Perhaps the real story of 2022 is a tale of two states: a Democrat machine-led north Jersey and a conservative (and GOP winning) South Jersey (below the Driscoll Bridge.) Therein lies the problem for the NJGOP.
Yes, there was good news for the NJGOP in 2022: Republicans held onto their municipal and county gains from the 2021 election, picked up one Congressional seat (CD-7, as expected), flipped control of one county (Cumberland County) and won several municipal and county seats- especially below the Driscoll Bridge. But all that was overshadowed by the New Jersey Democrats, who (armed with a new Congressional map and buoyed by the overturning of Roe) enjoyed blow-out victories in key congressional (CD 5 and 11) and county races (Bergen County Executive and Passaic County Sheriff.)
Here, then, is a look at some of the top stories of 2022: story lines that may or not have grabbed your attention but are, nonetheless, the prelude to larger stories in the upcoming 2023 and 2024 elections.
The Route 4 corridor– What happened in Bergen County? After a closer than expected election last year (where Gov. Murphy defeated Jack Ciattarelli in Bergen by just 15,000 votes), the Bergen GOP was routed this year. Democrat County Executive Jim Tedesco easily defeated GOP candidate Todd Caliguire by more than 30,000 votes- 56% – 44%; and, Rep, Josh Gottheimer trounced GOP challenger Frank Pallotta 59%-41% in the Bergen portion of CD-5.
Give the Bergen Democrats credit: they know how to win big races. What’s their winning formula? Simply put, getting a big vote out of the Route 4 corridor- among the “bluest of the blue” areas in north Jersey. From Fort Lee to Fair Lawn, towns along Route 4 deliver massive pluralities for the Democrats year after year- enough votes to easily offset the reliably Republican vote above Route 17. This year was more of the same.
In the big five (5) towns on the Route 4 Corridor -Fort Lee, Englewood, Bergenfield, Hackensack and Fair Lawn- Tedesco defeated Caliguire by 15,000 votes (almost half of Tedesco’s 30,500 vote plurality) beating Caliguire 7:1 in VBM and 2:1 in Early Voting. This spells trouble for the NJGOP as they look toward next year’s LD-38 election.
LD-38 is one of the few competitive state legislative districts and where Sen. Joe Lagana (D-Paramus) is viewed as a possible GOP pick-up. But the path to defeating Lagana runs through this same Route 4 corridor where the GOP was routed. For example, Gottheimer defeated Pallotta 62%- 38% in the combined Bergenfield and Fair Lawn vote. Paramus (a re-emerged GOP powerhouse), Bergenfield, and Fair Lawn are the (3) three largest towns in LD-38. So if this 2022 CD-5 vote is replicated next year (where incumbents Assemblyman Chris Tully, of Bergenfield, and Assemblywoman Karen Swain, of Fair Lawn, reside), there’s likely not enough Republican votes to offset the large Democrat pluralities from these and the other LD-38 Democratic-leaning Route 4 corridor towns.
Other factors, of course, contributed to the Democrats’ blow-out victory in Bergen: A nasty and costly GOP primary for CD-5 and County Executive siphoned money and enthusiasm from Pallotta and Caliguire; there was no Jack Ciattarelli (or a Lee Zeldin) on the top of ticket to excite Republican activists and donors; and the GOP message was primarily defensive and grievance-based.
Unfortunately for the NJGOP, the factors that led to the Democrats’ rout in Bergen County weren’t just limited to Bergen.
Congressman-Elect Mike Lawler– While Bergen Republicans were licking their wounds, Republicans in neighboring Rockland County (NY) were celebrating. In perhaps the most consequential story in New Jersey politics, NY state GOP Assemblyman Mike Lawler did the unimaginable: he defeated DCCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney (the first DCCC Chair to lose re-election since 1980) in the new NY 17th congressional district.
Lawler’s victory demonstrates that Republican congressional candidates can win in the northeast suburbs.
Lawler won convincingly in strong Democratic areas, like Rockland County- a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2:1 and where President Joe Biden won by more than 10 points in 2020; and Lawler won by staying on message—relentlessly hitting Maloney on rising energy prices, illegal immigration and crime in New York City, while vowing to restore the SALT deduction.
It begs the question: If Lawler can defeat the powerful and well financed Maloney, why can’t a quality Republican candidate beat Rep. Gottheimer and/or Rep. Mikie Sherill?
