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 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 every week with New Jersey Globe editor David Wildstein to discuss politics and issues.
Question: After Raphael Warnock’s win in the Georgia Senate runoff, a lot of Republicans have said they could have flipped the seat had they not nominated a candidate with the kind of baggage Hershel Walker had. Now that both parties are starting to focus on candidate recruitment for the State Senate and Assembly next year, what lessons could party leaders learn from the Georgia race?
Alex: What we’ve learned is that voters — and independents, in particular — are not looking for candidates who bring significant personal baggage and drama to competitive races. Now, I know what you’ll say to me: but what about Donald Trump in 2016? I liken the 2016 elections to the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore: a landmark with no precedential value.
Does that mean that there’s nothing to be learned from that election? Of course not. It was a great reminder to our candidates that they can – and should — go on offense against tired, ridiculous labels from Democrats and the biased media that protect them.
Democrats have plenty to answer for after years of dysfunctional one-party rule. Our candidates should bring the energy and tenacity to these races but leave the chaos and drama behind; voters know there’s already plenty of that to go around in Trenton and Washington.
Dan: The last five years in Trenton have brought us fully funded pension payments, credit rating upgrades, billions more in school funding, a rebuilt and revitalized NJ TRANSIT, and a budget surplus 20 times higher than the one Governor Murphy inherited, all while overseeing the smallest growth in property taxes in state history. Not to mention historic legislative achievements like equal pay, paid sick leave, a livable minimum wage, gun safety, and tax fairness, just to name a few. I’m OK with putting that record against the abysmal record of the failed Christie administration any day.
Candidates matter. It’s no surprise that every Republican gubernatorial candidate that refused to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election lost, while saner candidates in Georgia and Nevada won. Republicans nominated a uniquely awful candidate in Herschel Walker, and that’s almost certainly the reason they didn’t win the Senate seat in Georgia.
Voters in New Jersey have little interest in extreme candidates with personal baggage. The Democratic Party has been successful in New Jersey because they nominate mainstream candidates that talk about the things voters care about. Republicans have been an electoral disaster in our state because they tend to nominate extreme candidates obsessed with pet conservative issues that alienate them from their communities.
Question: Kevin McCarthy is having trouble getting 218 Republicans to support him for Speaker; 36 Republicans didn’t support him in an internal caucus vote last month. If this were Trenton, there would be a deal for Democrats to vote present, but McCarthy wants to win without relying on votes from the other side. Should New Jersey Democrats play in the Speaker’s race, and if they do, what should they ask for?
Dan: I’m sure Democrats in DC are eagerly anticipating the mess that awaits with the incoming Republican majority. And few people deserve to be out there twisting in the wind quite like Congressman McCarthy, a man who will go down in history for voting to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential election just hours after the Capital was stormed by armed insurrectionists. Unfortunately, I’m not sure there are any sane members of the Republican Party in any position to make a serious play for the Speakership.
Because of that, it’s important for Democrats in DC to stick together. I am sure New Jersey’s congressional delegation is working closely with incoming Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries on party strategy, and given the depth and talent of our delegation, there’s no doubt they’ll be a huge asset for Congressman Jeffries. The best play at this point could simply be to stay out of the way and let the disaster unfold.
Alex: Well, New Jersey Democrats – the righteous guardians of our Democratic norms that they are – have already been pretty shameless about interfering in the past and promising to meddle in future Republican contests, so I would fully expect them to engage should they see an opportunity—but don’t count out Leader McCarthy just yet.
Question: Republican lawmakers have been aggressively attacking the state Board of Education on sex-ed curriculum issues for most of the year and in some cases, it led to hugely competitive school board contests. Can Republicans successfully make the debate over the sex education curriculum into a viable issue in campaigns for the legislature in 2023? What are the upsides and downsides of trying?
Alex: Democrats, led by Governor Murphy and Senator Vin Gopal, pushed through these controversial changes while no one was watching during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This spring, they got caught red-handed by Senator Holly Schepisi, who exposed alarming sample curriculum plans sent to her by a concerned parent. While Democrats went scrambling for an explanation and the media circled the wagons, they ignored a simple fact: the curriculum in question that taught anatomically and sexually explicit content to seven-year-olds was deemed to meet state standards! This wasn’t an outlier.
Since then, we’ve seen Murphy and Gopal issue statements of shock and concern, only to now threaten to strip noncompliant school districts of state funding. By the way, has anyone even asked Democrats in the legislature what they think about all of this? I also offer a word of caution about public opinion polls that simplify this issue as the teaching of “sex ed;” parents know the difference.
One of my favorite parts about this cycle was meeting the moms who stepped up to run for school board. Most had never been involved in politics before, but they were appalled by what their kids brought home and didn’t like being told by a bunch of bureaucrats that they should sit down and shut up about it.
Both remote learning and these new radical standards have ignited a fire that will continue to burn down cowards in Trenton who pass the buck. Don’t mess with the moms.
Dan: It’s not surprising to see Republicans once again putting an attack on public schools at the front and center of their campaigns. Outside of broad milestones, most specific curriculum decisions are made by school boards at the local level. Parents should and do have a voice in what is taught in their local public schools, and they also have the right to opt out of sex-ed curriculum. Despite Republican lies about what is and isn’t being taught, the vast majority of school districts in New Jersey teach material that is challenging, necessary, and age appropriate.
Republicans have a bigger problem. The last administration underfunded public education by $9 billion, a catastrophic decision that led to bigger classrooms, less teachers, slashed school budgets, and higher property taxes. It’s nice to see the New Jersey Republican party find religion on the importance of public schools, but if they want to debate the issue, they’re going to have to answer for their sins of the past.
We’ve seen over the last couple of years how New Jersey’s confirmation process for judges can lead to significant delays, and even after recent confirmations there are still a large number of judicial vacancies. Do you think the current process needs reform?
Dan: The ability of senators to exercise courtesy is an important check and balance, and most of the time it leads to a good result in ensuring that state senators have input in the appointments process.
However, like any other legislative tool, it can be misused in a way that can hurt the ability of our government to function. Rachel Wainer Apter, a brilliant and qualified civil rights attorney with bipartisan support, had her nomination to the New Jersey Supreme Court stalled for 19 months. That wasn’t fair to her, or to the judiciary.
While it is up to the Senate to determine its own rules and procedures, I think the public and the press corps have every right to know why certain nominees are being held up, and it’s only fair for Senators who are holding up nominees to be transparent about their objections. Only then can we fully evaluate their actions.
Alex: Leadership starts at the top and Governor Murphy not only created an unacceptable judicial backlog with his draconian COVID lockdowns, but he has also failed to nominate an adequate number of candidates to fill these vacancies. Don’t take it from me; his own Senate President said just this summer that the Governor hasn’t lived up to his end of the bargain.
With respect to the process, I think reforms should be discussed (the mandatory retirement age, for example), but Republican legislators have every reason to be concerned about judicial balance and restraint.
The New Jersey Supreme Court has a history of judicial activism that has produced some of the most questionable outcomes of our time, including the Mount Laurel and Abbott decisions. Twenty-one installments and an endless amount of taxpayer dollars later, and the gap between Abbott and non-Abbott school districts remains a disgrace, so maybe unelected justices aren’t the best lawmakers after all.
As a practical matter, filling these vacancies starts with Governor Murphy and ends with the Democrats who control the Senate Judiciary Committee. They both need to get to work for the millions of New Jerseyans who are being denied due process by this intraparty blame game.
In case you missed it: Click HERE to read last week’s Stomping Grounds.