Biggest winner in NJ primary? The power of the party bosses

Candidates favored by party leaders won nearly every race. And for GOP, Trump remains a powerful influence
Credit: (NJ Spotlight News)
A Bergen County ballot shows the coveted party line for Democrats topped by Gov. Phil Murphy, followed by Asssemblyman Gordon Johnson.

New Jersey’s primary election provides three main takeaways: The pro-Trump movement is firmly ensconced in the state Republican Party. Party endorsements and the party line on the ballot are virtually unbeatable. And the average New Jerseyan doesn’t vote in state-level primaries.

The latest results from The Associated Press show GOP gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli won with slightly less than half the Republican vote. Rivals Phil Rizzo, who finished second, and Hirsh Singh, who came in third, won a combined 47.4% running as staunch supporters of former President Donald Trump. That’s an indication New Jersey’s Republican faithful, those who vote in low-turnout primaries like Tuesday’s, are just barely holding onto their traditional moderate leanings.

“The results clearly show there is a very strong Trumpist element within the New Jersey Republican primary,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship.

John Farmer Jr., director of the Rutgers University Eagleton Institute of Politics, said the results would have been much closer had there been only one person touting his allegiance to the former president in the race, though he thinks Ciattarelli likely still would have won.

READ: Ciattarelli tops in GOP governor contest with some tense Democratic legislative races

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“It’s really fortunate that there were two other candidates who were Trump people and sort of split that vote,” Farmer said. “Had there been one clear pro-Trump person who had Trump’s endorsement, I don’t know what the result would have been. I think he (Ciattarelli) would have won anyway because the Republican Party in New Jersey has got a very strong moderate element to it. That’s how Republicans have won in New Jersey statewide, by running moderate candidates.”

Close to half the GOP voters may have chosen one of the two candidates who tried to out-Trump each other, but they are also overwhelmingly expected to vote for Ciattarelli in the fall.

The challenge for Ciattarelli

“I don’t think hard-core Trump voters are voting for (Gov.) Phil Murphy in November, so I think the party will be united,” said Mike DuHaime, lead Republican strategist for both of former two-term Gov. Chris Christie’s campaigns. “The real question for Jack will be motivating the hard-core Trump supporters to vote while simultaneously winning over Independents and enough Democrats.”

That could be difficult. The most recent Eagleton poll had Murphy leading Ciattarelli, 52% to 26%. While 12% of registered Republicans said they would vote for Murphy, only 4% of Democrats supported Ciattarelli. More unaffiliated voters were backing Murphy, too.

“By all appearances, the Democratic Party is unified, therefore Ciattarelli’s challenge is he’s going to need a unified Republican Party and the independent vote,” Farmer said.

There is one other obstacle that Ciattarelli may face: Libertarian Gregg Mele of Bridgewater filed to run in November as one of three independents on the ballot and voting for him could be a viable alternative for some Trump supporters who didn’t back Ciattarelli in the primary.

Any doubt that political party endorsements — and an insurmountable advantage conferred by preferential ballot positioning on the party line —  was dispelled by Tuesday’s results, which saw three incumbent Assembly members lose races.

Republicans Serena DiMaso of the 13th District in Monmouth County and BettyLou DeCroce of the 26th District based in Morris County lost their chances at reelection when beaten by challengers endorsed by their respective county parties. Both women were not endorsed but ran off the party line. The other Assembly member in their districts, Gerard Scharfenberger in the 13th and Jay Webber in the 26th, got GOP endorsements and won renomination.

Johnson over Vainieri Huttle in 37th District

Democratic Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle lost her bid to move up to the Senate in the 37th District in the heart of Bergen County. While she was not the incumbent for that seat, neither was her opponent and fellow Assembly member, Gordon Johnson. Johnson got party backing and won.

READ: Veteran Democrats now opponents in NJ’s high-profile legislative primary

WATCH: Lawsuit against ‘the line’ gains more allies

“This is now year 12 that New Jersey has not had an incumbent on the line lose in the Legislature,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a Rutgers professor who last year wrote a report on the party line ballot structure in most New Jersey counties and how it differs from all other states.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said that the line on the ballot is important, but a party endorsement brings many more benefits that are hard to overcome.

Party apparatus gets out the vote

“There’s another piece that comes with the line, which is the party apparatus that then helps get out the vote and lend support,” she said. “It’s the whole process by which the party engages in the primary; there are all the resources of the party to get out the vote and you’re talking about primary elections where we know in New Jersey the turnout is not great.”

Walsh said that while there may have been specific circumstances in each case, it’s no coincidence that the three incumbents who didn’t get the line and lost Tuesday night were all women. Rubin agreed, noting that the county party chairs who either have the power to award the line or have great influence over who gets it, are overwhelmingly men. Fewer than one-quarter of the 42 party chairs in the state are women.

Several observers agreed that a lack of contested races depresses voter turnout. They said the fact Murphy was unopposed and that most legislative candidates either were unopposed or had the party line and were unlikely to lose likely contributed to what appears to have been a very low primary turnout.

While the state Division of Elections has not yet published turnout figures, an NJ Spotlight News analysis of turnout data from all 21 counties found that with more than 98% of voting districts reporting, fewer than 690,000 people had cast ballots. That number will rise once all the districts and all mail-in ballots are counted, but it is unlikely to reach the total turnout of 786,000 in the last gubernatorial primary in 2017.

New Jersey has a closed primary, meaning registered Democrats can only vote for Democrats and Republicans can only vote for Republicans. Unaffiliated voters can go to the polls and declare a party to vote for in the primary, but few do.

Low turnout was not a shock

Tuesday’s turnout was about 17.5% of registered Democrats and Republicans and is unlikely to reach the 24.1% turnout of 2017.

Dworkin said the low turnout was not surprising.

“Turnout increases when there is a high-profile, competitive statewide election,” he said. “The Democrats didn’t have that, there wasn’t even a primary challenge, and this is a state with a lot of registered Democrats.”

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 1 million.

Rubin said getting rid of the party line, currently the subject of pending lawsuits, could improve turnout and give more candidates a fairer chance at winning.

“If you don’t have the line, people won’t drop out and if people don’t drop out, there’s someone to vote for,” she said. “If there’s someone to vote for, then you get more people into the voting booth and if you get more people in, then having a tiny group of party apparatchiks doesn’t decide your elections.”

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