Legislative Democrats had high hopes for 2021. They had several Republican districts within reach of flipping, strong incumbents in their own seats, and a relatively popular governor well ahead in the polls.
But instead of cementing their legislative majorities, Democrats shockingly lost a net seven seats, including in districts where they had been strong favorites. And in all five of the cycle’s five most competitive districts – the 2nd, 3rd, 8th, 11th, and 16th – Murphy did worse than his Senate Democratic counterparts, indicating that the governor was more of a drag than a boon for legislative Democrats.
In the 2nd district, commonly regarded before the election as one of the state’s two premier races, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield) fell just short, losing to State Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Egg Harbor Township) by around four points. His Assembly running mates, Assemblyman John Armato (D-Buena) and Atlantic County Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick, did slightly worse, collectively getting a little under 47% of the vote.
But all three outran Murphy, who lost the district by eight points to Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli, 54-46%, four years after winning the district by 17 points against then-Lieutenant Gov. Kim Guadagno.
Murphy performed badly in Atlantic County across the board this year, winning only Atlantic City and Pleasantville as he lost the county by more than 11 points. Mazzeo similarly lost most municipalities, but did win his hometown of Northfield, and kept his losing margins down in other parts of the county.
The story was similar in the Burlington County-based 8th district, where party-switching State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) narrowly lost her bid to retain the seat for her adopted party. Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R-Southampton) won by two points and Ciattarelli won by six points; Murphy won the district by two points last time around.
In neither the 2nd nor the 8th district were there any clinching factors that gave legislative Democrats a clear leg up over Murphy. But in nearly every municipality across both districts – save for heavily Democratic hubs like Atlantic City and Westampton, where Murphy didn’t noticeably underperform – Addiego and Mazzeo consistently outran the top of the ticket by between three and six points.
That kind of difference in margin proved crucial in the 11th district, where State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) was re-elected despite Ciattarelli carrying his district. Gopal won by four points and carried municipalities like Neptune City, Ocean Township, Tinton Falls; Murphy lost by three and carried none of those.
Gopal’s Assembly running mates, Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Freehold) and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling (D-Neptune) weren’t as fortunate. They, too, outran Murphy, but still lost to Republicans Marilyn Piperno and Kimberly Eulner.
No overperformance was more lopsided, however, than that of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), whose shock three-point loss in the 3rd district was still a drastic improvement on Murphy’s 15-point loss there. Murphy may have won the district by eight points in 2017, but this year, the governor only managed to win a few scattered municipalities.
Sweeney, meanwhile, nearly carried a majority of the district’s municipalities, just not quite enough to win. In this light, Sweeney’s hugely unexpected loss to a candidate who raised virtually no money begins to make more sense – after all, he did still outrun the top of the ticket by 12 points.
Finally, the 16th district – home to none other than Jack Ciattarelli – saw Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick) flip the Senate seat for his party by 6.4 points, slightly better than Murphy’s 6.1 point margin, which remained essentially unchanged from 2017.
Murphy’s solid margin in the 16th district was consistent with a campaign that saw the governor fall short of his goals nearly everywhere except suburban North Jersey. In many affluent suburban districts, Murphy both got similar margins as he did in his 2017 run and outran his legislative counterparts.
In the 21st district, for example, Murphy won by two points, but enough voters split their tickets to elect Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) to the Senate by seven points. Next door in the 25th district, State Sen. Anthony M. Bucco (R-Boonton) won re-election by over 15 points as Ciattarelli prevailed by a comparatively small seven-point margin.
Thus, like any election, there isn’t one single conclusion to draw. Murphy did not universally underperform legislative Democrats, nor did every local candidate connect with their own district better than the governor did.
But on the whole, Murphy was rarely a help for his legislative partners, and often seemed to be a clear hindrance. 2021 was a tough year for New Jersey Democrats – and even the first re-elected Democratic governor since 1977 couldn’t lift his party up.
This story was updated at 7:03 p.m. to correct an error; Anthony M. Bucco is the state senator for the 25th district, not Joe Pennacchio.