Could 2021 be the year that New Jersey Senate Republicans finally claw their way back from the political wilderness?
The wilderness – or, more accurately, the minority – is where they’ve been stuck for nearly 18 long years. Republicans haven’t held a majority in the State Senate since 2001, and have lost seats in nearly every cycle since then. They’re currently sitting at 15 seats, up from their 2018 low point of 14 seats but still a long way from a majority.
Moreover, they’re trying to win back territory in a state that President Joe Biden won by 16 points, and that currently gives Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy an identical 16-point polling lead over Republican nominee Jack Ciattarelli. The Senate map isn’t any friendlier to Republicans; Biden won the state’s median seat, the seat that would in theory decide the majority, by more than 18 points.
But Dan Scharfenberger, the executive director of the Senate Republican Majority Campaign Committee, is optimistic all the same that 2021 could be a great year for his party in the Senate.
Scharfenberger identified three districts – the Democratic-held 8th district, and the Republican-held 2nd and 16th districts – that will likely make up the state’s most competitive turf this fall.
Beyond those three?
“The goal this year is to put as many Republican senators in the chamber as humanly possible,” Scharfenberger said.
That means expanding into districts like the 11th, 14th, and 38th, all Democratic districts that have largely stayed off the radar this cycle after holding competitive elections in previous years. Scharfenberger said that any potential Republican majority would be built on districts like these three.
Democrats, however, are skeptical that Republicans could make a serious play for the three districts, all of which have incumbents running for re-election and which Biden won by more than 10 points.
“[Republicans] are taking the great assumption that they’re going to run the table in the races that everyone agrees are swing races, and then they’re going to win these three races that would be titanic upsets,” said Michael Muller, the executive director of the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee. “They must have some great hopes and dreams.”
Of course, Scharfenberger and Muller are both obligated to project confidence about their own party’s chances. A closer look at the three districts does indeed show a daunting challenge for Republicans, but also a glimmer of promise – if the environment changes enough for them to capitalize on it.
The 11th district
If any Democratic-held district is going to develop into a more competitive race this fall, both Muller and Scharfenberger agree that it would be the Monmouth County-based 11th district, currently held by State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch).
Gopal was first elected in 2017, defeating three-term Republican incumbent Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank) by around seven points; Beck herself defeated a Democrat to win her first term in office.
“District 11 is more of your quintessential swing district,” Muller said. “It’s a district that, for the Republicans, is the one you could make the most reasoned case about.”
The district clearly leans towards Democrats, with Joe Biden winning it by nearly 12 points last year, eight years after Barack Obama won by the same margin. But Scharfenberger still characterized it as one Republicans can win.
“This is still a Republican district,” Scharfenberger said, citing the victories of several Republican Monmouth County officials in 2020. “All the data we have suggests that it’s really a competitive district.”
None of the 11th district’s 18 municipalities have more than 40,000 people, meaning that the district is not dominated by one or two cities as some others are. The district’s small and mid-sized municipalities are diverse politically, ranging from Republican-leaning Freehold Township to the Democratic strongholds of Neptune Township and Asbury Park.
A victory for either party means running up the score in their base towns, while simultaneously holding an edge in the district’s swing municipalities. Right now, simple partisan math makes the path to victory simpler for Democrats than for Republicans.
And according to Muller, Gopal is an incumbent well-positioned to take advantage of the district’s Democratic lean.
“Vin Gopal has become a rock star in the district,” Muller said. “He’s somebody who’s very well-known, very popular, has massive cross-party support. For [Republicans] to be able to take a run at Vin Gopal – Vin Gopal knocked off a 12-year incumbent by seven points, it wasn’t even close.”
The 14th district
Moving north to the suburbs of Trenton is the 14th district, longtime competitive turf that State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) has held since her victory in a 2010 special election over appointed State Sen. Tom Goodwin (R-Hamilton).
Scharfenberger pointed to the district’s competitive past, including Greenstein’s narrow two-point win in 2013, as evidence that Republicans could have a real shot in 2021.
“The important thing to understand about the 14th district is it’s got a huge state employee population – it’s the real family suburbs of Trenton,” Scharfenberger said. “If the top of the ticket brings great headwinds our way, this is one of the districts where we’re gonna benefit hugely.”
