by Patrick Murray
This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on November 20, 2022.
A lot of issues were on the ballot this year without actually being on the ballot. Inflation, crime, immigration, abortion, gun control, climate change, and not least of all — democracy itself. Midterms are supposed to be a referendum on the incumbent president. This year added an unprecedented twist by being a referendum on a former president as well. All of these factors played out in New Jersey.
The topline analysis of the congressional results is that many Democratic incumbents did better this cycle than two years ago despite the overall statewide margin being tighter. Specifically, New Jersey Democrats won the total statewide House vote in the 2020 election by 16 points. This year that number was cut almost in half to about 9 points, but Democrats still held onto 9 of their 10 seats.
In fact, half of the Democratic incumbents actually saw bigger victory margins this time around. This was largely a byproduct of redistricting. The new congressional map was specifically drawn to give a boost to relatively new Democratic House members by placing more Republican voters in Republican districts and distributing Democratic voters from very safe districts into more vulnerable areas. The map performed pretty much the way the Democratic redistricting team hoped it would.
This also means that one of their incumbents, Tom Malinowski in the 7th Congressional District, was sacrificed to ensure the other Democrats were protected. In hindsight, it appears that with a little more gerrymandering the Democrats probably could have held onto all 10 seats. The reason for that is found in the motivating factor of “Trumpism.”
While Malinowski lost his race because of the addition of heavily pro-Trump northwestern New Jersey communities to the 7th district, he actually performed a little better than 2020 in other parts of the district that remained from the old map. For example, he lost Hunterdon County by a little more than 11 points two years ago. This year he lost it by just under 10 points. A loss is a loss, but this slight improvement in the face of a statewide shift in the opposite direction reinforces a pattern we saw in last year’s gubernatorial election.
In 2021, an influx of Republican voters motivated by national issues and the Trump agenda — particularly in South Jersey — contributed to a much narrower than expected margin of victory for Gov. Phil Murphy. We saw these voters come out again this year in certain spots, such as picking up seats in Cumberland and Salem counties.
But 2021 also showed a bright spot for Democrats. Murphy actually did better in formerly Republican suburbs that had swung firmly Democratic in the past five years. Like Malinowski, Murphy had narrowed his deficit in Hunterdon county compared to his first run in 2017 and actually won Somerset, a county he narrowly lost four years earlier.
That pattern held again this year. In fact, Somerset Democrats, who were resigned to seeing their newfound lock on county government broken in a predicted “red wave,” held onto all their seats by comfortable margins. While many voters in red parts of the state have fully embraced Trumpism, other suburban areas, like Somerset, which had been solid GOP for decades continue to reject a Republican Party that is fixated on rolling back established rights and peddling conspiracy theories that undermine faith in the democratic process.
The 2022 election was less about whether policies of the left or the right were better options to address key issues of the day. It was more about the fundamental direction of the country. As one New Jersey politico said to me last week, “The election confirmed that Americans still love America.” By that, he meant America’s genius — which has made us the envy of the world for many generations — is that we agree on the rules of the game even when we don’t like the outcome. The electoral support garnered by some election-denying candidates indicates the importance of preserving American institutions isn’t valued by all voters. But it is valued by the majority. Prior to November 8, that wasn’t a certainty.
As far as the micro-level policy preferences of New Jersey voters, this election does not give us a clear picture. My guess is that an appetite for common sense conservative economic and tax policies coupled with the protection of fundamental rights and liberties exists among a sizable segment of the electorate. But as long as Trumpism remains the Republican Party brand, the country will remain deeply divided; and New Jersey will remain a state where that divide favors the Democrats.