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2017 Election Analysis
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                       By ANJRPC Lobbyist Rob Nixon

Editor’s Note: The following overview is the first of several email blasts analyzing the recent general election results.  More in-depth analysis of specific issues of concern to gun owners, hunters, sportsmen, and sportswomen will be forthcoming.

 

 In a number races, some decisive and some surprising, Democratic candidates won on Election Day 2017 at every level of government.  Democrats will enter 2018 with control of the Governor’s Office and their largest legislative majorities in decades.  Republican candidates not only lost at the State level but were stunned in County and local races in places that raise serious questions about the impact of Governor Christie’s legacy and stewardship of his party over the last 8 years.   While it is impossible to predict how the new Governor and his Democratic allies in Trenton will work together, what is certain is that New Jersey is theirs to control for the next four years.

Murphy Defeats Guadagno

Phil Murphy, the former Wall Street executive and Ambassador to Germany, easily won his first race for public office with a 12 point victory over Republican Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno.  While Guadagno spent the final weeks of the campaign with a confidence that she was steadily closing the gap on Murphy, she was unable to overcome the Democratic electoral advantage, Murphy’s fundraising edge and voter fatigue with Chris Christie.

Murphy defined his positions early and didn’t shy away from them throughout the campaign.  He pursued a strategy that was highly progressive, even for New Jersey, on issues like taxes, corporate benefits, immigration and workers’ rights.  An ally from the start of public employee unions, he rallied citizens who felt alienated and abused under the Christie Administration.  And he spent months tying the Lieutenant Governor to the unpopularity of the Governor. 

And that message, and Democratic campaign efforts, worked across the board.  While some will suggest that the race was a referendum on Trump and the GOP generally, to do so misses some obvious points.  First, Trump was not competitive in New Jersey in 2016 and Guadagno ran slightly ahead of Trump’s take of the vote in 2016.  Second, a number of competitive local races and high profile State House races drove out Democratic leaning unaffiliated voters to the polls.  Finally, fairly or unfairly, Governor Christie’s current unpopularity was difficult for the Lieutenant Governor to untangle from her record.

It is also interesting to look at the 2017 election in comparison to the 2013 Governor’s race for proof.  2013 was the high water mark of the Christie Administration.  In his 2013 race he defeated his Democratic challenger 1.2 million to 809,000.  Turnout was around 40% across the State.  2017 showed those totals nearly flipped.  With Statewide turnout a few percentage points below 2013, Murphy took over 1.1 million votes to Guadagno’s nearly 871,000 votes.  When combined with the Democrats built in voter registration advantage over Republicans in NJ it appears that Guadagno lost the unaffiliated and Democratic voters who had flocked to Christie in 2013.

Murphy also did what Democratic candidates are expected to do to win.  His campaign defeated Guadagno in their base counties.  He took the Democratic strongholds of Essex and Hudson counties with almost 80% of the vote, including a 90,000 vote landslide in Essex alone.  He won heavily populated counties like Bergen, Union and Passaic handily.  And while Guadagno was able to win in 9 of the State’s 21 counties, her vote totals in those mostly rural counties couldn’t match Murphy’s totals in the heavily suburban and urban sectors of the State.  The final turnout results weren’t all bad for Guadagno as the Ocean County GOP continued to dominate the Dems at the polls for her and she was able to easily beat Murphy in Monmouth County where both of the candidates live.

Murphy will be sworn into office in January bringing a far different style and agenda than the current administration.  In addition to attempting to implement his campaign agenda, he will be focused on quickly changing the staffing and policy direction of State governments.  As such he will be faced with spending the next two months reviewing staffing assignments and preparing for quick action on policy changes in agencies and in the Boards and Commissions that perform most of the functions of government quietly and outside of the view of the public.

