Voter enthusiasm and high turnout among traditional Democrats, suburban voters and those looking to check the president are what turned New Jersey blue on Tuesday as the party won every seat reasonably within its grasp.
The state will be sending almost an entirely Democratic congressional delegation to Washington. D.C. in January, having returned U.S. Senator Bob Menendez to office, along with what is likely to be 11 of 12 House representatives. The results exceeded the expectations of most pre-election polls.
“Polling is able to predict sentiment, but I’m not sure it can predict turnout,” said Democratic strategist Julie Roginksy, during a discussion of the election at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics Wednesday morning. Roginsky ran one of the super PACs that supported Menendez. “The Democrats’ enthusiasm and field effort was stronger and not anticipated.”
A statewide blue wave swept Menendez back into the U.S. Senate for a third term, despite his having faced a brutal campaign that dredged up his past ethics problems and other unfounded allegations. He was also outspent by a likely 3-to-1 margin. While Menendez had the slimmest lead of just two points in internal polls two weeks ago, still unofficial and incomplete results give him a 10-point win over former pharmaceuticals executive Bob Hugin.
“He killed,” said Roginsky, attributing the win at least partly to the Democrats’ well-organized get-out-the-vote efforts.
Statewide, the percent of voters who cast ballots has set a record high for a midterm election in more than two decades and that’s before all the votes are counted. An NJ Spotlight analysis found that close to 3 million voters, or more than 50 percent of those registered, cast ballots — and that does not yet include about 36 voting districts across the state, mail-in ballots in several counties, and all provisional ballots. Over the last two decades, the highest turnout in a midterm had been 48 percent in 2006.
Tuesday’s results appear to have brought the state’s House delegation way back to a milestone not seen since 1913, when Woodrow Wilson swept Democrats into office with him when he was elected president. That was the last year New Jersey had 11 Democrats and only one Republican in the House. Current results have the Democrats taking 10 seats to one for the GOP and one undecided. In the last district, the 3rd, Democratand currently holds a 2,600-vote margin over Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur, although MacArthur has not conceded. The only Republican sure to be returning to Washington is Chris Smith, who won a 20th term in the 4th district over Josh Welle by about 13 points.
“New Jersey was certainly a blue wave for middle of the road centrist Democrats,” said Matthew Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University.
While the 7th district race in which Tom Malinowski ousted five-term Republican Leonard Lance was close — about 7,000 votes, or two points separate the men — Democrat Mikie Sherrill’s victory over Assemblyman Jay Webber for the open seat in the formerly reliably red 11th was lopsided. Sherrill bested the Republican by almost 40,000 votes, or 14 percentage points, and beat him in three out of the four counties — including the Republican stronghold of Morris County, which Webber represents in the state Legislature — that make up the district.
“On a state level, it was a blood bath for Republicans and people should not pretend otherwise,” Michael DuHaime, a Republican strategist and longtime ally to former Gov. Chris Christie, told those gathered at Eagleton. “It’s a backlash to the president.”
“Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving here in New Jersey,” agreed Roginsky. She said Sherrill’s election was the embodiment of the suburban-voter backlash against Trump, particularly since she, Malinowski and state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, who won in the 2nd district in South Jersey, won in districts whose borders were “created under Republicans.”
Summing up the mood of the suburban electorate, one Morris County freeholder said that while calling voters before the election and asking them to vote for Webber, she had several Republicans tell her, “I won’t vote for another Republican while Donald Trump remains in office.”
Gov. Phil Murphy gave credit to high voter turnout in urban areas, stopping Wednesday morning at the Greater Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark to thank religious leaders and others for helping to get out the vote. With some districts still uncounted, turnout in the city exceeded 34 percent, with some wards surpassing 50 percent, according to data from the Essex County clerk’s office.
“Newark stood up and said to Donald Trump, ‘Not here, not now,’” Murphy said to applause. “You stood up tall and we will never forget that.”
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka went further, bringing the cheering crowd to its feet when he said, “We are opposed to Donald Trump. He is not welcome in our city at all. We don’t even want him to land at our airport. We are going to hold the line.”
