Trump looms large in crowded District 21 Assembly race

Campaign signs sprout along tree-lined streets in New Jersey’s 21st Legislative District, an affluent chunk of suburbs where voters have reliably sent Republicans to the state Legislature since the early 1980s.

GOP Assembly incumbents Jon Bramnick and Nancy Muñoz have won reelection for a decade or more as so-called moderates, and Bramnick’s been minority leader since 2012.

“I’m a common sense Republican. I call issues the way I see them. And the district will decide whether or not Jon Bramnick is a common sense voice,” he said.

“I think we represent the constituents who live in our district,” said Muñoz. “If you look at the state of New Jersey, we’ve heard that most people are center right or center left.”

But the pair last won reelection by around 2,500 votes, and this time they’re being challenged on two sides: from the left by a couple of Democrats trying to keep last November’s blue wave rolling, and from the far right by Harris Pappas and Martin Marks, Donald Trump defenders running as conservative independents — targeting the incumbents they call RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only.

“They’ve sided with Democrats. They’ve dismissed, if not disparaged, our sitting Republican president Donald Trump and his supporters, and that irritated me,” said Marks.

Marks, a dentist who specializes in root canals, served for a dozen years as mayor and councilman in Scotch Plains. He faults Bramnick and Muñoz for supporting a 23-cent increase in New Jersey’s gas tax and for backing several gun control bills.

Marks is deeply conservative and well aware registered Democrats edge out Republican voters — 31% to 28% in the 21st District with unaffiliated voters at 41% — so that he and Pappas could become spoilers by splitting the Republican ticket. He’ll live with the consequences.

“Ultimately, if the Democrats win, and they might, I can’t control that,” he said.

“I’m not the least bit worried about that,” said Bramnick about the potential of splitting Republican votes. “I’ve represented this district for a long time.”

But Marks says a group of Republican heavy-hitters, including Sen. Tom Kean Jr., New Jersey GOP Party Chairman Doug Steinhardt and National Committeeman Bill Palatucci called him and Pappas into a secret meeting before the independents declared their candidacy.

“And they tried to talk us out of running. They’re concerned that our candidacy could hurt the Republicans, and they may be right, and they tried to talk us out of it and cajole us out of it,” said Marks. “They’re legitimately concerned and they ought to be. But they didn’t offer anything.”

Marks claims he and Pappas offered to step back, but only if New Jersey’s Republican leaders promised to back Trump in 2020.

“Supporting the entire Republican ticket, which is going to be led by Donald Trump for reelection. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Marks said.

“When I called out President Trump on his rhetoric, some people didn’t like it. I’m not apologizing to anybody,” Bramnick said. “If the voters believe that my common sense and my positions are not what they want to represent the district, that’s what they do in the voting booth.”

Meanwhile, two Democrats are going door-to-door trying to galvanize the same blue wave voter support that carried Tom Malinowski to victory over legacy Republican Congressman Leonard Lance in the 7th Congressional District.

The 7th Congressional District encompasses much of the 21st Legislative District, and attorney Lisa Mandelblatt originally ran for Congress in the district before deciding to back Malinowski. She disputes the incumbents’ claim that they’re moderates.

“Their voting records are not moderate. They voted in line with Chris Christie, denying women access to critical health care, by defunding Planned Parenthood. Women weren’t able to have life-saving cancer screening, access to birth control. That’s not moderate,” she said.

Stacey Gunderman chairs the New Providence Democratic Committee. The women won’t label themselves Murphy Democrats after New Jersey’s progressive governor. Both enjoy party support and endorsements from several progressive groups, including the gun control advocates Moms Demand Action and the Sierra Club. But they carve out caveats. For example, they back Murphy’s 100% renewable energy by 2050 goal but won’t swear to a moratorium on fossil fuel plants and pipelines.

“A moratorium is a very hard thing to agree to just because you never know if there might be some incidents that we didn’t see that something needs,” said Gunderman.

“I hate the word moratorium because it takes away all negotiation. I think everything needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis,” said Mandelblatt.

They won’t immediately support Murphy’s millionaire’s tax, either. And they’d renegotiate New Jersey’s seriously underfunded state pension system with ideas that echo Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney’s Path to Progress plan.

“We made promises to folks that are already employed, and we need to live up to those promises. What we do with new employees — I think everything should be on the table,” said Mandelblatt.

Suburban women present a formidable voting bloc, and the recent furor over a so-called survivor-shaming blurb on Bramnick’s law firm website — condemned by his Democratic opponents and since removed — could cause a backlash.

Bramnick has apologized for the blurb, a sales pitch aimed at potential clients accused of sexual assault that promised to “discredit” accusers who could be “confused” or have “hurt feelings.”

Advocates for sexual assault survivors claim that kind of rhetoric could have a chilling effect that makes women less likely to report rape. Gov. Murphy called it “disgusting.”

Bramnick acknowledges it was a mistake and says the blurb’s been removed. He blames an outside vendor.

“Sometimes it slips through the cracks. Clearly we don’t support how that reads. It’s improperly written and I apologize for that confusion,” he said. “It’s worded absolutely improperly.”

When asked why he had not read it before it was posted, Bramnick responded, “I’m not arguing it was a mistake, in terms of how it was written. I’m not a criminal lawyer. My criminal lawyers in our firm take responsibility for how it was written, though we didn’t do it.”

The uproar comes at an inopportune moment for Bramnick, just three weeks before Election Day. Pundits see gender as a key factor in this election.

“I’m not sure 100% sure there’s a blue wave, but I certainly do think that there’s a gender wave. I think the vast majority of suburban women are terrified of Donald Trump and terrified of everything he represents and talks about,” said Seton Hall political science professor Matt Hale. “And most likely they’re going to vote Democrat, so I think that’s an important factor.”

So while Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot, he’s still wielding an outsize influence on this six-way race — whether it’s direct or by default.