His running mate, Lieutenant Governor-elect Sheila Oliver, will also be tasked with taking over a Department in State Government.  Under the law that established the position, no provision was made for the Lieutenant Governor to be paid a salary.  As a result, the LG is assigned a Department to head within the Governor’s Cabinet.  Kim Guadagno, for example, served as the Secretary of State during her 8 years as the LG.  Where Oliver will land has not been publicly announced at this time nor is it safe to say what role she will play as a surrogate for the Governor. As a legislator and former Speaker of the Assembly she could play a valuable role for the Governor, who has no experience in Trenton, as a liaison to legislators and specialist in the legislative process.

There can be no question that New Jersey voters have moved the State in a different direction.  There could not be two more diametrically opposed personalities, philosophies and styles than Phil Murphy and Chris Christie.  How Governor-elect Murphy demonstrates his style and his agenda will become known quickly as he moves to turn the State in a different direction in early 2018.

Democrats Extend State House Majorities

The Democratic wave extended beyond the Governor’s race and into the State Senate and Assembly as well on Election Day.  Democrats increased their majorities in the Senate by one seat to take a 25-15 majority – their largest majority since 1981.  Democrats also picked up two more seats in the Assembly hiking their majority to 54 members – their largest vote total in that body since 1978. 

The GOP losses are stunning when viewed over the prior 8 years.  When Chris Christie was elected the Democratic majority in the Senate and Assembly was 23-17 and 47-33 respectively.  During much of that time, Christie was the most popular Republican Governor in the nation and for a time was a front runner for President.  But, coupled with another loss in redistricting legislative districts for the GOP in 2011, Christie spent almost no time focused on building his party’s numbers in the State House.  With most of his time spent fundraising to support his political ambition and travels, legislative Republicans saw their numbers drop even when running on Christie’s agenda. 

The losses at the end of an Administration aren’t without historic comparison, however, as popular Republican Governor Kean went from a massive reelection landslide in 1985 to a massive loss in his fellow GOP member’s Assembly seats as his term ended in 1989. But the slow decline in the Republican minority status will further be complicated by the impression that New Jersey is now a “Blue State” and that the Governor and State House are firmly in the grip of their opposition. 

History shows that misguided policy and redistricting could quickly change their fortunes in future elections.  But GOP leaders in the State must now change their focus from Chris Christie’s agenda to something far different if they are to reconnect to voters who were looking for something different in 2017.

The Election Results and Gun Control

Phil Murphy was blunt that he will seek to push legislation to further weaken gun rights in the State.  His campaign pledge to sign “every bill” Governor Christie vetoed is a message that 2018 will likely see a wave of gun control measures.  Murphy and gun control advocates like Senator Loretta Weinberg have also suggested bills could be introduced to go even further than that. 

How far that agenda moves will depend on many factors.  While gun control was an issue Murphy pursued, it did not play a role in legislative races or his ultimate election according to polls.  Governor-elect Murphy and the Legislature will also likely spend much of early next year dealing primarily with Budget and economic issues.  

In addition, it is expected that a new Speaker, Middlesex County Assemblyman Craig Coughlin, will be selected next session and while he has a voting record that has supported gun control he is not considered a firebrand behind the scenes on these issues.  He could open the flood gates for Murphy for sure but his leadership style on these issues is as of yet unknown.  It also remains to be seen how far Senate President Sweeney will want to go.  The Legislature is certain to give Murphy a platform to advance his agenda but there are a number of Democratic legislators in both houses who could help temper the debate as it arises. 

There are two things that are certain going into 2018. Gun control bills will be reintroduced and moved in Committee.  But ANJRPC is not without friends and a voice during the process.  It will take a lot of work and the relentless pressure of the membership on their elected officials to ensure a fair and meaningful analysis on these issues.

