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New Jersey’s legislative election and 2020 implications

By Patrick Murray

Was New Jersey’s election good news for Republicans? As you may have guessed from the way I phrased that question, the answer is both yes and no.

First, let’s take nothing away from the Republican legislative victories.  They held onto seats that were targeted by Democrats and also knocked off Democratic incumbents in at least one district, all while being outspent by a lot.  But the fact that this outcome – i.e. the governor’s party losing a couple of seats in a midterm – was not something we were really considering before the election says something about the state of politics in the age of Trump.

Republicans won by keeping their races local.  Gov. Phil Murphy, who has middling approval ratings, was a factor, but not the major one. For example, the Democrats’ vote-by-mail effort, while formidable statewide, did not materialize into a large advantage where it counted.  And Democrats’ attack ads in the 1st District seems to have backfired.

Taken in isolation the result was “normal” for a midterm, but it does seem like New Jersey Republicans overperformed and/or state Democrats underperformed when viewed in the context of what happened elsewhere in the country. This includes an apparent Democratic gubernatorial victory in Kentucky and an unusually close race in Mississippi, as well as Democrats picking up both chambers of the Virginia legislature in a midterm with a sitting governor of the same party (who is best known nationally for wearing blackface).

Keep in mind, though, that New Jersey Democrats had already picked up a number of “red” seats in prior legislative elections. They had already reached a saturation point in the size of their majority – unlike Virginia, which has only recently been trending more Democratic.  Also, the Virginia race was nationalized, whereas New Jersey’s was not.  Which means if you start digging past the superficial results, there are some factors in the New Jersey results that actually confirm what we saw elsewhere.

First, political engagement has increased in the Trump era.  Yes, turnout was low in New Jersey, but it was significantly higher than the last legislative midterm in 2015.  Part of this has to do with the state’s new automatic vote-by-mail law, but part is a sign of the times. But since New Jersey’s races weren’t nationalized to the extent they were in other states, our increase in turnout was not as high as elsewhere.

Second, Trump Republicans did well in Trump areas (see LD1 and LD2), but not in moderate Republican areas. This is similar to what we saw in the other states’ voting yesterday.  In New Jersey, Republican incumbents were able localize their races by reclaiming the party brand from the president (at least temporarily), while Trump-aligned independents did little damage to the GOP ticket in LD21 and LD8.  Democrats in the other states did better because those races had higher stakes that spurred turnout among Democrats in suburban areas.  This was not the case in New Jersey.

What this tells me about 2020 is that Jeff Van Drew could have a tough reelection bid in CD2 – even with the attempt to inoculate himself by voting against the impeachment inquiry.  Those types of calculations rarely help if the political environment is against you (cf. John Adler and his ACA vote). Yesterday’s results also means that Andy Kim will need an even greater suburban turnout in the Burlington portion of CD3 to offset Trump’s strength in the Ocean County portion.  On the other hand, Mikie Sherrill (CD11) and Tom Malinowski (CD7) probably can count on stronger Democrat turnout in their districts next year.  Results in hotly contested local races (such as the strong Democratic performance in Somerset County) seem to support the idea that there is Democratic vote to be tapped that wasn’t this year in districts with popular moderate Republican state legislators.  This is not to say that anything is guaranteed, just that the evidence does not support one can count on a return to Republican voting patterns in those suburbs.

In the end, it is not the night New Jersey Democrats wanted and the state Republican Party got a reprieve from the ever-present death watch.  But the results also suggest that in a national context, Democrats will continue to do well in the suburbs while Republican success may be limited to the most Trump-friendly parts of the state.

What does this mean for Phil Murphy?

The governor and first lady, Tammy Murphy, made a mad scramble to hit as many parts of the state as possible in the last days of the race. This was a smart move with little downside for him – even though most of the candidates they were stumping for would have preferred to use that time on last minute GOTV efforts rather than gubernatorial photo ops.  While Murphy’s direct impact on the outcome was limited, if there had been an upset he could have claimed credit for the victory.  On the other hand, in the worst case legislative scenario for Democrats (which is what actually happened), he would have been blamed regardless of whether he went on the campaign trail or not.  

Republicans aren’t the only ones who will be calling this “the Murphy midterm.” You can expect the South Jersey wing of the Democratic Party to start saying that as well. [Although Murphy can counter this with the fact that the only Dem losses were in South Jersey.] All this is a lead-up to the big prize in January – i.e. who will head the state Democratic Party.  The anti-Murphy Democrats will attempt to use these results to rally committee members to oust the sitting chairman John Currie as ineffective.  This is one of the reasons why Murphy ended his Election Day in Somerville.  The Democratic bright spot was success at the county and local level.  The support of these leaders – particularly key players like Somerset County Democratic Chairwoman, and state vice chair, Peg Schaffer – will be crucial to Murphy keeping Currie in his position.

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