NJ’s Blue Wave Falls Flat, Dems Lose at Least 2 Assembly Seats, 1 State Senate Slot

Democrats’ high hopes going into election demonstrate how hard it is to get a handle on what Garden State voters will actually do

Tuesday’s state election results swamped any notions that New Jersey’s post-2016 blue wave was unstoppable and swept away the idea that Democrats will be able to keep the four U.S. House seats they flipped last year.

While some ballots are still being counted and not all races called yet, it seems clear that Republicans took control of at least two Assembly and one state Senate seat. What’s more, barring an unusual number of mail-in and provisional ballots favoring Democrats, they held onto six Assembly seats that had been imperiled. The only remaining questionable district appears to be the 2nd District in Atlantic County, where the Republicans lead in the polling place count but mail-in ballots counted thus far give the lead to the Democratic incumbents.

That should leave the Democrats with strong majorities of at least 50 seats in the Assembly and 25 in the Senate. Still, the results are a far cry from the idea that Democrats could have picked up at least two and as many as six seats. Further, since parts of all those legislative districts are included in the congressional districts Democrats wrestled from the GOP in 2018, it raises the question of how difficult it will be to keep those seats blue next year. Opinions on that are mixed.

Unfounded Democratic optimism

“Leading up to this election, some people were envisioning this growing, unstoppable blue wave, but the results show that was probably an inflated view of what happened,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “The fact that people voted for Republicans in District 8 does not say whether they are going to vote for Trump or against Trump, or for or against Andy Kim. 2020 is going to be its own thing.”

That was also the view of U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-7), who said Tuesday’s low turnout — about 25% before all votes are counted — makes it difficult to read too much into the 2020 races.

“It’s hard to make a comparison between 60% turnout (in 2018) and this one,” said Malinowski, who pulled off one of those House upsets last year, on Tuesday at a Springfield election night event. “It’s almost a different electorate.”

Because of that, he said he isn’t too worried that much of his district looked awfully red again following the Assembly vote.

Unsurprisingly, state Republican chairman Doug Steinhardt has a different view. Also speaking at a Union County election night event, though this one for Republican Assembly winners Jon Bramnick — the party leader in the lower house — and Nancy Munoz, Steinhardt said the GOP victories in the 1st and other races Democrats targeted are providing a “momentum we are carrying into 2020.”

Trying to gauge the Trump factor

But Gov. Phil Murphy, who put the best face on the results by noting victories in down-ballot races where the party used to not be competitive like Somerset County and the Chathams in Morris County, said next year’s election with President Donald Trump on the ballot will be a different election.

“He continues to be overall extremely unpopular and I think that bodes well for our side of the aisle in this state at least in 2020,” Murphy said.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, wrote in a post-election blog post that “Trump Republicans” did well in conservative districts — including the 1st and 2nd in South Jersey — but not in moderate Republican areas and that could be telling for next year.

“In New Jersey, Republican incumbents were able localize their races by reclaiming the party brand from the president (at least temporarily), while Trump-aligned independents did little damage to the GOP ticket in LD21 and LD8,” he wrote. “In the end, it is not the night New Jersey Democrats wanted and the state Republican Party got a reprieve from the ever-present death watch.  But the results also suggest that in a national context, Democrats will continue to do well in the suburbs while Republican success may be limited to the most Trump-friendly parts of the state.”

Reps. Andy Kim, left, and Jeff Van Drew, of the 3rd and 2nd districts, respectively, may have a tough time winning re-election to Congress in 2020.

That makes Matthew Hale, associate professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, predict that Kim and Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who last year flipped the 3rd and 2nd districts in South Jersey, respectively, may have a tough time winning re-election next year.

“I think Van Drew and Kim have always been in trouble,” he said. “It is the nature of their districts. They are competitive and we should have more like them.”

Hints about what 2020 may bring

Murray agreed, writing that this year’s legislative results do offer hints about what may happen next year.

“What this tells me about 2020 is that Jeff Van Drew could have a tough reelection bid in CD2 — even with the attempt to inoculate himself by voting against the impeachment inquiry,” said Murray. “Those types of calculations rarely help if the political environment is against you.”

He cited former Rep. John Adler’s vote against the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010. Adler was a Democrat representing a slightly differently constituted 3rd District. He won his seat in 2008 when it was open — the Republican retired that year — and when Barack Obama won his first term as president, including in that district. Still, the district leaned conservative and Adler voted against Obama’s plan. He lost re-election to Republican Jon Runyan in 2010.

“Yesterday’s results also mean that Andy Kim will need an even greater suburban turnout in the Burlington portion of CD3 to offset Trump’s strength in the Ocean County portion,” Murray added.

Alternatively, Murray wrote the results hint that Malinowski and Rep. Mikie Sherrill, who won the formerly red 11th District handily last year, may have a somewhat easier time in north Jersey than Van Drew and Kim in the south.

“Results in hotly contested local races (such as the strong Democratic performance in Somerset County) seem to support the idea that there is Democratic vote to be tapped that wasn’t this year in districts with popular moderate Republican state legislators,” Murray wrote. “This is not to say that anything is guaranteed, just that the evidence does not support one can count on a return to Republican voting patterns in those suburbs.”

Hale was less optimistic about the Democrats’ chances in those races and included sophomore Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who won his 5th District seat in the northwest in 2016, even as that district backed Trump, among the House members who should not consider themselves in “safe” Democratic districts.

“The voters in these 5 districts, and I would argue most of the voters in New Jersey, are centrist voters,” Hale said, citing the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 7th and 11th Districts. “That means when extremes seem to be taking over one party, they will happily flip sides … Last night showed that New Jersey is a centrist and at times even a center-right state.”

— John Mooney and John Reitmeyer contributed to this story.