GOP gains leave Jersey Shore nearly free of Democratic legislators

Sen. Vin Gopal credits moderate record for withstanding red wave

By: - November 22, 2021 7:00 am

People walk along the boardwalk days before the Memorial Day weekend, the un-official start of summer, on the Jersey shore on May 27, 2021 in Wildwood. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Democrats’ successive losses over the past two legislative cycles have all but obliterated the party’s hold over the Jersey Shore.

Starting on Jan. 11, only one Democrat, Sen. Vin Gopal, will represent the coastal region south of Sayreville in the Legislature, and even he finds himself on a precarious perch amid Republican enthusiasm that could further imperil Gopal, a former Monmouth County Democratic chairman whose running mates lost re-election on Nov. 2.

“The party itself has to look a lot and see how they’re doing things differently. A win is a win, but Democrats should not be celebrating,” Gopal told the New Jersey Monitor.

Since 2019, Democrats have lost numerous Shore districts. Sen. Michael Testa (R-Cumberland) ousted former Sen. Bob Andrzejczak (D-Cape May) in the 1st District that year, with the Republican’s running mates taking the district’s two Assembly seats.

This year, the party lost another four Assembly seats in Atlantic and Monmouth counties and also failed to claim a state Senate seat in the 2nd District, which was left vacant by Republican Sen. Chris Brown’s July resignation (the seat had been controlled by Democrats for a decade prior to Brown winning it in 2007).

Every political corner has its own explanation for the defeats, but one thing is clear: Progressivism is not playing along the Shore.

“When Democrats are perceived as more generically Democrat, or when the party — statewide or nationwide — is perceived as more liberal or less in line with the center-right politics of those counties, that’s where the counties are going to revert to their means,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “They’re going to revert to their traditional Republican leanings.”

Democrats lost the 1st District in 2019, soon after its longtime senator, Jeff Van Drew, joined Congress and at about the same time Van Drew became a Republican. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Gopal is a moderate who opposed his party’s efforts to raise the hourly minimum wage to $15 two years ago. He also butted heads with party leadership over a doomed tax on Shore rentals in 2018 over concern about its impact on tourism.

The senator won re-election by a little less than four points, while Murphy lost Gopal’s 11th District by a little more than three points. Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Monmouth) and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling (D-Monmouth) each lost re-election by less than a point. Gopal won his first term by about seven points in 2017.

The district includes coastal towns like Asbury Park and Deal, and stretches west to Freehold.

“When you have somebody who’s exceptionally hard working like Sen. Gopal is, and who is able to convince the voters of his district that he is different than the generic Democratic model, that he’s worth not painting with the same brush as every other Democrat, then he can be successful,” Rasmussen said. “I think that’s where you saw him squeak by.”

Democrats’ weakness in Monmouth County affected races far down the ballot, reversing some of the gains the party made at the local level over the past several years. They lost two seats in Matawan, cutting back the 7-0 majority Monmouth Democrats accrued over recent years, and Republicans also flipped seats in Keyport and Sea Bright, among others.

In the Senate race in the 2nd District — a swath of Atlantic County from Buena to the Atlantic Ocean — former Assemblyman Vince Polistina, a Republican, defeated Democratic Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo by about four points. Murphy lost it by eight.

Republicans view those results as a repudiation of national Democrats, Murphy, and the governor’s pandemic policies.

“I think people are feeling the effects of what Biden’s plan is and trickle down of that into Gov. Murphy’s plan for the state of New Jersey,” Testa said. “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: New Jerseyans want a better New Jersey. They don’t want to be the California of the East Coast.”

Testa, Cumberland County’s Republican chairman, defeated Andrzejczak by seven points in 2019. He was re-elected with a mammoth 35-point margin this month.

Before Testa took the seat initially, Democrats had held the 1st District for nearly two decades, their wins driven largely by the personal brand of Jeff Van Drew, who represented the district as a Democrat for 17 years before leaving the Legislature to take a seat in Congress. Van Drew joined the Republican Party in late 2019, a move he said was a reaction to the Democratic Party’s shift leftward.

The path forward for Democrats in these areas is a narrow one, but wins are still possible, Gopal said.

“I think collectively as a party, we need to look and see how we can communicate with people we’ve had trouble communicating with and relook at our message that we are the party that stands up for working class families,” said Gopal.

That message “was not evident” this year, he added.

Murphy has argued that were it not for the progressive policies he pushed, the party would have suffered greater losses this year.

Republicans aren’t alone in pinning the losses on the titular head of New Jersey’s Democratic Party. Some Democrats in South Jersey, where Democrats’ losses are concentrated, have privately blamed Murphy for the flipped districts, as they did when ads featuring the governor aired in the 1st District in the final days of 2019’s elections.

The governor was the target of much Republican messaging this year, facing attacks over his handling of the economy, virus restrictions, widespread COVID-19 deaths in the state’s long-term care centers, and a seemingly flippant comment about high property taxes that was the focal point of some Republican campaign ads. Overall, Democrats lost six Assembly seats and two Senate seats. The GOP lost one Senate seat to a Democrat.

“These are facts that are undeniable. They have to take a long, hard look at the facts and not try to continue to play the music while the Titanic is sinking,” Testa said. “New Jersey is in trouble. There’s no doubt about it.”


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.