Bob Hugin, left, the state GOP chair, said Republican efforts to flip Democratic-held House seats were hampered by a map favoring Democrats. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)
Republicans strutted to the polls Tuesday, confident that President Biden’s sagging support, a string of conservative Supreme Court rulings, and hot-button issues like crime and inflation had riled the right enough that a red wave would wash Democrats out of office at every level.
But the red wave turned out to be more of a trickle, with only one Democratic-held congressional seat in New Jersey flipping and Democrats nationally flipping or preserving a number of key House and Senate seats.
Tuesday’s elections upended the expectation that discontented voters punish the party in power during midterm elections, leaving pundits, politicians, and the press puzzling over the results.
Ultimately, many agreed, Tuesday was a battle for the swing voters and more moderate Republicans who seem to have soured on the party’s growing extremism, Trump branding, and hard stance against abortion rights.
“We didn’t get drubbed at all, but we didn’t do as well as we’d hoped and anticipated,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), who has served in the Legislature since 2008. “The Republican Party now needs to do some soul searching.”
He added: “There’s going to be a battle over the future of the party. We need to look at that battle from the perspective of ‘how do we win?’ without selling out on our core beliefs and convictions.”
Turned off by Trump
Numerous Republicans pointed to former President Donald Trump’s lingering presence to explain the party’s meager Election Day gains, saying his brand still turns independent voters away from the GOP.
“I think there continues to be a Trump hangover in that people generally want him to go away or at least stop hogging the oxygen in these debates,” said Republican National Committeeman Bill Palatucci. “That’s why they’re still casting their votes against Republicans, because they still think they’re casting a vote against Trump.”
There’s little question that Trump can be a motivator for New Jersey voters. Democratic Reps. Andy Kim, Mikie Sherrill, and Tom Malinowski — Malinowski was the only House incumbent in the state to lose reelection Tuesday — were catapulted into office in 2018 largely because of Trump’s presidency, and his 2020 bid delivered similar results here.
Trump has waded into New Jersey contests in past cycles, though he stayed clear of the Garden State this year while making endorsements in other races around the nation. (Many of his endorsed candidates lost their elections Tuesday.)
The former president’s presence hurts Republicans’ efforts to win unaffiliated voters most of all, said state Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union), a moderate who has frequently been critical of Trump.
While it’s not clear yet how New Jersey’s unaffiliated voters broke Tuesday, national exit polls found they bent toward Democrats by a two-point margin. In 2010, when Democrats received the worst midterm drubbing in more than half a century, independents broke for Republicans by 19 points.
“What happens is you’re a Republican, and they think you’re a Trumper. As long as that’s our brand in New Jersey, unaffiliateds — and certainly Democrats — are not going to trust Republicans,” Bramnick said. “Unaffiliated voters have to trust us first, and if Trump is our brand, it’s going to be very difficult to win swing districts. It’s as simple as that.”
Those issues could well persist into 2024, when Trump has signaled he will mount a third bid for the presidency.
“We need to figure out how we can bring them back in, and part of that discussion will have to be: Do we convince them that Donald Trump is good for the country and we should keep him as our standard bearer, or do we decide that it’s time to move on?” O’Scanlon said.
Quality of candidates
Republicans like Trump and Sarah Palin before him made nontraditional candidates more mainstream, with GOP voters increasingly opting for candidates that seem more caricature than Capitol-worthy, some political observers said.
But while the base might rally around candidates like Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania’s GOP nominee for governor known for his Christian nationalism, and Mehmet Oz, the Oprah-created celebrity doctor and former Jersey resident who lost a Senate seat in Pennsylvania this week, these kinds of candidates can alienate undecided voters in the general election, said Phil Swibinski, a Democratic strategist.
“Even the foolish candidates are winning these Republican primaries — many of those with an endorsement from Trump, including Dr. Oz, for example,” Swibinski said. “A lot of the Democratic candidates are very relatable, normal kinds of people like Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania, who seems like a neighborhood dad that you can find at a Little League game. Compare that to Mastriano, who’s so out there, and that really sharp contrast in a lot of these races definitely helped Democrats perform.”
