Democrats’ Intraparty Strife Dominated in 2019; Expect More of Same in a Major Election Year

Colleen O'Dea | January 2, 2020 | Review/Preview, Politics
Feud between governor and Senate president could be overshadowed by Democrats’ fight to hold onto marginal congressional seats — and effort to topple Van Drew
U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ)Credit: Twitter
U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ)

The Assembly election, the fight for chairmanship of the Democratic State Committee and the continuing feud between Gov. Phil Murphy and state Senate President Steve Sweeney dominated New Jersey’s political landscape in 2019. But expect 2020 to be much more contentious.

The presidential campaign and battles for the state’s dozen seats in the U.S. House of Representatives were set to dominate even before the defection of Rep. Jeff Van Drew to the Republican Party made national headlines late last month. One of four Democrats elected in the 2018 midterms to formerly red seats, Van Drew was one of only three Democrats who voted against impeaching the president and then became the only congressman in the nation to switch parties as a result.

While Van Drew has been getting all the attention, New Jersey’s three other freshmen representatives are also expected to face tough reelection campaigns, with some contests likely to be very close.

“Historically the most difficult race after you win an election is your first re-election,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University. “We had four new Democrats elected in 2018, so 2020 is critical to their future.”

Of course, now only three of those four are Democrats. Van Drew’s switch to the GOP on December 19 doubled the number of New Jersey Republicans in the House. Just 13 months ago, New Jersey had five Republicans in Congress, but after the 2018 midterms, only one was left — Rep. Chris Smith of the 4th District. Van Drew’s move came shortly after Murphy took the helm of the Democratic Governors Association, but if it reflects badly on anyone it is South Jersey power boss George Norcross, who backed Van Drew for the 2nd District congressional seat that opened when Republican Frank LoBiondo retired and for the state senate prior to that.

The ongoing feud between Norcross ally Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Murphy continued to dominate state politics last year, although with a twist. Murphy was unable to achieve some key goals, most notably a millionaires tax. There were bill vetoes by Murphy, with Sweeney the most vetoed lawmaker in either house, and threatened overrides by Sweeney. Democrats running in the 1st Legislative District, which Van Drew used to represent, got substantial backing from Norcross, ran against Murphy and were the only Democrats who lost last November.

Controversy over tax incentives

At the center of the feud for the last year was the state’s contentious programs of state business incentives. Dworkin said Murphy’s team deserves credit for its offense over the tax incentives managed by the state Economic Development Agency. The criticism prompted Norcross to make a rare public appearance at a special legislative hearing to defend the tax breaks awarded to his insurance company and other Camden-based businesses.

“They (Murphy’s team) deserve high marks for keeping the South Jersey delegation on their heels; we haven’t seen that in years,” Dworkin said. “No one else in recent history can say that.”

Gov. Phil Murphy, right, and Senate President Steve Sweeney have been at odds

The Democrats’ loss of three legislative seats in the November election — two in the Assembly, one in the Senate — was mostly inconsequential, although the loss in the Senate, where Democrats have a smaller majority of 25-15, may matter somewhat. The election loomed all year over the Assembly, whose members acted — or, more often, failed to act — as the retention of their seats seemed to color the agenda through November. Controversial measures such as providing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and giving the right to vote to parolees and probationers did not move until after the election, when they moved quickly through the lame-duck session.

With the prospect of legislative reapportionment in 2021 already weighing heavily on lawmakers’ minds, the fight for chairmanship of the state Democratic Party was a major issue this year because current law gives the Democratic and Republican chairs complete power to appoint the members of the commission that redraws boundaries. While it seemed the Sweeney-backed LeRoy Jones Jr. had the votes to win — despite tradition giving the governor the pick — Jones and current chair John Currie who Murphy backs agreed to a compromise that keeps Currie in office through the 2021 primary, when Jones would step in.

“With the race for state party chair in particular, both sides managed to get some but not all of what they wanted,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University; he gives a slight victory in that fight to Murphy following public comments by Sweeney that he was disappointed  with the outcome. “Because they were able to negotiate a peace, it should bode well for the party heading into 2020 and 2021, Murphy’s reelection year.”