But Muller noted that even in 2013, when Republicans had headwinds strongly in their favor, Greenstein still pulled out a win.
“Chris Christie won that district with 63% of the vote [in 2013], and they still lost the State Senate race,” Muller said. “Linda Greenstein has proven time and time again, she’s been able to buck the trends when she’s had complicated races up ticket.”
As in the 11th, the political geography of the 14th district is competitive but still clearly favors Democrats. The district is dominated by two towns, Hamilton Township in Mercer County and Monroe Township in Middlesex County; neither are blue strongholds, but both consistently back Democratic legislators and presidential nominees by modest margins.
Even in her narrow 2013 victory, Greenstein was still able to win bare majorities in both Hamilton and Monroe, showing how difficult it is for Republicans to break through in the district’s core areas.
“It’s a place where the Republican bastions of yesteryear are gone,” Muller argued. “District 14 has really moved out of play.”
The 38th district
Finally, there is the Bergen County-based 38th district, the lone Democratic-held district in North Jersey that Republicans seem to believe is in play. Republicans haven’t won the district, currently held by State Sen. Joe Lagana (D-Paramus), since they held the Senate majority two decades ago, but it did host close elections in 2011 and 2013.
“That’s a district where Democrats have grown exponentially,” Muller said. “For [Republicans] to be in a position to put 38 in play, they would need to have a massive sea change in what has gone on there historically. No one would be buying that argument based on recent election results.”
With first-time Republican candidate Richard Garcia, the Newark Board of Education Employees Credit Union CEO, in running, however, Scharfenberger says his party is hopeful the district will once again become competitive.
“We have a really extraordinary candidate [in] Ricky Garcia – somebody who can connect with the huge Hispanic population in that part of Bergen County in a really good way,” he said.
Indeed, several of the district’s largest municipalities, including Bergenfield and Lodi, have large Hispanic populations, and the district also has a sizable Asian American community. But this is not necessarily positive for Republicans, since more diverse municipalities and districts in Bergen County tend to be more friendly to Democrats.
The good news for Republicans is harder to find. Much like the 14th district, Republicans cannot count on large margins from any part of the district; in other words, they lack a clear base to draw from.
What might change?
Overall, across the three reach districts, Republicans are operating in the hypothetical – what if these districts developed into real races? – while Democrats are operating in the here and now. That inherently makes the Democratic point of view more realistic, at least for now.
But two months is a political eternity, and Scharfenberger argued that as Ciattarelli becomes more well-known in the gubernatorial race, Democratic poll numbers will begin to sink.
“Jack Ciattarelli is a huge, huge net benefit – I really want to emphasize that – to every one of our legislative candidates in every district, competitive or not,” Scharfenberger said. “When people get to know Jack Ciattarelli, they in droves come away from Phil Murphy.”
And as for whether his party’s three underdog candidates will be properly funded even with Republican attention focused on other districts, Scharfenberger once again projected confidence.
“[Fundraising] will not be a problem,” he said. “From the Senate Republican Majority PAC perspective, that is one of the cornerstones of what we do, is we put a lot of time and effort and thought into raising money continuously. It’s also a responsibility of the candidates themselves, too.”
That message of responsibility doesn’t seem to have reached the candidates themselves so far. During the primary campaign, 11th district candidate Lori Annetta brought in around $11,000, 14th district candidate Adam Elias raised $10,000 – all of it self-funded – and Garcia in the 38th district raised all of $0.
Their opponents, meanwhile, raised $1.2 million, $200,000, and $412,000, respectively. Once again, Republican hypotheticals seem at contrast with Democratic realities.
“These are all districts that Democrats have really grown in over the course of the last decade,” Muller said. “The idea of them being undone in a matter of weeks, after months have gone by and no inroads have been made – I feel very confident that we’re poised to have a strong year.”
Muller’s conviction in his party’s ability to hold the 11th, 14th, and 38th districts might be misplaced, of course. Were one to flip this November, it would not be the first time a seemingly safe district has delivered an unexpected result.
But for now – with Murphy polling well, with a huge fundraising disparity in favor of Democrats, and with Democratic incumbents unencumbered by scandal or difficulty – the verdict seems clear enough: if Republicans want to make a play for these districts, they’ll have some work to do first.