They also thanked voters for backing Menendez. The two-term incumbent won 10 counties, including Essex, where he trounced Hugin by a more than 3-to-1 margin.
All local pundits say this win for Menendez has cemented New Jersey’s U.S. Senate seats for the Democratic party for. Menendez was considered vulnerable because he was admonished in the spring by the Senate ethics committee and last fall faced a federal corruption trial, which ended in a hung jury. Additionally, Hugin spent $36 million of his own money — and will likely have spent $40 million in total when the final results are tallied — running nonstop negative ads against Menendez for months. Hugin also ran as a moderate and did not declare he was a Republican in any of his advertisements.
It is also proof that an incumbent in New Jersey can overcome ethical problems and win re-election. The state’s last U.S. Senator admonished by the ethics committee, former Sen. Bob Torricelli, quit the race two months after the committee “severely admonished” him and just five weeks before the 2002 general election. That year, the Democratic Party got the state Supreme Court to agree to let it substitute another candidate — Frank Lautenberg — for Torricelli. Lautenberg came out of retirement to win the election.
With the race appearing to tighten in September, some Democrats had questioned whether Murphy, as head of the party, shouldn’t have convinced Menendez to retire to ensure the seat would remain blue. Murphy had defended his decision, saying Menendez had his full support.
“You’ve gotta go with your principles,” Murphy said. “Bob Menendez has an extraordinary track record of fighting for the people of this state.”
Murphy’s instincts proved right. He said the party can’t sit by applauding its successes for too long.
“We still have a president who holds our values in contempt,” Murphy told the crowd in Newark. “Here at home, next year we have a new election cycle. We can show how much we value New Jersey values.”
The governor acknowledged that the lost influence of Republican Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, who chose to retire from his 11th district seat rather than seek re-election, is a tough one. Frelinghuysen currently chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee. But in line to replace Frelinghuysen is Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, who Murphy described as “locked in” with New Jersey on efforts to gain federal funds to build the Gateway tunnel project to increase and improve rail transportation between the states.
Other powerful House positions are slated to go to New Jersey representatives. Rep. Frank Pallone, who easily won re-election to his 6th district seat, is on deck to become chair of the important House Energy and Commerce Committee. That body handles matters involving telecommunications, consumer protection, food and drug safety, public health, air quality and environmental health, the supply and delivery of energy, and interstate and foreign commerce.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-9th, another easy election victor, is currently the ranking member on the Trade Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee and could move up to head the subcommittee. Ways and Means has jurisdiction over taxation, tariffs and such programs as Social Security, Medicare and welfare.
Pascrell said he is ready to go to work getting the House back in order, including making sure to protect the continuing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into alleged Russian interference in the 2106 presidential election and “discussions of impeachment or presidential censure,” after eight years of GOP control.
“Republicans have let our institutions molder, or worse, have abused them for shortsighted political gain,” Pascrell said in a statement. “We must move to restore regular order ... Trump corruption is eating away at our nation like termites on a log and Republicans have done nothing to halt it. I want to safeguard democracy, and that starts with wielding the trust Americans have given us with precision and probity. Now the real hard work begins. I’m ready to get started.”
DuHaime said it’s going to be difficult for New Jersey Republicans to rebuild after Tuesday’s losses, but they need to start doing so.
“Republicans here are going have to, as much as we can, carve our own party,” he said. “The president is the image of the party, whether you agree with him or not. That’s the reality … Now is the moment to start fresh, start making a climb back.”
Hale said that may be difficult, as Sherrill and Gottheimer “are exactly the type of centrist Democrats that can — and given demographic shifts — should hold their seats for quite some time.” Malinowski’s seat may be tougher to hold, but he could do so if he “stakes out the middle ground.”
Nationally, the party can learn from the Democrats’ success in New Jersey, Hale added, saying the state’s winning candidates “could be a lesson to the rest of the country about the types of Democrats that do well in the suburban districts Democrats need if they want to win back the Senate and the Presidency.”