Election Picture in New Jersey
NJ Spotlight, COLLEEN O’DEA, SENIOR WRITER AND PROJECTS EDITOR | SEPTEMBER 6, 2023
Labor Day marks the start of election season, but with New Jersey Republicans eager to try to take back control of at least one of the houses of the Legislature for the first time in two decades, campaigning in some districts is well underway. Election Day is Nov. 7.
In the 16th District in central Jersey, the Democratic ticket of Sen. Andrew Zwicker, Assemblyman Roy Freiman and Mitchelle Drulis sent out their first general election mailer before Labor Day, proclaiming they “fight for the issues that matter most to you and your family’s future.” They also slammed their Republican challengers — Mike Pappas, in a rematch against Zwicker, and Ross Traphagen and Grace Zhang — for engaging in “extreme Trump-style politics.”
The races in the 16th District, which was made slightly friendlier terrain for Republicans by last year’s legislative redistricting, are likely to focus on many issues that candidates will be arguing in a handful of other hotly contested races this fall: parental rights, Trumpism, abortion and tax relief. To that list, particularly in districts like Monmouth County’s 11th along the Shore — which has split party representation — add the Murphy administration’s Energy Master Plan, with wind-power development off the coast, no new gas cars to be sold after 2035 and the Board of Public Utilities’ energy incentives, characterized by the GOP as a gas-stove ban.
“Legislative Democrats have been playing defense,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
Democrats are still stinging from the net loss of seven seats in 2021, including the shocking loss by then-Senate President Steve Sweeney and the assemblymen in the 3rd District.
Republicans have been on offense when it comes to energy policy, from electric cars and stoves to the financial and coastal impacts of the wind industry. Republicans also think they have the Democrats on the run over the state’s lawsuits to stop parental notification policies in several school districts.
“Democrats have even been forced to distance themselves from the Biden administration’s identification of the FAA facility in Atlantic County as a potential site to move immigrants out of New York City,” Rasmussen added. “Democratic legislators could fairly argue that most of these are the policies of other parts of government, but that won’t stop Republicans from urging voters to send Governor Murphy and President Biden a message.”
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said Democrats won’t let the GOP continue to hammer away at them unchecked. “Now that we’re entering the real fall campaign, the Democratic campaigns are going to be much more actively engaged in the messaging,” he said.
Look beyond the numbers
While registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost 1 million statewide and in three-quarters of the state’s 40 legislative districts, party leaders are worried about being vulnerable on some of the more controversial steps taken by the Murphy administration and they may have a right to be.
Democrats are still stinging from the net loss of seven seats in 2021, including the shocking loss by then-Senate President Steve Sweeney and the assemblymen in the 3rd District in the southwest, and Gov. Phil Murphy’s relatively small victory margin for election to a second term.
Talking about the elections
And despite their advantage in voter registration, Democrats in recent years have lost seats in three districts — Assembly seats in the 11th, as well as the 2nd and 3rd districts in South Jersey — and have been unable to take control in three others.
Turnout in years when the state Legislature tops balloting typically is low: In 2019, the last time the Senate and Assembly led the ticket, just 27% of those who were registered, voted.
Two recent Monmouth University polls indicate both parental rights and wind energy are issues that could help Republicans. The poll on parental rights found that more than three-quarters of people said schools should notify parents if their child wants to be identified as a different gender than is on their school registration, even as the state attorney general has gone to court to stop such notifications. The other poll, also released last month, found barely more than a majority of New Jersey residents support offshore wind development — a 30-point drop from 2011. Some 40% opposed wind farms off the coast, saying they could hurt the summer tourism economy, and 45% said offshore wind exploration is contributing to whale deaths.
Both of these are expected to be big issues in the fall election. The question is whether the few voters who turn out will know enough about them and be swayed by ads or revert to deciding their votes based on the pocketbook issues that have largely driven voter sentiment in the past. Turnout in years when the Legislature tops balloting typically is low: In 2019, the last time the Senate and Assembly led the ticket, just 27% of those who were registered, voted.
