook page, Marks and Pappas said Bramnick had presided over a loss of Republican seats in the Assembly, supported an increase in the state’s gasoline tax, and had been critical of President Trump.
“Bramnick at every chance possible has bashed our Republican President and intimated that he and his supporters were somehow
‘unreasonable,’” the statement said.
Regardless of who wins the district, it won’t affect control of the state Legislature which will remain firmly in Democratic hands, predicted Weingart of Rutgers. “I don’t think anyone, even the most ardent Republican, thinks the Republicans are going to get a majority of the seats in the Assembly,” he said.
Follow this link to an overview of the 21st Legislative District.