Going into the 2023 midterm elections Democrats controlled the State Senate 25-15 and the General Assembly 46-34. Conventional wisdom was Republicans would significantly cut into those margins. As usual when it comes to political prognostications, conventional wisdom was wrong - by a lot.
Democrats won every competitive legislative election. And the victories were by more comfortable margins than anyone anticipated, highlighted by Senator Vin Gopal’s annihilation of his Republican opponent by 20 points in the marquee race of this election cycle in Monmouth County. Gopal’s coattails swept out two incumbent Republican Assembly members. Even Republican legislative victories in Union, Morris and Bergen were closer than anticipated.
The 221st Legislature, to be sworn-in on January 9, 2024, will have a Senate controlled by Democrats 25-15 and General Assembly controlled by Democrats 52-28. These are the same margins the Democrats controlled the Legislature by the day before the 2021 Election. The 2021 election results saw Republicans cut into the Democrat’s legislative majorities in part by defeating Senate President Steve Sweeney, and 2021 Republican Gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli came within 85,000 votes of upsetting Governor Murphy. Many saw this as the beginning of a realignment of New Jersey politics, especially in South Jersey. Republican enthusiasm from the 2021 results were combined with a newly redrawn legislative map which gave Republicans their best opportunity to gain seats, and possibly even a majority, provided the dynamics of the race broke their way.
The dynamics of the 2023 campaign were decidedly on the Republican side. From parental rights in education to offshore wind, Republicans were on the offensive. Democrats countered that abortion rights would be threatened if Republicans took control. Interestingly, the campaign was devoid of the one element that is the hallmark of every NJ campaign – taxes/affordability. This is especially telling since Democrats expanded the NJ ANCHOR property tax rebate program and instituted the Stay NJ program in the FY 2024 Budget adopted in June 2023. As a matter of fact, the increased NJ ANCHOR rebates were sent weeks before the election. Republicans are successful in statewide races – albeit narrowly - when they focus on making NJ more affordable. Republicans Christe Whitman (1993) and Chris Chrisie (2009) won their first campaign with less than 50% of the vote and their focus was on taxes/affordability.
While politicians weren’t talking about taxes/affordability, it was what was on the minds of voters.
On Election Day 2023 the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics released a poll detailing the issues driving the electorate and - surprise - it wasn’t culture war issues but rather affordability ones that voters most cared about. Forty percent of respondents stated affordability was their number one issue. Drilling into the detail of the poll the most interesting data concerned electric vehicles. Fifty-seven percent of Independents stated they were less likely to vote for a candidate that supported Governor Murphy’s 2035 EV mandate. This was the only issue where a majority of Independents were less likely to support a candidate who took a position on a policy of the Governor’s . Why? Because the Governor’s “electrify everything” agenda is the antithesis of affordability. (Note: Click here for NJ-IEC lobbyist Eric DeGesero’s election evening analysis on NJPBS’ NJ Spotlight News program Election Night 2023 coverage. (begins at 2:24:30).
While the Republicans focused on their culture was issues, the Democrats played their culture war card, abortion. Ever since the 2022 Dobbs decision overturning Roe v Wade, Republicans have been on the defensive on the issue and losing on it in Republican states like Kansas and Ohio and purple states like Virginia, let alone in a blue state like New Jersey. And the issue is far from over here. In 2025 the Governor’s office is up for election, Governor Murphy is term limited and cannot run, and the General Assembly is up for election. The Seante isn’t up again until 2027. It is expected that the Legislature will place a question on the ballot in 2025 to enshrine abortion rights into the NJ Constitution helping drive Democratic turnout in 2025.
In New Jersey 39% of the electorate is registered as Democrat, 36% Independent, and 24% Republican. Republicans start off with a huge disadvantage and need to pull an inside straight to win statewide. Their task is compounded by the distinct advantage Democrats have developed by mastering mail in votes. On Election Night 2023, before any Election Day 2023 votes were tallied, every competitive race began with Democrats thousands of votes ahead of Republicans as a result of a mail in ballot initiative run with lethal efficacy. Until Republicans accept the fact that mail in voting is legitimate, legal, and embraced by the public, and therefore not likely to be changed, they as a party needed to do a better job of getting their voters to use it. If the Republicans gain control they can repeal the law if the so choose, but they wont get the opportunity to until they win.