New Jersey Republicans look for lessons in losses

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By Dan Sears

New Jersey Republicans are regrouping after losing seats in the General Assembly despite many political analysts predicting the party had a shot at a majority in a state house for the first time since 1999.

There is a difference of opinion among New Jersey Republican Party leaders and political analysts about whether they have a problem with their message or brand, according to interviews conducted by Gothamist. But there is widespread agreement that Republicans need to turn more of their supporters out to vote.

“We’ve already met to talk about vote-by-mail,” Assembly Minority Leader John DiMaio said. “We did improve but we didn’t improve enough.”

More than twice as many Democrats as Republicans voted ahead of Election Day — either through mailed ballots, or early in-person voting.

“It’s going to take some time, the vote-by-mail thing,” DiMaio said. “We’re slowly integrating that in, but there’s a certain group of Republicans in New Jersey who have their own reservations about it.”

Former President Donald Trump has spoken out against mail-in voting and made false claims that it allows mass fraud. That perception is hurting the GOP in New Jersey, where there are already a million more registered Democrats than Republicans, DiMaio said, although he didn’t mention Trump by name.

DiMaio says recent increases in campaign donation limits hurt Republicans because Democrats, the state’s majority party, were able to outraise them.

Democrats had outraised Republicans $13.4 million to $4.4 million by mid-October, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. In heavily contested races, Democrats outspent Republicans by even greater amounts.

Many Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy, have said the election results are a rejection of two issues that Republicans championed this year: Opposition to offshore wind power developments and allegiance to a “parents’ rights” movement that rejects of anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ students, arguing schools are keeping parents in the dark about their children’s gender or sexual identity.

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DiMaio disagreed with the post-election analysis by Democrats, political analysts and pollsters that suggested Republicans had not talked enough about the rising cost of living and talked too much about culture war issues and wind power.

“I mean, for goodness sakes, [Democrats] want to try and fully electrify houses,” he said. Republicans object to the Murphy administration’s goal to cut all fossil fuel emissions by 2035 and replace them with solar, wind, and electric sources of energy.

But state Sen. Jon Bramnick, a moderate Westfield Republican, sees the embrace of culture war issues as a mistake.

“I think the message that people want to hear is that Republicans aren’t crazy,” Bramnick said, referring to the extreme positions taken by Donald Trump, most notably the denial of the 2020 election results. “And [voters] want to make sure that you’re not a threat to democracy. They’re not crazy about Phil Murphy, they don’t love Joe Biden — but do they trust the Republican brand?”

Bramnick is feeling encouraged after winning his own re-election handily and is considering a run for governor. But as the Republican Party has moved to the right, he has become an uncommon moderate voice on several issues. For example, Bramnick was the lone Republican to vote to allow same-day voter registrations.

In the 2021 election, Democrats lost six seats in the Assembly and an unknown conservative truck driver, Republican Ed Durr, stunned the political world by beating Democrat and then-Senate President Steven Sweeney. Durr’s victory and the GOP’s gains seemed to indicate more support for MAGA Republicans than many political observers previously expected.

This year, school board activists, pollsters and political science professors said they believed Republicans would make further gains. But after Democrats captured back all those losses, political analysts and members of both parties are questioning whether the Republicans’ strategy is dooming them to minority status in the state.

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“In the past, the state Republican Party has really insulated itself from the image of the national Republican Party,” Monmouth Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray said. As the national party has dug in on cultural issues, New Jersey Republicans kept their focus practical. “New Jersey Republicans were able to say, ‘Well, that’s not what we’re about when we talk about state issues. We’re just about economics, taxes, property taxes and keeping government spending down.’”

But this year, many Republicans campaigned against Gov. Phil Murphy’s plans for wind turbines off the Jersey coast, blaming wind development for this year’s uptick in whale deaths, even though no turbines have yet been built and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there’s no evidence of a connection between whale deaths and wind.

And there was some reason to believe that messaging could be effective. Monmouth polled New Jersey residents about wind energy in August and found the widespread bipartisan support for it seen just four years earlier had dropped, particularly among Republicans.

But Murray says Democrats were able to pivot away from wind energy by talking about abortion and the high cost of living in New Jersey. “Democrats made an initial error in responding to Republicans on their own terms by letting Republicans control that issue rather than moving away from it,” Murray said.

Harry Hurley, a conservative talk show host on WPG in Atlantic City, doesn’t believe culture war issues hurt Republican candidates — except on abortion rights, an issue that Democrats were able to raise effectively after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“I do believe the abortion issue was very, very powerful for Democrats where they could tag a Republican as being anti-woman’s right to control of her body,” Hurley said. Republicans “have to be able to explain the decision. That it’s a states’ rights issue, that it was not about denying a woman control of her body. I think some of the candidates that have positions without exception of rape, incest and things like that — it’s a big problem.”

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But even if Republicans reframe their message on abortion to focus on it being something each state should decide, they still have a problem, Murray, the pollster at Monmouth University, said. In his two election victories for governor, Chris Christie succeeded while taking a stand against abortion because it wasn’t an issue that would be decided by the state at the time.

“Abortion was never going to be an issue that he dealt with as governor – that equation has changed,” Murray said. “Now there’s a sense that these issues, these cultural issues, are things that the Republicans are going to put at the top of their agenda instead of the tax cuts and government spending that’s been their bread and butter in terms of them being able to win elections here in the state.”

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