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State Sen. Vin Gopal. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Congressional Dems won most districts on 2023 legislative playing field

Democrats carried 29 of 40 legislative districts, showing tough path for Republican gains next year

By Joey Fox, December 02 2022 6:35 pm

After a stellar 2021 that saw the party net seven seats in the state legislature, New Jersey Republicans have spent the last year hyping up their chances in 2023, when they hope to further erode the Democratic majority on the state’s new legislative map. There’s even been some guarded optimism about a path to securing a Republican majority in one or both chambers for the first time in decades.

Last month’s congressional elections, however, showed that flipping the legislature – or even gaining seats at all – may be a tough climb for Republicans.

Democratic congressional candidates carried 29 legislative districts overall, including six districts that currently send at least one Republican legislator to Trenton; Republican candidates did not carry a single district represented by a Democrat. Many of the districts Republicans hope to target in 2023, in fact, went Democratic by double digits.

New Jerseyans tend to vote differently in federal elections than they do in state-level elections, so this year’s results are hardly a death-knell for the party. Turnout in off-year elections is also quite different, meaning that a very dissimilar electorate may come to the polls next year.

Even still, Republicans’ disappointing 2022 cycle should serve as something of a reality check.

Given how well congressional Democrats did across the legislative playing field, legislative Republicans can’t necessarily count on a red wave to carry the day in 2023. If they want a larger minority caucus, or even a majority, they’ll have to win in a large number of districts that voted for Democratic congressional candidates even with a Democratic president in the White House – not an impossible task, but a difficult one.

South Jersey

The Republican Party’s biggest gains in 2021 came out of South Jersey, where Democratic power broker George Norcross’ dominance was shattered by Jack Ciattarelli’s powerhouse gubernatorial campaign. Riding on Ciattarelli’s coattails, Republicans flipped six seats across three legislative districts and shockingly defeated seemingly invincible Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford).

With full control over the 2nd, 3rd, and 8th districts following the 2021 elections, Republicans are now looking to flip the 4th district, which was made substantially redder on the state’s new legislative map. In order to make serious gains in the legislature, the party will likely have to win all four competitive South Jersey districts.

Democratic congressional candidates, however, carried two of the four districts this year; the 4th and 8th districts were won by Democratic candidates, while the 2nd and 3rd went for Republicans.

The biggest bright spot for Republicans is the Atlantic County-based 2nd district, where State Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Egg Harbor) and Assemblymembers Don Guardian (R-Atlantic City) and Claire Swift (R-Margate) hope to win again in the state’s most perennially competitive legislative seat.

With Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis) coasting to a third term over underfunded Democrat Tim Alexander, Atlantic County swung hard to the right, and the 2nd legislative district (which covers most of the county) went red along with it. Van Drew won the 2nd legislative district by seven points, 53%-46%, a colossal rightward swing from Joe Biden’s 12-point win two years ago.

Atlantic Democrats, having largely given up on Alexander this year, will no doubt bring much more energy and money to the race against Polistina and his team. But the total collapse in support the party has seen in the last two election cycles – both in swingy suburbs like Egg Harbor Township and in the majority-minority cities of Atlantic City and Pleasantville – is a foreboding sign.

Republicans can also feel somewhat optimistic about the 3rd district, Sweeney’s former district, which is split between Van Drew and Rep. Donald Norcross (D-Camden). Both Van Drew and Norcross did quite well in their respective parts of the district, creating something of a split decision.

Republican candidates collectively won the 3rd legislative district by six points, 52%-46%, a slight improvement from Donald Trump’s three-point win in 2020 but a major collapse compared to the 16-point margin Ciattarelli got last year. State Sen. Ed Durr (R-Logan) and his running mates should be favored for re-election, though if Sweeney tries for a comeback bid, that could change.

The one remaining offensive target for South Jersey Republicans is the 4th district, where State Sen. Fred Madden (D-Washington) might retire rather than face his toughest re-election fight in years. The bipartisan deal map approved by the Legislative Apportionment Commission made the district much more Republican, and Republicans see the 4th district as one of their two best opportunities in 2023.

Thanks to Donald Norcross’ strength, however, Democrats carried this district this year by eight points, 53%-45%. That’s not to say Republicans can’t win – Ciattarelli won the district by five points just last year – but the party was certainly hoping for a more promising result.

Finally, in the 8th district, which covers the more conservative half of Burlington County, Rep. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown)’s dominant victory over Republican Bob Healey powered Democrats to a small win. Kim and Alexander collectively carried the 8th legislative district by two points, 51%-48%.

8th district Republicans have a strong ticket-leader in State Sen. Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton), who defeated party-switching State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) in 2021, and Democrats are doubtful they can unseat Stanfield in a redder district. Still, their performance this year is a signal that the 8th district remains a danger spot for Republicans.

Central Jersey

The loosely defined region of Central Jersey, meanwhile, has three highly competitive legislative districts, each with a dramatically different story to tell.

