New Jersey Republicans eye election gains despite uphill climb

New Jersey’s legislative elections Tuesday could be the best opportunity for Republicans to win control of either house of the Legislature in years.

Democrats have had control of the state Senate and state General Assembly for almost 20 years, and the party has a significant voter registration advantage. This presents an uphill battle for Republicans trying to win back a majority in the comfortably blue state.

But the GOP is more optimistic this year about its chances given the state and national political environment and recent close races in the state.

“New Jersey’s a blue state, and I think that’s hard to argue, but it’s not necessarily a far-left state,” said New Jersey-based Republican strategist Chris Russell. “I think there’s a wake-up call for Democrats.”

Members of both parties said the chances for Republicans to actually win a majority in either house seem slim, but they could be in a strong position to at least pick up more seats and narrow Democrats’ margins.

On the federal level, New Jersey has been one of the most consistently blue states in recent history. It has voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in every election since 1992 with Bill Clinton, and it has not elected a Republican senator since 1972.

But state-level elections reveal a slightly different story.

Before Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D) reelection in 2021, New Jersey had not reelected a Democratic governor since 1977, and several Republicans had been elected to two terms since then, most recently in 2013 with former Gov. Chris Christie (R).

Despite Murphy being expected to easily win reelection in 2021, he won by only about 3 points against Republican Jack Ciattarelli.

Still, Democrats have enjoyed majorities in both houses for two decades without interruption. But Republicans may have several reasons to feel more hopeful this time coming off unexpected success in 2021.

At the same time as the gubernatorial race, Republicans picked up a half dozen seats in the General Assembly and two in the Senate. The most notable success was upsetting long-time then-Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) with now-state Sen. Ed Durr’s (R) victory.

Republicans and Democrats acknowledged the role that fiscal issues and affordability will play in the race as New Jersey residents pay some of the highest property taxes in the country and have a high cost of living.

The race has also picked up some national storylines through local issues happening in the state.

Parental rights in students’ education has been a galvanizing issue for Republicans nationwide. In New Jersey, the state has filed lawsuits against three public school districts that adopted policies requiring teachers to notify a student’s parents if they change their gender identity.

At least one poll showed the state’s policies might be out of step with many New Jersey residents, as a Monmouth University survey found in August that 77 percent of adults in the state believe middle schools and high schools should be required to notify parents of a change in gender identity.

During his second term, Murphy has championed an offshore wind project that would generate electricity by putting wind farms in the Atlantic Ocean. The project would contribute to the Biden administration’s call for using wind as a cleaner form of energy to limit climate change.

But the proposal, which had previously received strong bipartisan support, has become a political issue with Republicans turning sharply against it. A Monmouth poll from August found just more than half of residents support offshore wind farm construction, down from 76 percent in 2019 and 84 percent in 2011.

The change was mostly fueled by Republican sentiment turning against it.

Republicans, including former President Trump, applauded after the company contracted to build the farm canceled its projects Tuesday over construction delays and rising interest rates.

Opponents have argued the farms would hurt tourism and are contributing to an increase in the deaths of whales and other sea life.

“I think one of the reasons why Gov. Murphy almost lost in 2021, which no one saw coming, he has just gone too far,” Russell said.

Theresa Furmato Vilardi, the executive director of the New Jersey GOP, said this year is the time to put a “check” on Murphy’s agenda and Republicans are on the offensive.

“The majority of voters have grown tired of total Democrat control in Trenton and agree with us on the issues that are top of mind for most residents: affordability, parents’ rights, and Murphy’s outrageous energy policies,” Vilardi said. “All you need to do is look at the money they’re spending to see that Democrats know they’re in trouble and are scared like never before.”

Democrats expressed confidence about their chances to keep control of both houses but acknowledged Republicans’ chances of picking up seats.

New Jersey Democratic Party spokesperson Phil Swibinski said Democrats are “optimistic” about their prospects in the races but are “definitely not taking anything for granted.”

He said the party recognizes affordability in the state as one of the key issues and has been active in addressing the issue in the past few years, pointing to the ANCHOR tax relief program that provides tax relief for renters and homeowners up to a certain income and StayNJ the program to cut property taxes for senior citizens.

Swibinski said 2021 was a “unique” time in which the state and country were coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a difficult time for Democrats, but it won’t translate to this election.

“We want to make sure that we’re competitive on Election Day with the people who are voting on Tuesday but working hard to build vote-by-mail advantages. That’s certainly a key part of the strategy,” he said.

Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky, who has advised multiple New Jersey officials, said Republicans will not win majorities in either house based on the breakdown of the legislative map, which was set by an independent commission.

She said the map has set up Democrats on defense in some districts and Republicans on defense in others.

Roginsky added that the off-year legislative elections in the state usually focus on fiscal issues, but the contests have been nationalized with Democrats talking about abortion and Republicans talking about parents’ choice.

“There’s been less laser-focus on fiscal issues than in prior years, and so this is a bit of an experiment that’s never been played out in New Jersey before, and it remains to be seen what’s gonna happen,” she said.

Democratic strategist Brendan Gill, who has advised Murphy and other New Jersey Democrats, said Democrats have to push against “strong headwinds” with a Democratic incumbent entering his sixth year in office as governor, but the party’s candidates have significantly outraised their Republican counterparts.

He argued that the results from the Monmouth poll on parental notification for gender identity changes might be misleading about many voters’ positions on the issue.

“Parental choice and parental notification are something that always gonna have broad support. Who’s gonna say they don’t want to be able to be actively involved and aware of what’s going on at school and what’s being reported?” Gill said. “But I think there’s a fine line there between that and also the protections that we have in New Jersey, for things of that nature.”

Gill also emphasized that without a main statewide race, each contest will have unique characteristics, and the most poignant issues may vary from district to district.

“Each of these districts also have kind of their own unique flavor based on how they participate in the economy in New Jersey,” he said.

“The issue of wind is probably much more significant in District 11, which is in Monmouth County and also on the shore than it is in District 38 or District 3 or 4,” Gill added, noting some of the closely contested districts. “And it might play different in those places.”

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