N.J. Democrats clash over message sent by voters

By: - November 8, 2021 6:55 am

Gov. Phil Murphy speaks in Asbury Park on Nov. 2 as election results show a dead heat between him and GOP challenger Jack Ciattarelli. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

Nearly a week after Election Day, New Jersey Democrats are at odds over what the results mean.

Should the loss of seats in the Legislature for the second cycle in a row spur some soul searching about the party’s direction? Or should Democrats celebrate a gubernatorial victory despite GOP victories in other parts of the nation?

“There was clearly a message sent by voters,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said Thursday. “We’re going to sit down and figure out what that was. In many respects, it’s clear — we need to move forward, we need to listen more, and make sure we have an agenda people understand is being done in their best interest.”

The good news for Democrats: They will continue to control both chambers in the Legislature. But some officials in the party are scratching their heads over how Murphy’s contest with Republican Jack Ciattarelli became so close after months of public polling predicted Murphy winning in a romp (the Associated Press gives Murphy about 65,000 more votes than Ciattarelli, out of 2.5 million cast). The loss of seats in the Legislature — particularly Senate President Steve Sweeney’s ouster — also has them wondering whether the party should shift gears to avoid future losses to the GOP.

“Blue New Jersey might not be so blue in some given districts,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). “Yes, we have to look at what happened in this election — certainly the shock around the Sweeney loss — but the fact remains that Phil Murphy is still the governor and we still have the majority in both houses.”

Sweeney was defeated by Ed Durr, a Logan Township Republican who has never held public office and is already dealing with his first political scandal over racist tweets of his (he has apologized). The senate president’s loss was unexpected, and he has yet to concede.

Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at the Rutgers University Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said Durr’s toppling of Sweeney, who was a target of progressives who believed he blocked much of Murphy’s liberal agenda, may work to the governor’s advantage. Rubin has been critical of Democrats who say Tuesday’s results mean the party has moved too far left.

“Honestly, the fact that Sweeney is no longer Senate president and the South is weakened, these are good things for Murphy,” she said. “It’s hardly a testament that they need to move more conservative.”

Rubin said Sweeney’s loss is canceled out by a win from Andrew Zwicker, a progressive Middlesex County Democrat who nabbed the formerly Republican-controlled Senate seat in the 16th District.

Murphy, asked at a press conference in New Brunswick Friday if he’d scale back his ambitions, said his administration’s accomplishments “allowed us to withstand this red wave.”

“We’re not going to change now,” he said.

Republicans were victorious in the other state with a governor’s race this year, Virginia, where the GOP captured the three top elected positions after years of Democratic control. The news out of Virginia, where Republicans also flipped control of the House of Delegates, has the GOP optimistic about their fortunes nationwide amid President Biden’s slumping poll numbers.

Rubin maintains it’s premature for New Jersey Democrats to reflect on what the future looks like while tens of thousands of ballots remain to be counted, particularly in largely Democratic counties. Those could put Murphy’s margin at three to five percentage points, she said.

“That’s actually quite impressive when you consider that no governor has won in Virginia or New Jersey in 40 years after their party takes the White House,” she said. “What we know is he defied history by winning at all.”

Still, many Democrats remain concerned that the GOP’s renewed strength will pose a threat for them next year, when the state’s largely Democratic House delegation must seek re-election in the midterm elections, and in 2023, when all 120 legislative seats are up for grabs again.

Coughlin blamed infighting in Washington, D.C., and high property taxes for this year’s losses. Weinberg agreed there’s major fatigue coming from voters having trouble keeping up with messiness on the Hill. But, she said, if she had to pick out one issue to chalk up the Democratic losses to, it would be enthusiasm among Republican voters.

She recalled when she ran as the running mate for former Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009 and brought out then-President Barack Obama for a campaign rally, just as Murphy did weeks before this year’s election. She said about 10,000 people showed up for the Newark event, but “I guess 9,000 of them forgot to vote because we lost the election.”

“You can’t judge it based on that, but you have to know what’s on voters’ minds. What I see is general fatigue, tired of coronavirus, and people saying, ‘OK, I want to go back to normal life now.’ … We underestimated the enthusiasm on the other side,” Weinberg said.

Murphy aides have mocked political observers who claim Tuesday’s results are bad news for Democrats, and have expressed anger that Murphy’s win over Ciattarelli — the margin as of Monday morning is 2.6% — is perceived as narrow.

Murphy spokesman Mahen Gunatarana said the governor is “going to continue talking about building a stronger and fairer New Jersey, continue focusing on affordability, and communicating what we’re doing with working families.”

In New Brunswick Friday, Murphy appeared to acknowledge dissatisfaction among some voters.

“There’s a lot of people out there we still need to touch,” he said. “Quite clearly, there’s a lot of hurt. A lot of people screaming out basically saying, I need help and … I need government to step in because no one else is stepping in. And we get that. We understand that.”

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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