Home>Campaigns>The 12th district is probably unwinnable for any Democrat – even Sam Thompson

Nitro roller coaster at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township. (Photo: Dusso Janladde via Wikimedia Commons).

The 12th district is probably unwinnable for any Democrat – even Sam Thompson

Retail politics likely won’t be enough for New Jersey’s oldest legislator

By Joey Fox, February 14 2023 4:48 pm

State Sen. Sam Thompson (D-Old Bridge), the newest Democrat in the New Jersey Legislature, has made it pretty clear that his recent party switch was more about winning re-election than about any broader ideological difference with his former party.

“I decided to do this because my party leadership had abandoned me,” Thompson said yesterday, referencing the Republicans in his district who were supporting a primary challenger, Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry.

But if the 87-year-old Thompson’s main goal was to remain in the legislature beyond this year, he didn’t really choose the best way to do it.

His 12th legislative district is staunchly Republican, so much so that no Democrat has carried it two decades; regardless of Thompson’s strengths as an incumbent, he’s unlikely to break that streak in a general election contest against Henry. When Thompson switched parties, what he really did was trade out a possible primary election loss for a probable general election loss.

Just how red is LD12?

The 12th district is one of the state’s stranger districts, first constructed in the 2011 redistricting cycle as an amalgam of Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, and Burlington County municipalities that didn’t fit in any other district. This year will be the first election held under newly redrawn lines, but the district is largely the same as before.

Each different part of the district has its own unique identity – hence why Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean Republicans have agreed that each county should consistently get one legislator. But the main thing that unites the 12th district’s biggest towns, from Old Bridge to Manalapan to Jackson, is how conservative they are.

In the 2021 gubernatorial election, Jack Ciattarelli carried the 12th district by a huge 27-point margin; Gov. Phil Murphy was limited to wins in just two towns, tiny Allentown and Roosevelt, while Ciattarelli dominated everywhere else.

Joe Biden did better than that in his 2020 presidential campaign, nearly carrying Old Bridge and doing well in Monmouth County – but he still lost the district overall by 14 points.

That’s essentially the story of the district throughout most of the 21st century. Even when Democrats did very well, like Barack Obama did in his 2012 landslide following Hurricane Sandy, the 12th district went red (it voted for Mitt Romney by six points that year).

The last time a statewide Democrat seems to have carried the modern 12th district was the 2001 gubernatorial election, when Woodbridge Mayor Jim McGreevey crushed Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler in South and Central Jersey. McGreevey won the 12th district by just under three points that year – so there’s at least some precedent for a Democratic victory.

McGreevey’s win relied on performances that will be extremely hard to replicate this year, however. He won Manalapan by double digits and only lost Jackson by 161 votes, both results that would be near-unthinkable today in the strongly Republican towns. 

A test of old-school politics

Sam Thompson, like many other politicians, likely doesn’t think of his district in such red-and-blue terms. Instead, he sees a district full of constituents he’s helped and voters he’s reached over the course of his 25-year legislative career.

“I have placed a great deal of emphasis on constituent service,” Thompson said yesterday. “Everybody I meet, I give them my card and say, ‘If I can help you, call me.’ I have over 35,000 people in my constituent service files. If you look at legislative races, it takes 25,000 to 30,000 votes to win.”

But in the modern political atmosphere, where party affiliation often matters more than candidate strength and where many voters don’t even know who their elected officials are, Thompson’s theory of politics may not hold true.

“He may be overestimating people’s public awareness of him, people’s impressions of him,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University and himself a resident of the 12th district. “I don’t know how you would begin to create this public groundswell behind him that’s going to ride you over the normal party preferences of the district.”

Indeed, Thompson has not previously shown the kind of intense crossover support that would be needed for him to have a shot this November.

In 2021, while Ciattarelli was winning the 12th district by 27 points, Thompson was winning by 30 points, a modest three-point overperformance. The reverse was true in 2017, when then-Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno won the district by 18 points and Thompson won by a smaller 15-point margin.

In other words, Thompson is no Steve Sweeney or Tom Kean Jr. He hasn’t had the type of individual appeal that would allow him to do substantially better than the average politician in his district. He wasn’t even the top vote-getter on his own legislative ticket the last two cycles; the late Assemblyman Ron Dancer (R-Plumsted) won a few hundred more votes both times.

What’s to come

Given all of that, what might this year’s 12th district campaign look like? That depends in large part on how the two parties react.

For now, Thompson’s party switch is a black eye for Republicans, who will have to win back a seat they never thought would be in danger in the first place. Though Senate Republicans have lofty dreams of gaining a majority this year, right now they’re back down to their pre-2021 caucus size.

But Thompson, who has a modest $68,000 on-hand, could prove to be a bigger headache for Democrats in the long run. Though Democrats are welcoming Thompson to the party, they’ll have to be realistic about his chances in November, and distribute their resources accordingly.

“Would Democrats want to have a colleague like [Thompson] for the next year?” Rasmussen said. “Of course they would. And there’s really no cost to them having a colleague like that fall into their laps… But whether there are higher levels of support that are justified, like investing in the race or putting resources into the race – that’s an entirely different question.”

Most Democrats have so far declined to endorse Thompson, saying that he’ll have to go through the Democratic organizational endorsement process like everyone else. He’ll likely get the nomination regardless – the 12th district isn’t exactly a hotspot for Democratic recruitment – but it’s an early stumbling block for the historically conservative, pro-life, pro-Trump senator.

That’s in stark contrast to some previous party switchers like former State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) and Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis), who were quickly embraced by their new parties (and whose defections made more sense from an ideological perspective).

There’s also the question of running mates for the Assembly against incumbents Rob Clifton (R-Matawan) and Alex Sauickie (R-Jackson) as well as for local offices. Assuming Thompson does make it to the general election against Henry, he’ll be the head of the Democratic ticket in 13 municipalities – including in Old Bridge, where the mayor’s office is up this year – and Democrats will want to put together as strong of a slate as possible.

Ultimately, Democrats will have to choose between spending money on a race most of them believe to be unwinnable, or ignoring it and angering their caucus’s newest member. Thompson is the center of attention for now, but in such a Republican district, it’s hard to see him making the 12th district into a truly competitive race.

“You just hope this doesn’t become a sad spectacle,” Rasmussen said. “Not a good way to go out. After a long career, you’d like to see him end on a high note.”

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