Home>Highlight>Stomping Grounds: N.J. Midterm Elections, Murphy’s gun laws, Dead Whales, and Wally Edge

Stomping Grounds: N.J. Midterm Elections, Murphy’s gun laws, Dead Whales, and Wally Edge

By David Wildstein, February 03 2023 11:25 am

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.

Question: With a decent map for the first time in 20 years, Republicans had hopes of winning control of the New Jersey Legislature.  But with 52 days until the primary filing deadline, Republicans seem to be struggling to raise money and recruit top-tier candidates for Senate and Assembly.  Why?

Alex Wilkes: Whoa! We haven’t even had a single county convention yet, and there may still be announcements to come. There is plenty of time left on the clock, and I’ll point you to LD3 in 2021, by way of example. The Republican slate was filled in through write-in votes in the June Primary, and they spent only a few thousand dollars in the race. In the end, they won and defeated the incumbent Senate President with a mammoth warchest.

That’s not to say that money and organization don’t matter – of course they do. But in a state where every institutional advantage favors the party in power, those are easy to come by for Democrats. The bottom line is that with each recent cycle, Republicans have consistently defied seemingly insurmountable odds to now put us within scoring distance of legislative majorities.

I would also be remiss in pointing out that Assembly Republican Victory has raised more in any off-year than at any point in the last decade. Plus, where are the Democrats’ star recruits? Not only is there plenty of time left on the clock, but we are only just getting to the opening kickoff.

Dan Bryan: It’s not fun to be a Republican in New Jersey these days. The NJ GOP is party stuck between the past and the future, between respectable Republicans like Senator Jon Bramnick and their future potential gubernatorial candidate Bill Spadea. Look no further than the news about Senator Oroho’s retirement, an old school principled Republican who clearly felt there was no room for him in the modern day GOP.

The reality is the NJ GOP does have an opportunity this fall. This is going to be a difficult, tight legislative midterm election for Democrats. But Republicans need to coalesce behind a brand and an agenda that is broadly popular with New Jerseyans, and I don’t see that happening. Other than empty buzzwords, I genuinely don’t know what their agenda would be. This is also going to be a problem for the ’25 republican gubernatorial nominee, but we’ll save that for another day.

Question: A federal judge has blocked the enforcement of key sections of New Jersey’s gun carry law, which seems to validate a legal strategy by gun owners to challenge parts of the law rather than the whole thing.  Does this mean Governor Murphy and the legislature overreached, or did the judge get it wrong?

Dan: We shouldn’t lose sight of what these laws do – they prevent people from carrying firearms into places like daycares, hospitals, stadiums, and polling places. I don’t have data on this proposal, but similar gun safety bills poll through the roof in common-sense New Jersey. So when Republican lawmakers and gun groups attack these bills, Democrats need to spell out specifically what they’re trying to allow.

So far, one federal judge has issued an unfavorable decision. We’ve always known that these cases will be decided on appeal before a higher court, and I’m sure the Administration is planning to see through an appeal. This bill does not in any way, shape or form impinge on the second amendment, and hopefully an appeals court will have some common sense. The radical majority on the current Supreme Court should not stop Democrats from doing everything they can to keep our communities safe, while remaining respectful of the second amendment.

Alex: In an attempt to puff up his progressive credentials, Governor Murphy undoubtedly overreached here. I’m not surprised that this sloppy legislation was easily dismantled using originalist jurisprudence and a targeted legal strategy.

I think the left willfully misrepresents the issues important to lawful gun owners to their own detriment. First, New Jerseyans who care about an issue like concealed carry are both racially and socioeconomically diverse. Second, figures like Phil Murphy often appear glib and out-of-touch when lobbing their attacks.

I think back to the gubernatorial debates when Phil Murphy arrogantly scoffed about “certain professions, like that really dangerous one: realtors” needing concealed carry, and Jack Ciattarelli retorted: “Talk to female realtors who do open houses.” There are complexities into these matters that the left has failed to recognize again and again.

Question: Over the last two months, eight dead whales have washed up on New Jersey and New York beaches.  Some blame offshore wind development, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that some whales were killed by boats or ships.   As communications experts, what would you tell candidates looking to make dead whales into a campaign issue?

Alex: I think why this issue has drawn such interest is the sheer visibility of the problem. It’s pretty hard to ignore one dead whale on a beach, and it’s nearly impossible to paper over nearly a dozen of them.

I put it in these basic terms not to be flip about a truly sad issue, but because sometimes that level of simplicity is what it takes to break through layers of media bias and apathy.

The unbelievable visual content of these stories makes them prime candidates for television (local news, in particular), introducing the debate to a much wider audience over a longer period of time than most issues ever receive.