Barring extraordinary circumstances, whoever winds up as the Democratic presidential nominee is likely to win New Jersey in 2020; the state hasn’t voted for a Republican nominee in more than three decades.

Presidential impact on congressional races

Still, the Democratic nominee could have a significant impact on the state’s congressional races, said Matt Hale, a professor of political science at Seton Hall University.

“So much of the 2020 landscape in New Jersey depends on the national landscape,” Hale said. “If national Democrats nominate a far left progressive like (Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth) Warren or (Vermont Sen. Bernie) Sanders, I think all of the ‘new’ Democrats like Kim, Sherrill, Malinowski and even Gottheimer could be in real trouble. A liberal Democrat at the top of the ticket hurts every one of them by depressing Democratic and increasing conservative turnout in New Jersey.”

But the battles for as many as five of New Jersey’s congressional seats are likely to be fierce, particularly given that Democrats turned the state map almost completely blue, at least until Van Drew’s defection last month.

Credit: NJTV News
Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, is in the race for the 2nd Congressional District.

Van Drew’s decision has thrown South Jersey’s political scene into chaos. Three Republicans — David Richter, Robert Patterson and Brian Fitzherbert — had already raised some money for the privilege of challenging him (when he was a Democrat) in the general election. Democrats Brigid Harrison and Ashley Bennett are also now in the race, along with Robert Turkavage, who ran for the Republican nomination for the 2nd District in 2018 but who has switched parties and is now a Democrat. At least two others are considering a run.

The Republican primary is Van Drew’s to lose, Dworkin said.

“The value of the president’s endorsement in the current political atmosphere cannot be overstated,” he said. “You have to assume Van Drew survives any primary challenge.”

At their meeting in the Oval Office on the day he switched parties, Van Drew pledged his “undying support” for President Trump. The question is whether the president’s supporters will believe that from a man who voted against Trump more than 90% of the time in his first 11 months in Washington.

Calculating Van Drew’s odds

The outcome is anyone’s guess. Arguably the most conservative Democrat in the state Senate for years, Van Drew had been popular in his former South Jersey legislative district, where Republicans outnumber Democrats, and he won his House seat comfortably in a district represented by Republican LoBiondo for two dozen years. But after announcing in October that he would not vote for the impeachment inquiry, his support among Democrats plummeted: An internal poll showed he had the support of fewer than a quarter of likely Democratic primary voters. Local Republicans said, at least initially, that they wouldn’t give Van Drew any special consideration and the Republicans already in the race said they had no plans to withdraw. If he wins the primary, Van Drew still could lose if voters of both parties and independents see his action as simply benefiting his own interests to keep his seat.

On the other hand, if Trump’s endorsement holds any sway — he won the district in 2016 by close to five percentage points — Van Drew could prevail.

The 2nd District went for former President Obama in both of his elections and there is a strong progressive movement in pockets of the sprawling district, which covers all or part of the eight southernmost New Jersey counties, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, though unaffiliated voters comprise a plurality. So far, Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, has received the backing of Sweeney and six of the district’s eight Democratic chairs, which would seem to give her an edge over Bennett, an Atlantic County freeholder.

“A centrist Democrat at the top of the ticket … could even mean that Democrats hold on to the 2nd after the Van Drew defection,” Hale said. “I think all eyes will be on the 2nd. Brigid Harrison will be a formidable candidate for the Democrats. She is smart, tough and not a far left Democrat. But my guess is Trump will tout Van Drew as the greatest, most honorable congressperson ever created. That could appeal to many 2nd district voters.”

Rasmussen, who managed four of Van Drew’s campaigns more than a decade ago, said that Van Drew will be in a good position to win in November provided he survives the primary.

“He remains a popular figure in the region who has drawn support from both parties, and even though active Democrats are feeling a strong sense of betrayal, the polling shows he does have residual support of between 20 to 30 percent of Democrats in the district,” he said. “Siphoning off anywhere near that amount of support from your opponent would be a huge advantage.”

At the moment, the political handicapping site Cook Political Report considers the seat to be leaning Republican.

Where Dems will be on defense

While Democrats are again the challengers in the 2nd, they will be on the defense in the neighboring 3rd District and two others in central and north Jersey that they flipped in 2018 and the northwesternmost 5th District that has a large contingent of conservative voters.

