Another busy election year for Gov. Murphy and the rest in the State House

The governorship and all legislative seats are on this year’s ballot
File photo: New Jersey State House

It may be hard to top the 2020 election, but New Jersey has another important race this year with the governor and entire Legislature on the ballot.

The main event will be Gov. Phil Murphy’s reelection effort. He is trying to become the first Democrat in 45 years to win a second term as governor of New Jersey, while the Republicans are hoping to break the Democrats’ lock on the State House.

But there will be a number of interesting legislative races, as well, although it will be difficult for the GOP to win enough seats in either the Senate or the Assembly to take control of one of the houses. And there are other issues, including redistricting, that could influence the parties’ electoral success in 2021 or in future elections.

Murphy’s on-the-job ratings

Murphy has been getting good reviews from New Jerseyans. That may bode well for his chances despite the fact that the last two Democratic incumbents who sought reelection lost their bids for a second term: Jon Corzine in 2009 and Jim Florio in 1993. The most recent poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University in mid-October showed Murphy with a 60% approval rating overall and 72% support for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Murphy has another historical pattern to break: Over the past three decades, the governor chosen by New Jersey voters represented the opposite party to the current president’s. The idea is that if voters are unhappy with the new president, they may take it out on the governor. If that holds, the election of Democrat Joe Biden to the presidency could work against Murphy.

The early field of declared Republican candidates for governor would like to take advantage of that precedent. Three candidates have declared: former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, a 2017 primary contender; Hirsh Singh, a thrice-unsuccessful candidate for state and federal offices; and Doug Steinhardt, chairman of the state Republican Party until he declared his candidacy earlier this month.

It’s still too early to know who will have the edge. Ciattarelli was first out of the gate. Steinhardt’s ally Michael Lavery beat Ciattarelli’s choice Bob Hugin, a wealthy but unsuccessful candidate for Senate in 2018, to replace Steinhardt as head of the state GOP. Singh finished a close second in the Republican Senate primary this year.

A place for moderate Republicans?

It’s also unclear what New Jersey Republicans will be seeking in their candidate. Traditionally moderates, a good chunk of the party moved right during the past four years. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick of Union County — a vocal critic of President Donald Trump — had all but declared his candidacy for governor but decided not to run, saying he didn’t see enough support for his moderate positions.

The three declared candidates have supported Trump to varying degrees and none has publicly acknowledged Biden’s win. Steinhardt has been a strong proponent of Trump and vocal critic of Murphy. After the U.S. Supreme Court brushed aside Texas’s attempt to overturn the election results in swing states that voted for Biden on Dec. 11, Singh tweeted, “The war for America and @realDonaldTrump is far from over … We Will Not Back Down.” Ciattarelli had criticized Trump and said he would not vote for him in 2016, but attended the president’s rally in Wildwood early in 2020 and subsequent pro-Trump gatherings. How much Trump will factor in a primary scheduled for five months after he leaves office is unknown.

Big advantage: blue voters

Regardless of who wins the GOP primary, one major obstacle  that nominee will have to overcome is the Democrats’ huge voter registration advantage — registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 1 million.

Democrats hold significant majorities in both houses of the Legislature and all 120 seats will be on the ballot. The current legislative district map has given the party an edge in many places, although the GOP made gains two years ago, gains for which Steinhardt took credit.

Republicans swept all three seats in the southernmost 1st District after Jeff Van Drew, a former Democrat, won a seat in Congress and later switched to the GOP. It’s questionable whether the Democrats will be able to take back any of those seats in a district known to be more conservative and where Van Drew, who was reelected to Congress in 2020 as a Republican, may have been the party’s linchpin.

In the last legislative elections in 2019, the GOP also held onto two Assembly seats in the 8th District, encompassing parts of Atlantic, Burlington and Camden counties, where Democrats outspent them two-to-one. Those seats are likely to be in play again, as will be Sen. Dawn Addiego’s seat. Addiego was a long-time Republican who switched parties in 2019. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 9,000 voters in that district, but most registrants are unaffiliated and the district has skewed red for decades.

Other purple contests

Competitive races are likely in the state’s two other purple districts, the 2nd in Atlantic County and the 16th, encompassing parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset counties. In both districts, the senator is a moderate Republican and the two Assembly members are Democrats. In the 2nd, GOP challengers came within 1,000 votes of winning one of the two Assembly seats in 2019, although Democrats make up a plurality of registrants, or 37%. Both Democratic Assembly members in the 16th are rumored to be interested in challenging Republican incumbent Christopher “Kip” Bateman for the Senate in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 20,000 but a plurality of voters is unaffiliated.

Two other places that have been traditionally red districts but were battlegrounds in 2019 were in Morris and Union counties. Democrats were competitive in both the 25th and 21st district Assembly races when the lower house topped balloting. They can hope Murphy has coattails. In special Senate and Assembly elections in the 25th last year, the GOP incumbents won comfortably, but voter turnout in 2021 is not expected to be nearly as large as for last year’s presidential election.

With Lavery, the state Republican Party already has a new leader. Next June, Democratic State Committee Chairman John Currie will step aside to allow LeRoy Jones Jr., who heads the Essex County Democratic Party, to take the reins, as part of a deal that settled a potential battle for the position between Currie and Jones, as surrogates for Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

Shifting priorities and strategies

New leadership could lead to new election priorities and strategies for winning the governorship, legislative seats and county races.

The leaders’ influence will also spill over into the redrawing of the state’s legislative districts, which could mean the difference between continued Democratic dominance or Republican competitiveness.

Most likely, the new districts will not be in place for this year’s elections after voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2020 delaying the use of newly drawn districts until the 2023 elections if the state does not get its official 2020 census counts by Feb. 15. Given delays caused by the pandemic, and a potential challenge to the count should it not include the number of undocumented immigrants, it is unlikely the state will get its population estimates by that date.

Once the state gets its census data, a 10-member committee — equally split between Democrats and Republicans who have already been named — will have 30 days to agree on a map that divides the state into 40 districts of roughly the same population. It would be highly unusual if they agree, meaning it will be up to a nonpartisan 11th member to break the tie or broker a deal on an alternative map.

The goal of each party’s contingent will be to craft a map that gives it an electoral edge in as many districts as possible, while still being both attractive to an 11th member and defensible in court — maximizing the potential for minority representatives is usually considered a plus.

If the 11th member of the committee chooses the map of one party over the other’s, as has happened in the past, it can have huge consequences for the amount of power the winning party wields — and the policies put in place — for the next decade. After the Democrats’ map was chosen in 2001, Republicans lost control of the Legislature and have been in the minority in both houses since 2004.