State Sen. Sam Thompson (D-Old Bridge)’s dramatic and unexpected party switch from Republican to Democrat was the talk of Trenton today, with legislators from both parties exhibiting various stages of excitement, shock, dismay, and confusion in conversations up and down the statehouse.
But on the record, legislators of both parties were hesitant to say anything too definitive about the 87-year-old Thompson, who had been facing the strong possibility of losing Republican organizational support after party leaders began agitating for a younger candidate.
Among Republican legislators, the prevailing sentiment was disappointment in their longtime colleague and friend.
“The circumstances are unfortunate, but we’ve got to move forward,” State Sen. Doug Steinhardt (R-Lopatcong) said. “So I look forward to making sure we fill his seat with an able-bodied Republican.”
“I’m surprised, and certainly disappointed to hear it,” agreed Assemblyman Alex Sauickie (R-Jackson), who represents the 12th legislative district alongside Thompson. “I knew him to be a conservative, so to see him with the Democratic Party – it’s unfortunate.”
Several Republicans, including State Sens. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa) and Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver), declined to go on the record at all – an indication of how sensitive the topic of Thompson’s defection remains for now.
Every member of the Republican Senate caucus had signed a statement just last week affirming their support for incumbents facing primary challenges, among them Thompson, who was under threat from Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry in the 12th district primary. (With Thompson now running as a Democrat, Henry is the prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination in the strongly Republican district.)
The party switch is still in its very early stages; during a meeting of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Thompson sat with Senate Democrats, but as of this morning his desk remains on the Republican side in the Senate chambers. He also remains listed as a Republican on the official legislative website, though he’s been removed from the Senate GOP website’s list of Republican senators.
Only a few hours after they learned about his switch to begin with, Democrats greeted him into their caucus with guarded optimism today.
“This is news to me, as it is to everybody else,” Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) said. “We’re just taking all the information in as it stands.”
“In politics, you never know, from one day to the next, what’s going to happen,” State Sen. and former Gov. Richard Codey (D-Roseland) said. “He’s a very, very nice gentleman, and I wish him nothing but the best of luck.”
Such sentiments have largely been echoed by top Democratic leaders like Gov. Phil Murphy and Middlesex Democratic Chair Kevin McCabe as well as the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, all of whom welcomed Thompson to the party but did not endorse him for re-election.
One person who was unwilling to mince words, however, was Thompson himself, who blasted the local leaders who wanted him gone and the ageism that he said was driving them.
“I decided to do this because my party leadership had abandoned me,” he said in a press gaggle interview that ultimately took an uncomfortable turn. “Do I want to stay with people that want to cut my throat like that?”
Thompson also called Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho (R-Franklin) an “asshole,” saying that the Republican leader had not allowed him to say goodbye to his Republican colleagues. Oroho, for his part, said that Thompson had not even called Republican leaders before announcing that he was switching parties.
“It’s clear he made a unilateral decision to switch parties without talking to anyone from either side,” Oroho said. “This afternoon, Sen. Thompson became extremely agitated after he was denied entry to our budget committee pre-meeting in the Senate Republican caucus room. He didn’t seem to understand that it was inappropriate for him to try to join us after he announced he had become a Democrat.”
One big open question is how Thompson will vote going forward. The historically anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-Trump legislator isn’t a natural fit for the progressive lean of the Democratic caucus, but he said he’d continue to approach bills the same way he always had.
“I am not a liberal; I’d put myself as a moderate conservative,” Thompson said. “I will continue to vote the way that I vote – that is to say, from a moderate conservative position… I just got done meeting with the Democrats, and we didn’t seem to have any problems.”
Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Jersey City), who is running for an open Senate seat this year, said that he saw topics where Thompson already aligned with his new Democratic allies.
“He may have some ideological differences with his new caucus colleagues, but I suspect that a lot of the things that he has stood for and his values – in terms of the middle class, and helping small businesses recover from the pandemic, and being compassionate about the vulnerable – I think there are more areas where they’ll find common ground than not,” Mukherji said.
Ultimately, there are still a lot of unknowns about Thompson’s sensational defection, and no legislator really knows what will go down in the next nine months (and beyond, if Thompson can somehow win re-election). State Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), a moderate who has allied with Democrats on many issues while remaining a Republican, had the most cynical outlook of anyone.
“He didn’t get the line as a Republican, so he became a Democrat!” he said. “He’s still going to lose, but I understand. It’s a Republican district, and it’s very hard to change the minds of people just because you’ve changed your party… Generally, when you change parties, neither side trusts you.”
Asked whether he felt betrayed by Thompson’s decision, Bramnick said that such sentiments won’t get you very far in New Jersey politics.
“In Trenton, you never feel betrayed,” he said. “It would take a lot for me to be betrayed. If that was my wife, I’d be betrayed, or my kids – but it’s another politician in New Jersey? I don’t think that’s betrayal.”
This story was updated at 4:56 p.m. with comment from Senate Minority Leader Oroho.