Before this, Phil Murphy’s disastrous green energy plans had been met with essentially a shrug by the mainstream press in this state. How much would it cost? How would it be implemented? Who cares? Long before Joe Biden’s plan to ban gas stoves was roundly mocked and laughed off the national stage, it was uncritically accepted as an inevitable reality for New Jerseyans by the press and Democrats in this state. To the extent that Murphy has rolled back some of the implementation of his plans, it is politically motivated by the upcoming election – and certainly not because of the kind of public outrage that would have emanated from serious reporting on this subject.

Now the entire debate has essentially been crystallized into images of dead whales on the beach versus the windmills in the distance. I’m not saying that we have all the answers yet, but it is true that many green energy plans have been rushed out by progressives without proper consideration (who remembers Solyndra?).

Look, this doesn’t have to be a partisan issue: at its core, we have a lot of questionable claims being made by companies receiving enormous taxpayer subsidies. You also have a federal agency rushing to the defense of a state policy that is essential to the President’s own plans in the upcoming election. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions, particularly when voters can plainly see that there’s more to the debate than was ever advertised.

Dan: I’d tell Democratic candidates to campaign on the creation of the nation’s strongest wind energy industry right here in our state. Look, we have no idea what’s happening with these whale deaths, but we do know that there is no evidence linking their deaths to offshore wind. And I’m not surprised to see the same bad faith actors that always find a way to blame society’s ills on renewable energy doing the same here.

Let’s take a step back and look at what Governor Murphy is accomplishing with offshore wind in New Jersey. If the current plan continues to move forward, we’ll be able to produce 11,000 megawatts of energy by 2040. That’s enough energy to power millions of homes.

And remember, not only are we installing and running the turbines here in New Jersey, we’re manufacturing them here in New Jersey. Overall, you’re talking about a tremendous economic boon for our state, and one that makes a vision of running on 100% clean energy realistic.

We should be taking the deaths of these whales seriously, and we should investigate the root cause. But take with a massive grain of salt anyone jumping to conclusions about offshore wind without any evidence.

Question: My last question is clearly a little self-serving, but I’ll ask it anyway.  23 years ago this week, I launched PoliticsNJ as a source of political news available in real-time online.  The old media scoffed at the idea, with some saying that people would never get their news off the Internet and that they would always buy newspapers.  Do some of the old-timers who viewed their newspapers as invincible deserve some of the blame for their failure?

DB: I don’t think the journalists or the columnists shoulder much of the blame, but I will happily blame those at the top making the editorial and business decisions. I grew up reading the Bergen Record, which as recently as a decade ago was one of the premier local newspapers in the country. Now, it’s a husk of its former self, having cut most of its staff, regionalized the editorial board, and filled its print edition with days-old articles from northjersey.com. The Star Ledger, historically New Jersey’s newspaper of record, has followed a similar path.

When Governor Murphy took office in 2018, press row’s numbers had already been in decline, and people would tell me about the good old days when press conferences would routinely have over a dozen outlets represented and press row was overflowing with journalists dedicated to the Trenton beat. And now, just five years later, we’d kill for a press corps the size of 2018’s.

I am eternally depressed about the state of the media landscape in New Jersey. Why is it that Vermont, a state with about one tenth of our population, has their own public radio network, their own public television network, multiple thriving regional daily newspapers, and yet still has room for digital political outlets? But in New Jersey, over nine million people rely almost solely on New York and Philadelphia outlets to get their news. Now that has always been the reality here to an extent, but we used to have many solid options for local and regional news. Now, New Jerseyans are left with very little in the state media ecosphere.

But here’s the bright side: there is a huge opportunity for new (and old!) media startups in our state. And I don’t just mean websites like NJ Globe, which has ably filled a huge void. There’s no reason New Jersey shouldn’t have a daily news/lifestyle podcast. There’s space for local news outlets, like my local, the Village Green. It’s an amazing opportunity, and I hope people see that and seize it.

AW: Who knew that Wally Edge, born in the 19th century, could have such foresight into our modern times! In all seriousness, congratulations, David, on a great achievement that would revolutionize the way politics is covered in this state.

Traditional print media was undoubtedly slow to adapt to the changing technology, which is certainly one of the reasons why it is a shell of its once robust self. As with anything in life, though, there are trade-offs: what we may have gained in accessibility, timeliness, and diversity of viewpoint, we have lost in in-depth local coverage and consistent editorial standards. It’s one of the reasons that while supporting the online outlets that have shaped the news and debate recently, I also root for the great work our Tapinto and Patch publications put out day-to-day.

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