Republicans have to do a better job at picking serious candidates, O’Scanlon said.
“The voters have told us what their core concerns are, and they’re winnable for Republicans,” O’Scanlon said. “But Republicans can’t win with non-credible candidates.”
If Trump is our brand, it’s going to be very difficult to win swing districts
– Sen. Jon Bramnick
The Dobbs effect
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade had a seismic impact on abortion rights — and Tuesday’s elections.
The ruling, known as the Dobbs decision, removed a constitutional right to abortion and allowed states to regulate the procedure. Abortion is now fully or partially banned in 18 states and limited in nine, while 10 states have bans that have been blocked by courts considering challenges, according to the New York Times.
Dobbs mobilized Democrats, who regarded the ruling as an attack on bodily autonomy, Swibinski said.
“It’s so rare for a right to be taken away. No one has had that really happen in recent history besides us,” Swibinski said. “It was really a wake-up call to a lot of people that this is serious, and you need to pay attention, and you need to get involved.”
Some Republicans felt Dobbs didn’t go far enough. Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a bill in September to ban abortion nationally, giving new fodder to Democrats who warned such proposals portended where some Republicans would take the country.
Even Republicans who support abortion rights were dragged down by their party’s broader opposition to the procedure.
Paul DeGroot, who unsuccessfully sought to oust Sherrill, backs allowing states to set abortion rules and said he could support legal abortion access without qualification in the first trimester of pregnancy. But the former Passaic County assistant prosecutor still faced televised attacks from Democrats that painted him as vehemently opposed to abortion rights. Sherrill won by 16 points.
“If you look at some of these campaigns, we had pro-choice candidates that Democrats used scare tactics on abortion against that were … just untrue,” said Republican State Chairman Bob Hugin.
It’s no coincidence that the only House incumbent in the state to lose reelection represented the only competitive New Jersey congressional district that grew more Republican after the state’s congressional district boundaries were redrawn last year, Hugin said.
New Jersey’s Redistricting Commission picked the Democrats’ map when drawing the new lines, and that map was drafted to protect every vulnerable incumbent except Malinowski, who faced his own headwinds after failing to timely disclose hundreds of stock transactions during the pandemic. GOP efforts to have judges overturn the map failed.
“From a New Jersey point of view, we accomplished our primary objective of — having had a very unfortunate map — getting 46% of the vote and adding one congressional seat,” Hugin said. “That was acceptable, satisfactory, not euphoric.”
Though results for Tuesday’s election are far from final, Kim, Sherrill, and Josh Gottheimer each won reelection this year by broader margins than they did in 2020.
Their new districts aren’t unwinnable for Republicans, but they unquestionably favor the Democratic incumbents.
“The map is always going to play a role,” Democratic State Chairman LeRoy Jones said. “The map is the map. It’s going to determine what segments of the population lean one way or the other.”
Matt Rooney, the founder and editor of the conservative New Jersey news website Save Jersey, said on Twitter the GOP would have flipped four seats this year if they had run under the old district boundaries.
No New Jersey congressional seats changed hands as a result of voting in 2020, and Democrats won a combined four seats in 2016 and 2018. Those races were run under a Republican-drawn map that kept the state’s congressional districts evenly split between the parties until Gottheimer’s 2016 victory over then-Rep. Scott Garrett.
This year’s lone Republican congressional win is still an improvement from the last three federal cycles, and while Hugin said he believed his party’s performance on Tuesday positions it for larger gains in next year’s legislative races, he acknowledged the map would continue to put a damper on Republicans’ efforts to expand their representation in New Jersey’s congressional delegation.
“I think in the end, when you have a tough map and a tough situation, you have to be realistic about what the outcome’s going to be,” he said.
Jones, meanwhile, said Democrats would seek to take back the 7th District from Kean when the opportunity comes.
“We’ll live to fight another day in that district. I think it’s winnable if approached the right way, and I think the future will suggest that we’ll be battling in that district again,” he said.
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