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: Former President Donald Trump is under indictment, which is undoubtedly the biggest new story in the nation right now. How will the Trump indictment affect New Jersey’s 2023 election cycle?
Dan Bryan: More than ever, New Jersey Republicans will not be able to escape President Trump’s shadow. He remains deeply unpopular in New Jersey, and until further notice, the Republican Party will remain Donald Trump’s party, even here in New Jersey.
I think voters do give New Jersey Republicans like Senator Bramnick credit. He has lived his convictions, standing up to the President and calling out his conduct when needed. He stands in stark contrast with his former running mate, Congressman Kean, who goes along with whatever the extremist wing of his party wants and refuses to take any real stance on President Trump. He, like many in his party, will have to deal with the ramifications of President Trump’s legal problems.
Alex Wilkes: In our news cycle, I’m always reluctant to predict what might matter one week from now – let alone six months – and this story, like any involving the former President, has the power to dramatically morph and change over time.
As it stands right now, I think that this event would have a galvanizing effect on the President’s base in what will otherwise be a low turnout election. On the flip side, I don’t think even Trump’s most ardent detractors could be motivated by the facts of a case that most acknowledge is weak and overcharged.
Voters’ distrust of our institutions runs deep now – and with good reason. They can see the hypocrisy with their own eyes: Prosecutor Alvin Bragg deploying millions in city resources to go after the former President on shoddy charges, while letting violent criminals walk free; media that covered Donald Trump in excruciating detail, while glossing over Joe Biden’s glaring deficiencies and policy failures, or Phil Murphy insisting on masking your toddler, while partying with fellow Democrats maskless during the pandemic. The list goes on and on.
This is the kind of news event that taps into that anger, but let’s see where we are with it in the fall. In the meantime, Phil Murphy and his Democrats in the legislature have given us plenty to work with this year.
NJ Globe: Without write-in candidates, fourteen legislative seats won’t have major party opposition in the general election. Is it bad for democracy when legislators run unopposed, or doesn’t it matter?
Alex: Competition gives voters choices, which is key to the health of our democracy. To achieve that, I think it is essential that Republicans field candidates in every race – even in the bluest of places – to show voters that there is an alternative lockstep Democratic rule. This kind of attitude has allowed our Party to chip away at – and even flip – some Democratic strongholds at the municipal and county level over the past few cycles, and we need to continue the momentum at all levels of government.
Dan: I think it depends on the circumstance. If a legislator is so popular, and so effective (like Senator Stack in Hudson County), that he essentially puts off any serious opposition effort through sheer force of will, I’d say that’s a good thing for constituents. But if mediocre legislators aren’t being challenged simply due to a lack of interest from the public, that’s a problem.
There are many challenges to being a member of the New Jersey Legislature, including low pay, challenging hours, and increasing harassment. We should do everything we can to ensure we are getting the best possible candidates to serve the public in elected office.
NJ Globe: For nearly three years, New Jersey had a million more Democrats than Republicans, but last month, the voter registration edge dropped slightly below the one million mark. What does that mean?
Dan: Right now, Democrats have a trifecta in Trenton and both the Senate and the White House in DC. Simply put, when that happens, the party in power tends to be on the bad end of an enthusiasm gap. But I don’t think there’s much for New Jersey Democrats to worry about, as long as they field the better candidates and run the better campaigns.
Though Republicans had serious momentum on their side in 2021, judicial overreach may have ended it after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision last year. And after an incredibly disappointing result for Republicans in 2022, they’re off to a slow start in 2023. This week’s Supreme Court election in Wisconsin showed that people are awake to the dangerous long-term judicial activism play from far-right activists.
Alex: Losing a greater share of their previously untouchable voter registration advantage means that under one-party rule, Democrats have become arrogant and out-of-touch, and voters are ready for a change.
Of course, it is our job as Republicans to sell ourselves as the agents of that change, but, fortunately, Democrats have created a perfect storm of bad policies that allow us to easily and credibly make that argument.
From onerous pandemic lockdowns to failing to address looming economic disasters like the impending unemployment tax hike, Phil Murphy and his Democrats in the legislature have done everything in their power to make New Jersey the least affordable, most unattractive state in which to start a business or create jobs. As Murphy galivants on his dead end presidential campaign trail in Kyiv and the Gridiron dinner in Washington, New Jerseyans still can’t get a call through at key state agencies like Motor Vehicles Commission and Department of Labor.
So, what have New Jersey Democrats have offered voters most recently? Let’s do a quick review: banning plastic forks and baby wipes, school curricula that teaches your seven-year-old how to change his or her gender, and pay raises – for themselves. Is it any wonder why Democratic legislators are retiring in droves? Who wants to sell this on the campaign trail?
NJ Globe: Governor Murphy quietly signed the Election Transparency Act this week. There was no public bill signing, no pens handed out, and no validator comments in his press release – all a little unusual when it involves a major piece of legislation. Why wasn’t there any fanfare?
Alex: There was no ceremony because Democrats are looking to hide their complicity in abolishing the independence of our campaign watchdog and their unmitigated greed in clearing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines against their own committees just before the election.
Democrats love to lecture on the evils of dark money, but in a post-Citizens United world they have benefitted handsomely – more so than Republicans – at both the national and state level from the kind of spending they supposedly deplore. My position, by the way, is that Citizens United was correctly decided, but that limits on McCain-Feingold should have also been struck down so as to bring fundraising parity to party committees that have been put at a disadvantage in competing for dollars against these groups. I’ll start accepting “dark money” criticism from Democrats once they eschew those funds on principle and are willing to publicly stand by the so-called “Transparency” Act.
I think what the real tragedy here is that this marks the end of an era for ELEC. This used to be one of the few state agencies that, regardless of your party, you could call on for help in complying with the law. Under Phil Murphy’s takeover, I have lost all trust that the personal information stored at the agency will be kept confidential, and I have every fear that the Administration will weaponize technical errors and requests for help against the opposing party. It’s been a terrible week for New Jersey.
Dan: Republicans may have a hard time making this into a campaign issue. It was the current far-right majority on the Supreme Court that began our national crisis of election finances with the 2009 Citizens United decision, essentially driving the majority of campaign finances into the darkness and making it nearly impossible for states to act. Remember, New Jersey Democrats passed a “dark money” bill a few years back, trying to rein in the excesses of dark money in politics, and it was almost immediately struck down in the courts.
If Republicans want to talk about campaign finance, let them put forward a real proposal rather than do what they always do: complain, attack, and accuse, without ever putting forward a plan of their own.