N.J. Republicans cite mail-in voting and messaging as lessons of election losses
There needs to be some introspection among New Jersey Republicans after their lackluster showing on Tuesday, some GOP officials say. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
New Jersey Republicans went into Election Day with high hopes, believing they could end Democratic majorities that have endured for 20 years.
Instead, Democrats flipped five seats in the Assembly, allowing the party to increase its control of that chamber, and reclaimed the 3rd District Senate seat they lost in 2021.
In the aftermath of the GOP’s lackluster showing Tuesday, Republican officials and operatives are stressing the importance of mail-in voting to the GOP’s electoral future, urging the party’s legislative candidates to temper campaign messaging, and sounding the alarm about Democrats’ dramatic fundraising advantages.
“There needs to be some introspection, and we need to shake off this loss and start the fight for the next round,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth).
If anything drove the Democratic victories, it’s mail-in voting. Democratic candidates in the state’s competitive districts built margins of thousands of votes before polls opened on Election Day.
The party has spent decades building out its vote-by-mail operations, particularly in Camden and Middlesex counties. Republicans, by comparison, are vote-by-mail neophytes whose voters still regard the practice with a degree of skepticism borne out of former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread fraud.
The GOP has increasingly sought to convert its voters, who typically cast machine ballots on Election Day, into mail voters in recent years. And though the number of Republicans who returned mail-in ballots before Election Day declined by about 30,000 from 2021, GOP returns rose in most competitive districts.
“We made some small strides in this area, which continues to be our biggest Achilles heel, but they’ve been working on this for 20 years,” said Tom Szymanski, former executive director of the Republican State Committee. “Our people are only just starting to wake up to this in the last year or two, and a lot of people still aren’t getting with the program.”
Some Republicans simply like casting ballots on a voting machine, he said, and others still distrust mail-in and early voting, wrongly believing votes cast before Election Day are less likely to be counted.
The advantages of mail-in voting are numerous and varied. The practice eases Election Day get-out-the-vote operations and, more importantly, pushes some voters to cast ballots in off-year elections they would typically skip.
“Republicans need to understand, especially ones who don’t vote in 100% of the elections: Democrats are not cannibalizing their own voting base by converting them to pre-Election Day voters,” Szymanski said. “What they’ve done is they’ve converted a significantly high portion of their mid- and low-propensity voters into every-year voters.”
Voters who request a mail-in ballot are mailed such a ballot for future elections unless they opt out, and that perpetual vote-by-mail list has successfully driven up turnout. This year’s mail-in and early in-person voting turnout is near what would be seen in a gubernatorial year or during congressional midterms.
Sen. Michael Testa (R-Cumberland), who also serves as the county GOP chairman, said embracing mail-in ballots has boosted Republican voter turnout there. Other counties still are playing catch-up, he said, which could contribute to the lackluster support for Republican candidates statewide. Cumberland County saw big wins for Republicans Tuesday.
“People were very skeptical because they believed the national rhetoric that their vote was not going to be counted. So what we need to do is instill the belief that it’s true that Republican votes will of course be counted,” he said.
On campaign messaging, New Jersey Republicans have sparred for years over whether to moderate their messaging to appeal to independents wearied by the harsh rhetoric and animus that has colored recent elections, or take a more Trump-like approach to winning votes.
Republicans scored local victories in some Democratic towns despite the dismal showing at the state level, and at least some of those local candidates sailed to victory after ignoring the culture-centric messaging adopted by candidates further up the ballot.
Local Republican victories in moderate or Democratic-leaning Union County towns like Summit, Westfield, and possibly Cranford were carried more by local issues than they were by Republicans’ legislative campaign platform, which focused on opposition to wind energy, culture issues in schools, and crime.
“We localized the elections. The areas, even in Union County, that tried to make it about national issues or even state issues at large didn’t fare so well,” said Glenn Mortimer, the Union County Republican chairman.
The local issues included real estate development and homelessness. Wind energy seldom came up on the campaign trail, Mortimer said, and school rules around transgender children and lessons were only slightly more common.
There’s some room for flexibility, Mortimer said, and those issues resonated more in more conservative areas of the state, like its southeast or northwest, than in counties like Union. But some moderates charged Republicans must rein in their messaging and avoid the vitriol that has increasingly colored GOP campaigns.
“Democrats can simply point to Republicans and say, ‘That’s not a brand you want to vote for, right?’” said Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union), a moderate who won reelection by just over 5,000 votes. “I think that’s what independent voters saw. They didn’t want to vote for the brand, especially many women.”
The party needs to tone down its messaging and repudiate Trump to win independent voters, Bramnick said, adding he believes the GOP’s focus on slogans like “parental rights” over frank policy discussions also hurt the party.
“You have to actually discuss the issue. It looks like we’re just lashing out and we’re not discussing the underlying issue,” Bramnick said. “The swing voters, then, are going to be concerned about Republicans because there has to be mature, adult conversations on these issues, not just a hostile approach.”
One of this year’s most closely watched races was in the 11th District, where Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) handily defeated Republican Steve Dnistrian.
The race in the 11th District will be one of the most expensive in state history, and it looks like it was worth it for the Democrats to invest over $6 million there. Gopal held his seat, and Democrats flipped the two Assembly seats.
Statewide, Democrats outspent Republicans by almost three times — $13.8 million versus $5 million, according to numbers released by the Election Law Enforcement Commission in mid-October.
In the 11th District, Democrats outspent Republicans 7-to-1. In the 3rd District, where Democratic former Assemblyman John Burzichelli ousted GOP Sen. Ed Durr, Democrats spent $380,279 while their opponents spent just $132,549.
Testa said Durr won a surprise victory against Democrats in 2021 on a shoestring budget largely because his candidacy was ignored, but his reelection effort stumbled this year because Durr faced fundraising challenges and incessant attacks from Democrats on his abortion stance.
“I think those commercials against him were extremely powerful, and it certainly resonated with the voters in Gloucester County,” Testa said.
In districts without “overwhelming spending,” O’Scanlon said, the Republican agenda resonated with voters, noting his own victory and other GOP races around the state.
Still, he said Tuesday night should be “a warning sign and a wake-up call” for the GOP.
“In New Jersey, we definitely have to up our fundraising game and come up with motivational methods to get the voter base out there,” he said.
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