As N.J. Dems lick their wounds over 2021, 2022 looms

History suggests a shellacking for Democrats next year

By: - November 18, 2021 7:00 am

Nick DeGregorio announcing his candidacy for Congress at the veterans monument in Glen Rock on Nov. 10. (Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)

Last week, 36-year-old Republican and U.S. Marine veteran Nick De Gregorio appeared in Glen Rock delivered what he hopes will be a message that gets him to Congress.

That message: Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-05) does not know the struggles of ordinary Americans who are shelling out more for diapers and milk at Kilroy’s, a local market in this Bergen County town.

“I have to wonder if Josh Gottheimer is feeling the sticker shock we feel every week while he goes to the Washington, D.C., Whole Foods,” De Gregorio said, his wife and children at his side. “I doubt it.”

This is the theme Republicans in New Jersey and nationwide are campaigning on as they attempt to flip control of Congress after the 2022 midterm elections: Democrats are out of touch with average Americans and change is needed. Garden State Democrats, meanwhile, stung by legislative losses on Nov. 2 that included Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s shocking defeat, say the party needs to focus on what voters want, highlight the party’s successes, and pray redistricting doesn’t draw targeted House Democrats into unfriendly districts.

Still, even with bad polling for President Biden and the Democratic Party and state elections that saw the party lose seven legislative seats, not everyone thinks the die is cast.

“I think the result of what happened in New Jersey was a shock to a lot of people. If anyone was complacent about Congressional elections, they’re not going to be anymore,” said Juan Melli, a senior vice president at Mercury Public Affairs and former campaign staffer for Jon Corzine. “If anything, this is going to make people take it more seriously.”

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

2021: Warning sign, or blueprint for victory?

More than two weeks after Election Day, Democrats disagree over whether the results represent a failure of the progressive policies Gov. Phil Murphy ran on, or a repudiation of moderate Democrats in South and Central Jersey — infighting that mirrors the progressive-versus-moderate clash Democrats have been engaging in on the national level.

Democratic consultant Phil Swibinski, a Murphy ally, said the governor’s re-election provides a “blueprint” for Democrats running next year.

“Governor Murphy has delivered a lot of progress that’s impacting people’s lives: higher minimum wage, family leave, property tax relief, school funding,” Swibinski said. “There’s so much discussion about it being too progressive or too conservative, and it should be more about results.”

Thirty-four seats in the U.S. Senate and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be up for grabs in November 2022. New Jersey’s Congressional delegation includes 10 Democrats and two Republicans in the House, and two Democratic senators, Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, who are not up for re-election next year.

Political observers believe Reps. Mikie Sherrill, Tom Malinowski, Andy Kim, and Gottheimer should expect tough races, but all 10 Democrats should prepare to be targeted, said Julie Roginsky, a top Democratic strategist who has worked in the state for more than 25 years. Roginsky has a dimmer view of New Jersey’s latest election results than Swibinski, saying  Murphy’s campaign displayed his “arrogance” (Roginsky was fired from Murphy’s 2017 campaign after she said she complained about its toxic work environment).

“This November election was a huge flashing red siren to the Democratic Party,” she said. “The message voters sent is not complicated … Provided that Democrats nationally and in New Jersey hear it, they’ll be in a much better place to win.”

The biggest message voters sent, she said, was they want the state to be more affordable. The problem for Democrats isn’t that they are pushing the wrong policies, but they are terrible at messaging and don’t have much time to change course, she said.

“The clock is at 11 p.m. right now,” said Roginsky. “We have an opportunity to fix this, but only if the people in power appreciate that they need to stop doubling down on what they’ve already done and start having an open mind about what they need to do going forward.”

The intraparty clashing isn’t a shocker, and contributes to the messy messaging that some experts say is typical of Democrats. Christina Greer, politics professor at Fordham University, pointed to the failure of the party to capitalize on popular provisions in the infrastructure and spending bills that have been D.C.’s focus for months.

“Their messaging needs to be a lot more clear and resonate with Democrats and independents, that’s for sure, considering they’re trying to assist American families and thus far haven’t been able to even articulate what’s in these bills to the average voter,” Greer said. “If they can get it together, it’s a better shot. But in terms of, what’s traditionally happened, Democrats should brace themselves.”

As Democrats defend their 10 districts, they shouldn’t write off the two seats held by Republican Reps. Chris Smith and Jeff Van Drew, Swibinski said. Donald Trump has vowed to support primary challengers to anyone who supported the infrastructure bill — including Smith and Van Drew — which Swibinski said could make those districts competitive.

“The economic picture is going to be better six months from now than it is today, and the COVID situation should continue to improve,” Swibinski said. “This red wave that came out in the last election was sort of a unique phenomenon that I wouldn’t be completely certain is going to happen again.”

Rep. Andy Kim is one of the New Jersey Democrats whose re-election hopes may be in jeopardy if Democrats don’t improve their standing among voters. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images)

Redistricting playing a big role

The biggest question mark about 2022 is redistricting. Without knowing what New Jersey’s congressional districts will look like, it is difficult to determine what will happen in New Jersey next year.

Every 10 years following the Census count, congressional districts get new boundaries to ensure accurate representation in the House of Representatives. The New Jersey Redistricting Commission began meeting in October, and is holding hearings through Dec. 10 before the final map is set to be released in January.

The commission is made up of six Democrats and six Republicans who will choose the map. If they don’t agree, the tie-breaking vote goes to retired Supreme Court Justice John Wallace.

The Democrats’ preferred map was selected in 2001, and the GOP’s map won out in 2011, when the state lost a Congressional seat. It’s still too early to know what the map’s new boundaries will look like, but Democrats worry that reliably Democratic towns could be drawn into districts with more moderate or conservative areas, giving the GOP an advantage.

“There are some towns that are adjacent to swing districts that are hardcore Democratic towns. But voters in these towns, they still need to hear that the people asking them for their support are listening to their issues,” Rogisnky said.

Little changes in district boundaries could lead to major changes. More Ocean County towns in Kim’s district, more Warren County in Malinowski’s, more Sussex in Gottheimer’s — these could all tip the scales against the congressmen. Sherrill’s district, which includes half of Montclair and Bloomfield, could be redrawn to include the full populations of both towns, putting her in a stronger position to win re-election.

“Those little, critical things can change the outlook,” Swibinski said.

De Gregorio said even if redistricting reshapes his district — when it was drawn, it leaned Republican, but now has more Democratic voters — he would continue his campaign.

“This is a hard place to be a Republican,” said De Gregorio, a Fair Lawn resident. “That doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting for.”

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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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