Home>Feature>Murphy carried 24 legislative districts on his path to victory

Gov. Phil Murphy, left, with Senate President Steve Sweeney before the governor delivers his annual budget address to a joint session of the New Jersey Legislature on February 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor.)

Murphy carried 24 legislative districts on his path to victory

Senate Democrats won 52% of the legislative vote

By Joey Fox, December 01 2021 12:27 pm

Though Gov. Phil Murphy didn’t win this year’s gubernatorial election by as much as he may have wanted, he carried a healthy majority of the state’s legislative districts, winning 24 to Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli’s 16.

Democrats in the legislature were nearly as successful, with Senate Democrats winning an identical 24-16 majority and Assembly Democrats garnering a slightly smaller 46-34 majority. Tallying up every Senate vote statewide, Democrats beat their Republican opponents 52-48%, closely matching Murphy’s margin.

These topline numbers show that while Democrats were disappointed and surprised by many of their losses on November 2, their legislative coalition is still a sturdy one – and unless this year’s redistricting radically alters the legislative map, their majority is likely safe for years to come.

How the governor’s race broke down 

For the most part, the districts where Murphy and Ciattarelli did well were predictable. Murphy’s 24 districts were predominantly in urban cores like Camden, Trenton, and Newark, while Ciattarelli’s 16 districts were in rural and exurban areas and along the Jersey Shore.

Unfortunately for legislative Democrats hoping to flip Republican districts and hold their own competitive seats, Murphy couldn’t carry most of the state’s key swing districts. The governor lost the 2nd district, 8th, and 11th districts – the state’s three most hotly contested – by eight, six, and three points, respectively, and was trounced in outgoing Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford)’s 3rd district by 15 points.

Murphy also performed unexpectedly poorly in a few other scattered districts around the state that weren’t thought to be competitive, like the 4th, 36th, and 38th, where Murphy won by two, five, and three points, respectively. 

In some suburban North Jersey districts, however, it was Ciattarelli who underperformed the margins he’d have wanted to see. Ciattarelli lost the historically Republican 16th and 21st districts by seven and two points, and only won the 25th and 39th districts by single digits – improvements, certainly, from polarizing Republicans like Donald Trump, but far from the numbers Republicans once got in suburbia.

How Democrats held their legislative majorities

Nearly every district elected legislators of the same party as its preferred gubernatorial candidate, with two exceptions: the 11th and 21st districts.

In the 11th, State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) overperformed Murphy by around seven points, allowing him to win re-election while Ciattarelli carried the district and Gopal’s two Democratic Assembly counterparts lost to their Republican challengers.

Conversely, the 21st district elected Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) to the Senate and two Republicans to the Assembly even as it voted Democratic at the top of the ticket.

Only four legislators, then, sit in districts that voted for the opposite party for governor. That’s down from 2017, when eight legislators were elected to districts that voted for the opposing party’s gubernatorial candidate; all eight were Murphy-district Republicans.

There were also some legislators who notably overperformed their party’s gubernatorial candidate even if it didn’t change the ultimate result. 

For example, Sweeney, State Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Woodbridge) (who shared a ticket with Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin), and State Sen. Brian Stack (D-Union City) each used their local connections to far outrun Murphy in their districts. 

Many Republican legislators across suburban North Jersey, meanwhile, significantly overperformed Ciattarelli, as did State Sens. Michael Testa (R-Vineland) and Bob Singer (R-Lakewood). Singer’s success likely came because the Lakewood Vaad endorsed both Singer and Murphy; Singer won Lakewood by 68 points, while Ciattarelli only won it by a comparatively tiny 22-point margin.

Statewide, Democratic Senate candidates beat their Republican opponents 52-48%, and their margin would likely have been even narrower had Republicans run candidates in the 20th and 29th districts. Given that they won 60% of Senate seats, that suggests the current legislative map gives a lopsided advantage t0 Democrats.

Differences in turnout across the state complicate that easy conclusion, however. For example, State Sens. Jim Holzapfel (R-Toms River) and Nellie Pou (D-Paterson) each won re-election by similar 38-point landslides in their respective districts. But because Holzapfel’s Ocean County communities had much higher turnout than Pou’s Paterson-based district, Holzapfel won by 31,623 votes, while Pou only won by 11,092.

While that doesn’t matter for Holzapfel and Pou individually – they’ll each be reseated in January just the same – it does skew statewide vote totals towards Republicans.

But another metric shows just how hard it would be for Republicans to ever win a majority in the legislature under this map. The 21st-most-Republican Senate district this year, the district that would be the tipping point for a Republican majority, was the 14th district, which State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) won by just over 10 points.

In other words, Republicans already had a cycle better than nearly all of their highest expectations, and even then they still would have had to do a full 10 points better to flip the Senate.

Overall, Murphy’s victory was smaller than expected and spells trouble for Democrats in some areas; for example, Murphy lost each of the state’s five competitive congressional districts, a foreboding sign for congressional Democrats in 2022.

But in the legislature, the Democratic coalition proved durable. Until Republicans can find a way to either beat or redistrict legislators like Gopal and Greenstein, Democratic legislative majorities are likely here to stay.

NJ leg breakdown
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