“The math is certainly on the side of the Democrats,” Rasmussen said. “To retain their majorities in the Senate and the Assembly, Democrats don’t need to win in any Republican or even swing districts — there are enough districts that lean Democrat for them to win. By comparison, Republicans would need to run the board in every Republican district, every swing district, and then they’d still need to win in a couple of Democratic-leaning districts in order to win a majority in either house of the legislature.”
Cards held by the Democrats
Democrats are touting the StayNJ property-tax relief program, which promises to cut property-tax bills for most senior citizen homeowners by half by providing a tax credit of up to $6,500 a year for households with incomes less than $500,000. Introduced in late May and signed a month later, the program is not set to take effect for two more years, meaning it may never be implemented given there will be a new administration in power and there may not be enough money available for the state to fully fund its estimated $1.3 billion price tag. Still, Democrats are campaigning as if it were already in place.
And seniors are the most reliable voters; the nonpartisan KFF, formerly the Kaiser Family Foundation, reported that in 2022, 66% of eligible New Jerseyans ages 65 and older voted, the largest percentage of any age group.
‘What seems well within reach is for Republicans to further erode the Democratic caucuses, particularly in South Jersey, where Murphy and Biden are less popular.’ — Micah Rasmussen, Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics
“There are estimates that upwards of 75% of the people casting ballots this November are going to be over the age of 50, which is why it makes sense the Democrats would make sure that they do the property tax relief,” Dworkin said.
The checks of up to $1,500 sent to many homeowners and renters under the current “Anchor” property-tax rebate program should be arriving in mailboxes shortly before Election Day, something else that Democrats are highlighting.
And incumbent Democrats in hotly contested districts are also touting the millions of dollars they have gotten for their districts through last-minute resolutions added to the budget. Not long ago, lawmakers downplayed putting money into the budget for pet projects because they were viewed as political pork by the public. But this year and in the last election two years ago, many incumbents are playing up the amount of money they have brought to their districts to show they are working for their constituents.
Sen. Vin Gopal, the lone remaining Democrat representing the 11th District, is touting money he has brought to a half-dozen public school districts, Brookdale Community College in Monmouth County, police departments, nonprofits providing health services, food pantries and arts groups. His website lists dozens of groups getting funds.
Cards help by the Republicans
The issues Republicans are hammering are offshore wind and other energy proposals. At the Jersey Shore, the GOP and the New Jersey Business and Industry Association have been funding airplane banners over the beaches. One banner funded by the NJBIA read, “Tell Murphy Stop NJ Gas Car Ban.” Two planes delivered the message, “Forcing schools to keep secrets from parents? Dems say YES Republicans say NO. Vote.”
The Republican Party is concentrating its efforts on seats in tight districts that it needs to defend — the 2nd in Atlantic County, 3rd in Salem and parts of Cumberland and Gloucester counties, the 8th stretching through parts of Atlantic and Burlington counties and the Assembly seats in the 11th. Republicans are also hoping to knock off Gopal and pick up seats in the 4th District, which covers parts of Atlantic, Camden and Gloucester counties, the 14th straddling Mercer and Middlesex counties, the 16th stretching from Princeton through Somerset, South Brunswick and up into High Bridge in Hunterdon County, and the 36th and 38th, both based in Bergen County.
It seems a tall order for Republicans to win control of even one legislative house. “Having said that, what seems well within reach is for Republicans to further erode the Democratic caucuses, particularly in South Jersey, where Murphy and Biden are less popular,” Rasmussen said.
While Democrats would like to take back seats in the 2nd and 3rd districts, they are focusing particularly on defending the 16th and Gopal’s seat in the 11th.
Find information about each race, a map of the districts, a calendar of important election dates and information on registering on NJ Spotlight News’ elections page.
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