Sweeney beats the NJEA

In the marquis battle of the State Senate races, Senate President Steve Sweeney easily fended off the multimillion dollar barrage of the New Jersey Education Association to win reelection and likely secure his spot as the Senate’s leader next session.  The race will go down in history as the most expensive legislative race in State history with over $20 million poured into the 3rd District.  The GOP Senate candidate in the race in many ways took a back seat to the Sweeney-NJEA battle.  The NJEA, soured with the Senate President over his votes for pension reforms and for failing to post a vote on a pension funding constitutional amendment, made defeating Sweeney their primary goal in State House races.  But Sweeney held back the challenge and was re-elected by an overwhelming 59-41% margin.  The impact the race will have on relations between the Senate President, many of his allies in the Senate and the State’s largest teachers union will be one of the most watched stories of the next legislative session.

Brown takes back the 2nd for the GOP

In the only bright spot for Republican challengers opposing sitting State House Democrats across the State, Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown defeated Colin Bell for the State Senate seat in the 2nd Legislative District.  The District, including Atlantic City, has been politically turbulent for a decade electing both Democrats and Republicans to its State House delegation.  But Brown, running to replace the late Democratic Senator Jim Whelan, had long ago struck out as an independent GOP voice challenging Governor Christie on issues like the takeover of Atlantic City, north Jersey casino’s and public employee rights.  Brown beat Bell 54-46% despite the Democrats winning both the 2nd District’s Assembly seats and the Atlantic City Mayor’s office.  Brown is the only Republican to knock off a Democratic Senator this term.

Gopal stuns Beck

The Democratic victory in Monmouth County’s 11th District Assembly race in 2015 gave them hope that they could win back a Senate seat in the routinely GOP county.  Running against a highly respected and often independent Republican Senator, Jennifer Beck, Vin Gopal was initially given an outside chance to keep the race close.  Beck was well funded and had broken with the Governor on a number of key issues recently but buoyed by the Murphy victory, aggressive fundraising and months of GOTV Gopal stunned the political world by easily beating the incumbent Senator by 4,000 votes.  It was a loss the Republicans couldn’t afford for a number of reasons as it gives the Democrats a foothold in Monmouth County while knocking off a major player on the GOP bench.

GOP incumbents sweat out close races

It was a long and frustrating night for the GOP across New Jersey in several races where they managed to hold on to seats they never expected to lose. 

State Senator Kip Bateman, a long time and well known Republican, held on to his seat in the 16th District by just under 2,000 votes.

The normally safe Republican 8th District in Burlington County may see a recount as GOP Assemblyman Joe Howarth and his running mate Ryan Peters are clinging to a small lead of a few hundred votes over their Democratic challengers the day after the election.  No one watching legislative races this year put this District in the competitive column but the Murphy win in Burlington County may have trickled down ballot to this race.

Perhaps more surprising was the tightness of the outcome in the very Republican 21st Legislative District.  Home to the Senate and Assembly GOP leaders, Tom Kean and Jon Bramnick and their running mate Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, this District has never been a Democratic target.  But an intense Mayoral race in Westfield, a major town in the District, was won in a landslide by a Democrat.  Coupled with the bad environment for Republicans and this local reality, Bramnick and Munoz won with just a 2% margin of victory over their nearest Democratic challenger.

Democratic spending in other legislative races and the Murphy victory in places like Bergen County caused some initial upset concerns but in the end the GOP was safe in the 39th and 40th Districts when the races were over.

New faces coming to Trenton

2018 will be a time of change in Trenton, not just with the incoming Murphy Administration, but with the addition of 15 new legislators moving into the Senate from the Assembly or fresh off their first election.  There will be 5 new Senators joining that body – 3 Democrats and 2 Republicans.  GOP Assemblymen Chris Brown and Declan O’Scanlon will take new seats in the Senate.  Democratic Assemblyman Troy Singleton moves up into the vacant 7th District Senate spot, Vin Gopal takes over in the 11th and former Democratic Assemblyman and Union County Sheriff Joe Cryan has been returned to Trenton as the Senator for the 20th District.  The Assembly will swear in 10 new members from across the State, five from each party.

With a new Governor and newly elected legislators accounting for 13% of the Legislature, early 2018 will prove a test for them personally and for the policy agenda of the leadership in the State House. 

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