What Happened? GOP Trounced in NJ Legislative Elections
New Jersey Republicans failed to capitalize on at least a perceived momentum and connect with key independent voters in their effort to take control of at least one house of the state legislature.
Optimism about flipping some key Assembly seats quickly evaporated on election night as Democratic voters headed to the polls and independent voters largely stayed home.
New polling data also showed that issues many believed would help Republicans in this year's election, failed to produce the votes they needed to win.
Where Republicans lost big in New Jersey
Some races have yet to be called, but Democrats retained control in enough seats to block the GOP's effort to retake one or both chambers for the first time in more than two decades.
Democrat John Burzichelli defeated Republican Ed Durr, who stunned Senate President Steve Sweeney two years ago by beating him in a race that few expected would be competitive that year.
Burzichelli, a longtime lawmaker and former appropriations committee chairman, was ousted alongside Sweeney in 2021 by Durr, a truck driver who hadn't been elected before, and his running mates.
State Sen. Vin Gopal defeated Republican Steve Dnistrian in a race that, despite predictions, wasn't even close.
Gopal's running mates Margie Donlon and Luanne Peterpaul also defeated Republican incumbents in the same district.
This was a key pick-up for Democrats in the Assembly.
In southern New Jersey’s 4th District, Democrat Paul Moriarty won the open state Senate seat, defeating Republican Chris Del Borrello and keeping the seat in Democratic hands after the retirement of incumbent Fred Madden.
A bright spot for Republicans was Owen Henry's victory in the state Senate in the 12th District, which was open because of Democrat Sam Thompson's retirement.
Thompson is a long-time Republican who left the party this year after he said he was likely to face a primary challenger.
The Democratic wins are a departure from two years ago when Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy won a closer-than-expected contest against his GOP challenger and Republicans netted seven seats in legislative races. The results ensure Murphy will have a Democratic Legislature in the final two years of his second term.
What motivated New Jersey voters?
There was increasing talk ahead of Election Day that a key deciding issue would be parental rights.
A poll released Oct. 18 from Fairleigh Dickinson University found while "New Jersey residents favor Democratic over Republican candidates in the upcoming race for the state legislature, Republican attacks based on parental control of schools cut into those margins substantially."
In areas where there were hotly contested school board races, where parental rights were the central issue, it was thought voters would transfer those votes up the column for GOP candidates.
That didn't happen.
Even in Monmouth County's 11th district, the epicenter of the fight over parental rights, Republican Steve Dnistrian lost in a landslide. Dnistrian said a top issue he heard from voters was concern that parents didn’t have enough control over school districts.
That may very well be the case, but it did not translate into votes for Dnistrian.
Republican State Party Chairman Bob Hugin proclaimed the GOP was talking about issues that mattered to the public.
“The biggest thing is the issues that we have raised are the ones that voters want to talk about. We changed the dialog in the state,” he said.
Hugin was largely silent as it became clear it was not a good night for Republicans. He and his county chairmen are now left to lick their wounds and try to regroup for the 2025 gubernatorial election. The Assembly will also stand for reelection in 2025.
Democratic Senate President Nicholas Scutari said in a phone interview with the Associated Press that Democrats won because they listened to voters on affordability and women's reproductive health.
New poll shows the old issues remain
While a new poll from the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers shows parental involvement in education is mentioned by 57% of voters as a 'major factor,' is it far from the top issue.
As they have been for decades, issues surrounding affordability (87%), the economy (87%) and property taxes (83%) are the top issues for New Jersey voters.
Gun violence (70%) has been an increasing issue among voters over the last decade.
While Democrats did campaign on abortion and reproductive rights, at 59% it had about the same impact on voters' motivation as parental rights.
The bottom line
Republicans did miss a prime opportunity to flip contested seats and claim control of the New Jersey Assembly.
The losses now ensure that Democratic Governor Phil Murphy will finish his term with a Democratic legislature that will likely help him with his agenda.
Based on unofficial vote totals being reported by county elections officials, turnout may have been lower than expected.
The last time legislative elections topped the ticket in New Jersey was 2019, when turnout was 27%.
Statewide turnout for this election could be as low as 20 - 25% of eligible voters.
That would suggest that while Democrats and Republicans were able to mobilize a portion of their base, unaffiliated voters largely stayed home.
Voters who have not declared for a specific party historically have not voted in large numbers in off-year elections.
While Democrats still outnumber Republicans in terms of voter registration, 39% to 24%, 37% of registered voters in New Jersey are unaffiliated.
Those largely independent voters have offset Democratic margins in the past helping Republican candidates to win even in districts where Democrats hold the edge in terms of registration.
This article contains additional reporting from the Associated Press.
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