New Jerseyans aren’t always civil, but it’s still possible for a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican to have a rational and pleasant conversation about politics in the state. Dan Bryan is a former senior advisor to Gov. Phil Murphy and is now the owner of his own public affairs firm, and Alex Wilkes is an attorney and former executive director of America Rising PAC who advises Republican candidates in New Jersey and across the nation. Dan and Alex are both experienced strategists who are currently in the room where high-level decisions are made. They will get together weekly with New Jersey Globe editor David Wildstein to discuss politics and issues.
New Jersey Globe: The Secret Service barred the Democratic mayor of Prospect Park, Mohamed Khairullah, from a White House reception on Monday where he had been invited to mark Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday. The mayor thinks he’s a victim of racial profiling. As political communications professionals, what would you be telling the White House on how to handle this mess?
Dan Bryan: Let’s start by stating this: the White House almost certainly had nothing to do with the decision to block Mayor Khairullah from the reception. But that doesn’t make it any easier for the Mayor to swallow. It’s impossible not to feel for him, an American citizen, being turned away at the People’s House, seemingly through no fault of his own.
I think the Biden Administration can and should show some sympathy for the situation Mayor Khairullah was put into by the Secret Service. And going a step further, we should be able to give the Mayor and any other American citizen the right to know whether or not they are on a watch list, why they are, and how they may be able to contest that action.
Alex Wilkes: The professionals on my side of the aisle often joke that our Democratic counterparts have comparatively few problems when it comes to mainstream media coverage. It’s good to have friends!
In observing how this White House and campaign have been so uncritically covered in the past four years, my honest answer to them would be to do nothing. The Secret Service isn’t going to comment on it, and the requests from Menendez and Booker to investigate further won’t be seriously pursued by them. Even the Mayor has already said he’s backing the President for reelection despite the poor treatment he received.
Think my answer is cold? At this same event, Joe Biden told a person of color to “hush up, boy,” and today, the Washington press corps is obsessing over an aboveboard, lifelong friendship of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Seriously, for Democrats, it’s presidential campaign time, and the livin’ is easy.
NJ Globe: For the second month in a row, New Jersey no longer has a million more Democrats than Republicans – although it’s not that far off. What does that mean, if anything at all?
Alex: I think it’s pretty straightforward: in a state with one-party rule, voters are seeing very little in return for their vote. The old Democratic line here has been that in exchange for the high cost of living, you received excellent services.
Let’s check that in 2023. New Jerseyans aren’t just paying high costs – they’re paying exorbitant – punitive, even – costs for the privilege of just existing here. Set aside being the nation’s loser in both property and corporate taxes, New Jerseyans are struggling to pay for the basics under the Biden-Murphy pro-inflation agenda.
Now look at the services. If you needed something from the ANCHOR program, the Motor Vehicle Commission, or Department of Labor recently, you were out of luck. School districts have seen millions stripped out of their budgets thanks to the Governor’s school funding formula. New Jerseyans are simply paying more for less.
The worst part is the Democrats’ attitude about it all. Phil Murphy locked down the state and told unemployment seekers that they should go to a different state if they didn’t like it. They imposed a radical, unpopular new sex ed curriculum on schools and told districts and parents that they would lose state aid for noncompliance. They took ELEC, one of the state’s last independent agencies, and turned it into the Governor’s newest vehicle to harass and strong-arm his political opponents. Just recently, Murphy boasted that pandemic tax dollars were his money to spend how he likes.
Voters know a party drunk on their own power when they see it, so it is no surprise that they’re ready to put a check on that behavior.
Dan: Traditionally, the party out of federal and state power tends to have more energy and momentum than the party in power. So it’s not surprising to see New Jersey Republicans make gains, de minimis as they may be.
But Republicans in New Jersey need to prove that they have a GOTV operation that can rival Democrats’. If they don’t, those gains in party registration will mean nothing. The wave of enthusiasm Republicans rode to beat expectations in ’21 was leveled by the Dobbs decision in last year’s federal midterms. The party affiliation registration gap may have plateaued, but Democrats are still light years ahead of Republicans on vote by mail and traditional GOTV operations. If they want to compete in this year’s legislative midterms, they’ll need to organize and fundraise to a much greater extent than they have.
