Voter turnout shows that NJ is solidly blue but GOP still has signs of life

The 2020 general election results will help guide both parties in redrawing New Jersey’s congressional districts

The 2020 general election held some good news for both parties, though more for Democrats than Republicans, and the results offer plenty of evidence each party will likely use as they look to redraw New Jersey’s dozen congressional district boundaries in time for the 2022 midterms.

Republicans lost the state but the nearly 18% increase in the number of votes won by Donald Trump is also shaping next year’s gubernatorial race. Moderate Republican Jon Bramnick, the minority leader in the state Assembly who represents parts of Union, Morris and Somerset counties, on Wednesday took himself out of consideration and went on to tell nj.com that he thought it might be tough to win a GOP primary as a moderate. He was a vocal critic of Trump. That leaves three pro-Trump Republicans in the likely field so far.

While no Democrat has won a second gubernatorial term in New Jersey in more than four decades, Gov. Phil Murphy can find encouragement in the fact that New Jerseyans gave President-elect Joe Biden, the Democrat, an even larger victory margin over Trump than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. Two counties — Gloucester and the traditionally red Morris — that voted for Trump in 2016 flipped to blue this year. And U.S. Sen. Cory Booker extended the Democrats’ winning streak in the upper house to 17 elections in a row and won by a wider margin than U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez did in 2018, although Booker’s GOP opponent spent only a fraction of the amount Menendez’s rival spent. There’s also the large voter registration advantage the Democrats enjoy, close to 1.1 million more than Republicans and almost 100,000 more than the unaffiliated.

Competitive in Burlington, Somerset, Morris

“What we can see is that New Jersey is solidly blue and getting bluer,” said Ben Dworkin, founding director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. “The statewide voter registration advantage of Democrats over Republicans has grown by almost 400% since 2007 … These new registered Democrats are often living in what we previously considered safe Republican suburbs. These areas — Burlington, Somerset, and Morris Counties in particular — are now seeing competitive elections every year. It is in this way that New Jersey’s elections will be most affected in the future.”

The House results are more pertinent to the 2022 midterm elections and of special interest to the parties. Democrats held on to three of the seats they wrested from Republican control in 2018, though the wins in two of the three races — the 11th and 7th — were by smaller margins. Rep. Tom Malinowski won by less than one point in the 7th District, which he flipped with a five-point margin two years ago. Democrats did not take back the 2nd District seat that Rep. Jeff Van Drew handed to the GOP when he switched parties last December after declining to vote to impeach Trump.

“What we saw in New Jersey was emblematic of the national picture,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Democrats down ballot were a little weaker than in the anti-Trump midterm backlash.”

A different battlefield in next U.S. election

The next federal election is going to present a different battlefield for a number of reasons:

  • The president’s party typically loses seats in a midterm election — the Republicans lost 41 in 2018 nationally, four of them in New Jersey, though the average is 27, according to FiveThirtyEight.
  • The electorate is likely to be smaller. Although 72.3% of voters, or 64 million, cast ballots in the general election, turnout is likely to be closer to the 55% who voted in 2018 or lower, given turnout two years about was boosted in New Jersey by anti-Trump sentiments. In the 2014 midterms, fewer than 2 million, or 36% of those registered, voted.
  • The districts in which candidates run will be somewhat different following the work of the bipartisan New Jersey Redistricting Commission, which will be seated next spring and charged with creating districts of roughly equal population by Jan. 18, 2022. Estimates are that New Jersey will keep its 12 seats in the House, unless the U.S. Supreme Court allows the Trump administration to remove undocumented immigrants from the decennial census count to be delivered to the state next year.

“The results of the congressional redistricting process, which will probably take place in early 2022, will further complicate matters by altering the contours of each of New Jersey’s districts in unforeseen ways,” Dworkin said. “Some districts may become more competitive and others less so. This makes it even harder to predict the midterm results.”

While Rep. Andy Kim’s 3rd District seat representing parts of Burlington and Ocean counties had been viewed as the Democrats’ most vulnerable, last month’s election results show that the vulnerable incumbent was actually Rep. Tom Malinowski in the 7th District that stretches from the Delaware River into Union County. Malinowski won by about 5,300 votes, or less than 1 percentage point. His opponent, state Senate Republican leader Tom Kean, proved popular in the formerly red district and outpolled Trump in Hunterdon County. Reports are that Kean may make a fourth attempt at a seat in Congress in 2022.

“CD7 now jumps to the top of the Democratic congressional redistricting priorities now,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “Tom Malinowski’s tough race this year, coupled with the prospect of a repeat in 2022, are likely to make a compelling argument that Josh Gottheimer, Mikie Sherrill, Bonnie Watson Coleman — and maybe Donald Payne as well — each should be open to the possibility of trading a Democratic-leaning town with CD7. Maybe (Rep. Frank) Pallone, too.”

Good news for Democrats

But Murray saw good news for Democrats in the 7th District results.

“As slim as Malinowski’s win was, the underlying message is still that nostalgia for the old Tom Kean (Senior) version of the Republican Party was not enough to overcome the image it has acquired under Trump,” he said, referring to Kean’s father, Thomas H. Kean, who was a popular two-term governor in the 1980s. “This is particularly true in the well-heeled suburbs, as evidenced by Biden’s win in Morris and the Democrats’ sweep of county offices in Somerset.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Mikie Sherrill handily won reelection in the 11th District centered in formerly red Morris County, but by less than half her 2018 victory margin of almost 15 points.

Kim wound up with the largest win, an eight-point margin or 33,000 votes, after winning two years ago by fewer than 4,000 votes. That he performed better prompted Murray to call him “the real standout” of the election.

Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s win as a Republican in the sprawling southernmost 2nd District could mean he will be difficult to unseat. His victory by six points, or less than 20,000 votes, was slightly smaller than in 2018, when as a Democrat he flipped the long-red district. Still, it shows Van Drew, who famously pledged his “undying support” for Trump in an oval office meeting but then voted against the president on a number of issues, himself has broad-based support.

Legislative, gubernatorial elections in 2021

The parties’ more immediate attention will be to next year’s legislative and gubernatorial elections. With Bramnick out of the race, the Republican field is so far composed of only right-leaning candidates, which Democrats say can only help Murphy’s chances at reelection.

“With one of the only prominent Republicans in the state who has met the bare minimum of recognizing the results of the presidential election now out of the race, it’s clear that the Republican primary for Governor will be a contest to see which candidate can suck up to Donald Trump and his extreme base the most,” said Phil Swibinski, a spokesman for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. “New Jersey voters won’t forget who aligned themselves with Trump and who stood up to him and helped elect Joe Biden.”

Murray said that the close race in the 7th District and Republican incumbents’ wins for unexpired terms in the state Senate and Assembly mean the state GOP, which controlled both the Legislature and governor’s office as recently as 2001, is not dead yet.

“There are still some signs of life for the New Jersey GOP,” he said, “but the Trump years have done some damage to the state party.”