The 3rd, covering parts of Burlington and Ocean counties, is most at risk. Democrat Andy Kim won it by unseating incumbent Tom MacArthur by little more than 1% of the vote, or less than 4,000 votes. Like the 2nd, this was a red district that opted for Trump in 2016, by six points, and Obama in 2012 and 2008.

Democrat Andy Kim holding his son August at victory declaration in 3rd Congressional District

The Republican Congressional Committee has already begun targeting Kim and the Cook Political Report has called the seat a toss-up.

“The 3rd District race is going to be hugely competitive,” Dworkin said. “It’s expected to be nip and tuck all the way.”

In Ocean County, “the numbers for President Trump are going to be huge,” Rasmussen said. “Andy Kim’s strategy will be to counter that with an equal surge of Burlington County suburban voters if they are energized for the Democratic nominee.”

Cook considers the 7th District as leaning Democratic. Freshman Tom Malinowski beat five-term incumbent Leonard Lance by 4.5 points. Despite having Republican representation in the House for decades, this district backed Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016 and having the presidential race at the top of the ticket this year could help Malinowski if the Democratic nominee has coattails. Malinowski, who has been unabashedly progressive in his votes in Congress, could be facing Republican state Sen. Tom Kean in November. Kean, who is relatively moderate, would have name recognition and a voter registration, which leans red, on his side.

First, though, Kean will have to win his own primary. He faces three candidates — Rosemary Becchi, who has already sent out flyers; Tom Phillips and Robert Trugman.

Should Kean win the primary, Rasmussen said “the Kean family name will certainly make a difference, but President Trump’s suburban weakness is going to be a serious liability for Tom Kean.”

Sherrill’s strength, even in a red district

The final Democratic freshman, Mikie Sherrill, is given the best chance at reelection. She won the open formerly red seat in the 11th District by a surprisingly wide margin of almost 15 percentage points and is a moderate. So far there has not been any rush by candidates seeking to run against Sherrill, even though the 11th, based in Morris County, was Republican for many years.

“I’m not sure how much of an effort the Republicans are going to make to knock off Mikie Sherrill,” Dworkin said. “She’s an extremely talented candidate who has just done very well … She’s a very good fundraiser, extremely articulate, she knows how to get free media. Not every candidate can do all that.”

Credit: WNYC News Online
U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ)

Rasmussen agreed, saying, “I just do not see anyone coming close to Congresswoman Sherrill. She holds a prohibitive incumbent lead in fundraising and grassroots support.”

While Rep. Josh Gottheimer survived his first reelection bid, the 5th District had been solidly red for years and voted Republican for president, as well — including by a one-point margin for Trump in 2016 — so it is considered a swing district. Still, Gottheimer originally won his seat, beating six-term incumbent GOP Rep. Scott Garrett, while Trump topped the ballot. Gottheimer has consistently been the biggest fundraiser in New Jersey; he had raised more than $2.5 million as of Sept. 30, 2019. Like Sherrill’s seat, Cook rates the 5th District as likely to remain Democratic.

One of New Jersey’s U.S. Senate seats is also on the ballot in 2020, but the question is who will be running. The seat is held by Democrat Cory Booker, who is still in the race for the party’s presidential nomination. New Jersey passed a law in 2018 that allows Booker to run for the Senate and presidency simultaneously, so Booker is likely to be on the ballot for the Senate seat. And if he does seek reelection, he will likely win — New Jersey has not elected a Republican to a seat in the U.S. Senate since 1972. Booker is polling low among presidential contenders and did not make the debate stage last month because of that. But if his election strategy — which is to stay in the race at least until the end of February and do well in South Carolina — works out and Booker winds up a presidential nominee rather than Senate candidate, voters should expect a flurry of activity and a potentially expensive battle for that seat.

Turnout in 2020 is expected to be high because of the presidential race, but a statewide ballot question on the legalization of marijuana could also attract voters to the polls. The question of whether the state should allow adults to use pot for recreational purposes could bring to the polls some who might otherwise not vote. Surveys have found significant support in New Jersey for legalization, so the question is expected to pass, but there could be a contentious campaign over the issue should conservatives try to defeat it and that could spill over into presidential or congressional voting.