NJ Globe: Republican state senators held their own public hearing on whale deaths at the Jersey shore. It seems like the Republicans are taking a page from Governor Murphy’s first-term communications plan and going direct to the public – and they are getting some attention. Is it smart for the legislature to allow one party to control this narrative in an election year?
Dan: Let me get this out first: Republicans are embarrassing themselves on this issue. At a time they so desperately need to move past the Trump years and appeal to the center, they’re putting on their tinfoil hats and blaming geomapping sonar for whale deaths (that sonar, by the way, is similar in type and strength to sonar that has been used by commercial fishermen for decades). Shame on them for trying to kill the biggest green energy initiative this state has ever seen over misinformation and petty politics.
That said, yes, they’re right to go directly to the consumer on this. Republicans don’t have many cards to play in Trenton these days, so holding a hearing by themselves and streaming it online will certainly help them get their (misleading) message out there. And if they tried to do it on a bipartisan basis, they run the risk of Democrats rebutting their misinformation with facts and science.
Alex: I would say that the Republicans have been taking a page out Governor Christie’s – not Governor Murphy’s – communications playbook in bringing the issue right to the voters with a steady media drumbeat and town hall-like events. When Congressman Van Drew does his live shots, he does them from the beach right in front of the dead marine life. Congressmen Van Drew and Smith brought a D.C. hearing right to the Jersey Shore, and not a single Democrat official showed up – but hundreds of concerned constituents did. In doing so, they not only raised the issue of marine life fatalities, but the national security risks and taxpayer costs involved, as well. Just this week, Republicans in the state legislature held a successful, well-covered discussion to ask a simple question: what is the rush?
Democrats are in a tough place here. Their political benefactors in the green energy industry and the far-left fringe of their base are demanding “progress” at any cost. The public, and increasingly the media, on the other hand, are questioning the Democrats’ intractable and unreasonable stance. I certainly wouldn’t want to be a vulnerable Democrat in a shore town or county on the ballot this year.
NJ Globe: We’re about two months away from the primary election. Right now, what are the top three issues voters care about going into the mid-term legislative elections?
Dan: Certainly, affordability and quality of life are two issues that never stray far from the tops of voters’ minds. And I don’t think these midterms will be any different. What we don’t yet know is how national issues, like abortion and President Trump’s campaign, will bleed into state legislative races in ’23. Fallout from the Dobbs decision dominated the ’22 federal midterm, but we’re too far away to know if it will still be a strong issue this year.
Democrats have an incredible record to run on. They’ve cut taxes over a dozen times, they’re making historic investments into property tax relief, they’ve turned around the state’s finances, they’ve reinvigorated the economy, and they’ve overseen some of the lowest unemployment rates in state history. They dominate the affordability and fiscal responsibility issues in substance, but not yet in perception. If they can start to take that issue away from Republicans, similar to how President Biden is attempting to own patriotism and freedom at the national level, Republicans will be in trouble.
Alex: I think affordability is certainly a top concern for voters, particularly in this state, but Republicans cannot run on that alone. As a party, we have to be mindful that average voters also stay for non-economic reasons (or because they cannot afford to move at all). It doesn’t mean that the issue doesn’t matter to them, but rather that they have become resigned to the status quo. That puts the onus on us to pair these concerns with issues that get people up and into the voting booth.
For Republicans this year, I think that means leaning into the wave of dissatisfaction that has mainly formed around Governor Murphy and the Democrats’ heavy hand in education. For the past few election cycles, we have seen this discontent (perhaps more than any other issue) successfully roil traditionally Democratic legislative, county, and municipal seats for a number of different reasons: students who are still reeling from the learning loss and mental health issues that developed during the Murphy lockdowns; parents who are outraged that sexually explicit content is being taught to their elementary school children, or districts that have seen cut after cut under the Governor’s school funding formula – all while he sits on a $10 billion rainy day fund – just to name a few examples.
Beyond that, I would look for many of the Governor’s other unpopular mandates to come into play, such as his master energy plan that would eliminate gas stoves and gas-powered cars.
Remember: it will likely be a low turnout election with a new map and most of the Democrats who are on the ballot have never had to answer for many of the Governor’s excesses from school curriculum changes to wind farms. There is real anger and resentment out there that Republicans can successfully turn into votes district by district, issue by issue.