2018 ‘blue wave’ Democrats face different challenges four years later

By: - November 7, 2022 7:23 am

Reps. Andy Kim, Mike Sherrill, and Tom Malinowski — who won election to the House in 2018's "blue wave" — are facing varying obstacles as they seek third terms this year. (Scott Applewhite-Chip Somodevilla-Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)

In 2018, a wave of anti-Donald Trump sentiment helped New Jersey Democrats flip four House seats, giving the party control of all but one of the state’s 12 congressional districts.

Four years later, one of those Democrats is a Trump-loving Republican, two of them are in danger of losing reelection this week, and only one is in a strong position to return to D.C. as a Democrat in January.

It’s still not clear whether results from this year’s midterm elections will indeed alter the power dynamics in the nation’s capital — Republicans are bullish about retaking the House at least — but this year’s campaign has shown how quickly political fortunes can shift, jeopardizing the political careers of officials who just two election cycles ago were basking in the glow of victory.

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship, noted that it’s rare for the party that controls the White House to gain seats in Congress during midterms, giving Democrats an obstacle from the start.

“This is the historical trend,” Dworkin said. “You expect this, and so you tend to see in this kind of year — you had a number of Democratic retirements, the more money sort of gets funneled because Republicans feel it’ll be a good year, so they get to raise more money. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Making the environment trickier for Democrats: persistent inflation, high gas prices, rising mortgage rates, low approval ratings for President Biden — issues that could dent support for Democrats Tuesday, said LeRoy Jones, chairman of the New Jersey State Democratic Committee.

“The Biden effect is a real one,” Jones said.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill is the one member of New Jersey’s congressional freshman class of 2019 who political observers believe is a sure bet to win reelection tomorrow. Sherrill, a former U.S. Navy pilot who represents the 11th District, faces Republican challenger Paul DeGroot, a former Passaic County prosecutor who has struggled to match Sherrill’s powerhouse fundraising.

Sherrill was boosted when redistricting last year made the 11th District more Democratic, shedding towns like Sparta and Wanaque and gaining towns like Maplewood and South Orange. But having DeGroot as an opponent also helps, said Dan Cassino, professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University and director of the school’s poll.

Sherrill and her allies have painted DeGroot as Trumpian, highlighting his support of allowing states to ban abortion (he says he is pro-choice).

“You’d always rather be running against Paul DeGroot if you’re Democrats,” Cassino said.

In the 3rd District, Rep. Andy Kim, who like Sherrill won election to Congress during the 2018 Democratic wave, ended up with a more formidable opponent, Bob Healey Jr. Healey is a millionaire punk rocker turned yacht dealer whose campaign has benefitted from his and his family’s wealth, though Kim still retains a substantial fundraising advantage.

Kim also benefitted from redistricting that took the GOP stronghold of Ocean County entirely out of the district and added towns from Mercer County that are friendlier for Democrats. Still, a last-minute shift — the Cook Political Report last week downgraded Kim’s chances, moving the district from “likely Democratic” to “leans Democratic” — has Republicans hoping they can unseat Kim.

The shifting electorate is presenting another problem for Democrats in districts like Kim’s, Dworkin said.

“In midterm elections, fewer people show up, and therefore districts like district three, which might be +14 Biden in that district, is actually just a +4 Murphy in 2021,” he said. “So these are tighter races.”

Then there’s Rep. Tom Malinowski, whose political fortunes in the 7th District have been well documented. Initially elected in 2018 by a five-point margin over his Republican opponent, Malinowski won reelection in 2020 against former Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. by about 5,000 votes in what was one of the closest races in the county.

Malinowski faces Kean again this year, though unlike with Sherrill and Kim, Malinowski’s district became more Republican after redistricting, making his fight for a third term even tougher.

Cassino said the quality of Malinowski’s challenger is also why the Democrat is struggling in a way his colleagues do not appear to be.

“Malinowski’s problem is not that he’s in a tight district — that’s part of it — but it’s that that tight district has attracted a very high-quality challenger,” Cassino said. “Tom Kean Jr. has a long history in local politics.”

Dworkin agrees.

“I think one’s strength generally depends on how you did in your last election. So Tom Kean Jr., who came within 1% of being in Congress two years ago, is a strong candidate. Plus, he’s able to raise money, he’s articulate, and he’s experienced in elective office and campaigning,” he said.

Jones, the New Jersey Democratic chair, noted that before the 2016 midterms, Democrats and Republicans held New Jersey’s 12 congressional districts at an even split, and now there are just two Republicans: Chris Smith in the 4th District and Jeff Van Drew in the 2nd (Van Drew was one of the 2018 blue wave Democrats, and he switched parties after the House first impeached Donald Trump)

“Every election going forward, there’s going to be a challenge,” Jones said.

Nikita Biryukov and Dana DiFilippo contributed to this article.


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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.”