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Former U.S. Senator Bob Torricelli at the Hunterdon County Democratic convention in 2018.

The prescience of Bob Torricelli

In 1982, Torricelli argued that the Democratic big tent was too big

By David Wildstein, August 14 2019 12:50 pm

A victory speech delivered by Democrat Bob Torricelli on the night of his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 looks extraordinarily prescient nearly 37 years later.

“Ours is the first political party to fail to develop a consistent program, not because we represent too few interests, but because we seek to represent too many,” Torricelli said.

As Torricelli saw it, the expanding big tent of the Democratic Party had become unwieldy.

Jump ahead three decades and Torricelli’s prophecy of a party that has become too big to manage rings true in New Jersey, where there is a clear divide within a Democratic Party sharply divided between two factions.

Torricelli’s point at the time was that the Democratic-controlled Congress had a block of conservative Democrats mostly from the South known as the “Boll Weevils,” who regularly voted with House Republicans to support President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and defense spending initiatives.

New Jersey politics in 2019 is dominated by a feud between Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney, both Democrats who come from different wings of the same party.

Grassroots progressive activists often allied with Murphy are increasingly showing their teeth in fights with Sweeney and Democratic powerbroker George Norcross, whom they view as enablers of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

Norcross has threatened to back a candidate against Murphy in the 2021 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

The Boll Weevils eventually rebranded themselves as the “Blue Dogs.” The current House Blue Dog Coalition has 27 members, including New Jersey Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff), Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) and Jeff Van Drew (D-Dennis).

In 1981, four New Jersey Republican House members — Reps. Millicent Fenwick (R-Bernardsville), Marge Roukema (R-Ridgewood),  Harold Hollenbeck (R-Rutherford) and freshman Christopher Smith (R-Hamilton) — became part of the “Gypsy Moths,” a coalition of northeast moderate Republicans who looked to counter the clout of the Boll Weevils.  The Gypsy Moths opposed efforts by Reagan to cut funding for mass transit agencies and possible cuts to Social Security.

Hollenbeck was defeated for re-election to a fourth term in 1982 by Torricelli after congressional redistricting made New Jersey’s 9th much more Democratic.  Torricelli won by 13,068 votes, 53%-46%, in the Reagan mid-term election.

New Jersey Republicans have faced ideological divides for more than 50 years, with the fight intensifying during the race for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination between conservative Barry Goldwater and moderate or left-of-center Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton.

New Jersey conservatives took out an incumbent governor in 1973 and a four-term United States Senator in 1978.

Rep. Charles Sandman (R-Cape May Landing) beat Gov. William Cahill in the GOP primary by a 58%-41% margin.  Jeff Bell, who worked as a Reagan speechwriter in 1976, ousted Case by 4,473 votes, 51%-49%.

New Jersey has still not seen an epoch statewide Democratic primary election fought along ideological grounds.

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