Republicans hope to topple last remaining Jersey Shore Democrat in Legislature
Democrat Sen. Vin Gopal calls his opponent’s campaign trail claims ‘dangerous’
Democrat Sen. Vin Gopal's seat Monmouth County's 11th Legislative District is one of the GOP’s top targets this year, with the GOP’s two decades in the minority making them anxious for a big win. (Danielle Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
As New Jersey Republicans seek to claw back control of the Legislature on Tuesday, one place they are hoping to win total dominance is the Jersey Shore.
Long a GOP bastion, Democrats started to win some of the region’s legislative seats starting in the early aughts, but recent victories by Republicans have reclaimed all of the region’s seats in the Legislature except one, held now by Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth).
“The pendulum is swinging to the right,” said John Froonjian, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University. “The state has been trending Republican, a little bit, and especially in South Jersey.”
Gopal’s seat in the 11th Legislative District is one of the GOP’s top targets this year, when all 120 legislative seats are on the ballot and the Republican Party’s two decades in the minority have made them anxious for a big win. Democrats control the Senate 25-15 and have a 46-34 majority in the Assembly.
Gopal, who won reelection in 2021 but watched his running mates lose, attributes his success in the Republican-leaning district to his constituent services and bipartisanship. He has voted against some Democratic bills, he noted, while staying true to his ideals, like defending reproductive rights.
But he also acknowledged his party’s need to revamp its “horrific” messaging if it wants to resonate with Jersey Shore voters. Speaking about the offshore wind controversy, Gopal said when people along the shore expressed concern about dead whales and dolphins washing up on their beaches, Democrats tried to redirect the conversation back to climate change. That’s an important issue, Gopal said, and one he has highlighted too, but it failed to get at the heart of the issue for Jersey Shore residents.
“The Democrats failed to understand any of the concerns that voters had about cost, about tourism, about construction,” he said. “I think it’s overall broad communication.”
Though Democrats have a nearly one million voter registration advantage over Republicans statewide, they are at a disadvantage in the seven Jersey Shore legislative districts.
Overall, the GOP has a roughly 75,000-voter edge over Democrats in the region. In some counties, the advantage is dramatic: Ocean County has nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats.
The state’s coastal counties are typically home to retirees and older voters who skew conservative, Froonjian said.
Democrats’ most recent Jersey Shore victories started back in 2001.
That’s when now-Rep. Jeff Van Drew (then a Democrat) first won an Assembly seat in the Republican-dominated 1st District. Soon, Democrats held all three of the district’s legislative seats for about a decade.
Democrats had some success elsewhere — the late Jim Whalen spent about 10 years in the Legislature representing the 2nd District — but Republicans soon began winning those seats back. Republican Chris Brown won the 2nd District’s Senate seat in 2017, and in 2021, the GOP won all three of the district’s seats. A team led by Republican Sen. Mike Testa helped flip the 1st District in 2019. And though Democrats took the 11th District from Republicans starting in 2015, the party won back the two Assembly seats in 2021.
Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic) succeeded Brown. He said if Democrats want to win over more Shore voters, they must nominate less extreme candidates.
“They got to change their messaging. Atlantic County does not like extreme politicians or extreme policies on either side. If you’re an extreme Democrat or extreme Republican, you’re not going to do well here. If they continue to nominate radicals, I’m not worried about it at all,” he said.
Testa hails from Cumberland County, but his district also includes shore towns like Cape May, Wildwood, Ocean City, and Sea Isle City. He said the Republican Party has won over independents after witnessing the government’s months-long lockdowns and business closures during the pandemic.
Testa said he’s not concerned about Democrats performing well along the shore because of the party’s issues not just in New Jersey but nationwide.
“Record high inflation, record high taxes nationally, a massive border issue … that’s not exactly a record that Democrats can stand on and say, ‘We’re really proud of that.’ I don’t see anyone owning that,” Testa said.
Republicans believe voters side with them on a few key issues like parental choice in schools and offshore wind. Michael Suleiman, the Democratic chair in Atlantic County, said his party has to drive discussions instead of being reactive to what opponents are saying.
On offshore wind, Suleiman said, Democrats let Republicans attack for months without fighting back.
He added that Democrats losing voters it had once won over isn’t an issue that’s unique to coastal communities, but a “chronic problem with the national and statewide Democratic Party.”
“What we strive for here in Atlantic County, it’s a mainstream Democratic Party. We’re not wacky San Francisco or New York City. We’re the pragmatic party that gets the working class people,” he said.
Gopal’s uphill, expensive battle
Gopal said this year’s race is his hardest campaign so far.
He said Republican tactics are “literally based on lies.” His Republican opponent, Steve Dnistrian, the owner of a communications and consulting company, has alleged Gopal supports soft-on-crime policies and “extreme” gender identity curriculum, which Gopal denies.
“Their campaign is actually pretty dangerous,” Gopal said. “It’s pretty horrific. I think it’s going to get rejected overwhelmingly on Election Day.”
Gopal is running with candidates Margie Donlon, a doctor and Ocean Township councilwoman, and Luanne Peterpaul, a former municipal court judge who would also be the first openly LGBTQ+ woman elected to the Legislature.
Dnistrian’s running mates are incumbent Assemblywomen Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner. A spokesman for Dnistrian said he was unavailable to comment.
The closely watched race is shaping up to be one of the most expensive legislative races in state history, with a huge gap between the parties. Democrats have raised and spent more than $3 million, while Republicans have raised and spent about $500,000. Democrats also have a leg up on outside funds.
One of the issues the GOP hopes will drive their voters to the polls — offshore wind — saw a major development last week when developer Ørsted said it was pulling out of its two major windfarm projects.
Froonjian said he wonders whether voters opposed to offshore wind will be less inclined to head to the polls now. Even a small number of votes can have a large impact when voter turnout is low, as it generally is when legislative races lead the ballot, he added.
“There’s been so much money spent in the 11th that we may see a little bit higher of a turnout there,” he said. “But do people say to themselves, ‘OK, well I don’t really know if I have to go out and vote on this issue anymore because we see what happened?’”
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