First, there’s the Monmouth County-based 11th district, which is currently represented by the legislature’s only bipartisan delegation. State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) narrowly won re-election last year as Marilyn Piperno (R-Colts Neck) and Kim Eulner (R-Shrewsbury) defeated two Democratic incumbents in the Assembly.

Encouragingly for Gopal, Democrats collectively carried the 11th legislative district by three points this year, 51%-48% – even though around 40% of the district is represented by Rep. Chris Smith (R-Manchester), who romped to victory against deeply underfunded Democrat Matt Jenkins.

There’s a lot still unsettled about the 11th district campaign, including whether Piperno or Eulner will challenge Gopal and who the Democratic candidates for Assembly will be. The one guarantee, reinforced by this year’s close congressional result, is that neither party can take any of their seats for granted.

The 16th legislative district, which includes Princeton as well as more conservative towns in Somerset and Hunterdon Counties, was the biggest Democratic bright spot of 2021. Then-Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick) flipped the district’s open Senate seat, while Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough) and now-Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer (D-Montgomery) held two Assembly seats.

Now running in a slightly more Republican district, all three hope to continue the winning streak that began when Zwicker first won an Assembly seat in 2015. 

Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) together carried the 16th legislative district by 12 points this year, 55%-44%, even as both underperformed Joe Biden and Malinowski lost re-election to Rep.-elect Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield). Somerset County is much more ancestrally Republican downballot, but that’s a large margin that will be tough for Republicans to overcome in 2023.

Speaking of ancestral Republicans, no district in the state matches that description better than the 21st, a Union County-based district that’s elected Republican legislators (among them Kean) for decades despite getting bluer and bluer in federal races.

Four different Democratic congressional candidates collectively won the 21st district by 10 points this year, 55%-45%. Even though they’ve beaten back partisan realignment time and time again, that should convince State Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) and his Assembly running mates to be well-prepared for next year.

There’s one other district in Central Jersey, the Hamilton Township-based 14th, that Republicans frequently talk up as a potential target, but it’s a serious longshot. Democratic congressional candidates won it by 15 points, 57%-42%, an indication that Republicans would probably only be competitive there in a red tsunami.

North Jersey

Though it makes up a near-majority of the state’s legislative districts, North Jersey has been less of a focus for both parties in the 21st century. There have been some close calls, but the last time a North Jersey legislative seat flipped from one party to another was all the way back in 2005, when former Assembly Minority Leader Paul DiGaetano (R-Franklin Lakes) retired from the 36th district to run for governor and was succeeded by Democrat Gary Schaer (D-Passaic).

That stasis could continue in 2023; Republicans and Democrats both have several North Jersey districts they want to flip, but at least right now, few of them look likely to become truly top-tier races next year.

There are two districts, both in Bergen County, that Republicans hope to gain from Democrats: the 36th and the 38th, represented by State Sens. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) and Joe Lagana (D-Paramus), respectively.

Both were carried handily by Democratic congressional candidates this year; Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) won the 36th district by eight points, 54%-45%, despite underperforming overall, and Pascrell and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) collectively won the 38th district by 12 points, 55%-44%.

Democrats, on the other hand, may have more potential upside in North Jersey. The 25th, 39th, and 40th districts are all ancestrally Republican, but all voted for Democratic congressional candidates: the 25th district went Democratic by five points (52%-47%), the 39th by three points (51%-48%), and the 40th by a tiny 0.3 point margin (49.7%-49.4%) – just 270 votes.

The win in the 40th district, powered by Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair)’s dominant victory in the 11th congressional district over Republican Paul DeGroot, is especially notable given that legislative Democrats haven’t seriously contested the district in decades. It’s also the only potentially competitive district to have a confirmed open seat so far, with Assemblyman Kevin Rooney (R-Wyckoff) retiring, likely to be replaced by Essex County Republican chair Al Barlas.

Tickets led by State Sens. Anthony M. Bucco (R-Boonton), Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale), and Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa) are favored going into 2023, and it would be a surprise if any of them lost – but congressional Democrats have proven it’s at least possible for the party to carry all of their districts, even in a midterm under a Democratic president.

That leaves the final statewide tally at 29 Democratic-carried districts, including six partially or fully represented by Republican legislators, and 11 Republican-carried ones.

Democrats can’t possibly hope to win every legislative district they carried this year, for a whole host of reasons. Moderates who liked Sherrill or Gottheimer may also like their local Republican legislators; voter turnout will be significantly different next year than it was this year; and, most fundamentally, using one type of election to forecast another will always lead predictions astray.

The warning sign for Republicans, though, is that despite their hopes for further legislative gains, they’re the ones who are more overexposed in a neutral environment. If 2023 is a red wave year like 2021, the party could have another great night; if it’s more like 2022, on the other hand, they should prepare for the possibility that their minority caucus will shrink once again.

2022 Congress by leg - Overview
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