Maybe Lawler’s victory provides some insights into who might be the right candidate to win: one with deep personal roots in the district, a solid track record as an elected official, and one who espouses a positive economic opportunity message aimed at young and immigrant families.
Call it “Highway problem” (#2)- GSP Exits 159-129– The NJ Turnpike northern corridor that cuts through Hudson and Essex is a treasure trove of Democratic votes; but let’s face it: the NJGOP has a (north corridor) Garden State Parkway (GSP) problem, too— especially from Exits 159 to 129. This 30-mile span is dominated by the highly effective Democrat led machines in Bergen, Essex, Union and Middlesex counties. How effective? Consider this: In 2021, Gov. Phil Murphy defeated Jack Ciattarelli by a mere 84,000 statewide, but these 4 counties collectively garnered a 161,000 vote plurality for Murphy. Essex and Union counties, alone, generated a 119,000 vote plurality for Murphy- with Ciatarelli losing Union County by about 32,000 votes. This year was more of the same.
No wonder why Democrats pushed for a new Congressional map that placed key Democratic Union County towns in five (5) Congressional Districts (CD 11, 10, 9, 7, 6) along this 30-mile span.
But it’s not just along the Essex or Middlesex County GSP span where Republicans are losing. Look at Union County. The GSP spur that runs through CD-7 almost cost Tom Kean, Jr. the election. Consider this: Kean defeated Rep. Tom Malinowski by a mere 9,000 votes, but Kean lost in Union County (his home county) by 15,000 votes. The bulk of the Union County plurality came from the 5-6 towns that are serviced by GSP exits.
This can’t be a surprise to the NJGOP. After all, Union County is the home of NJGOP Chair Bob Hugin, GOP National Committeeman Bill Palatucci and Sen. Jon Bramnick. The irony is that Union has become among the worst performing GOP counties in the state; and the Republican weakness there, makes Kean vulnerable in 2024.
South (and South-Central) Jersey:
Monmouth County GOP: It’s a continuing story, but often overlooked. With a deep bench of experienced municipal officials, a dedicated army of volunteers for the ground game and a continuing focus on registering new Republican voters (in fact, almost 35% of all new registered Republican voters came from Monmouth in 2022), Monmouth GOP is one of the best political organizations in the state; and this year they showed why they are so formidable.
Led by Monmouth County Sheriff and GOP County Chair Shaun Golden (pictured, top), Monmouth Republicans rolled up big wins on all levels- local, county and Congressional: Golden easily won re-election by beating Democrat challenger Larry Luttrell 57% -41%; and Commissioners Tom Arnone and Nick DiRocco also won re-election by almost 40,000 votes. The Monmouth GOP team campaigned on their record of delivering fiscally responsible government services and emphasizing “kitchen table” issues (inflation, crime, and education.)
Congressional candidates in CD-3, CD-4 and CD-6 also did well in the Monmouth portion of their districts. GOP challenger Bob Healey, for example, handily beat Rep. Andy Kim 56%- 42.5%; Rep. Chris Smith trounced his Democratic opponent 60.7 to 37%; and in CD-6, Monmouth Deputy Director Sue Kiley garnered a respectable 46% against Rep. Frank Pallone.
But this year’s big story may be a prelude to one of the biggest story lines of 2023: Can the Monmouth GOP organization muster enough strength to defeat Sen. Vin Gopal (LD -11) next year? In the only split district in the state, Gopal is vulnerable; and the Dems know it. State Dems are committed to making this race one of the most expensive state Senate races in state history. With a deep bench (like the talented first term Assemblywoman Marilyn Piperno), look for the Monmouth GOP to rise to the challenge.
I wouldn’t bet against the Monmouth GOP- especially in next year’s marquee race.
Cumberland County: Perhaps the biggest GOP victory in 2022 was Cumberland GOP’s flipping control of the County Commissioner Board.
This was not an easy feat when you consider: Democrats still outnumber Republicans 3:2 in the County and President Biden won Cumberland by 6 points in 2020. Not too long ago, Cumberland was considered a Democrat bastion. In 2009, for example, then Gov. Jon Corzine easily beat challenger Chris Christie 50.7%-41.8% in Cumberland.
Despite the odds, State Senator and Cumberland GOP Chair Mike Testa completed a three-year quest to gain control of the County Commission. With wins by Commissioner Doug Albrecht and Commissioner-Elect Victoria Groetsch-Lods, it will be the first time in 50 years that the GOP will have two consecutive years of control on the County Commission.
Since their stunning win in 2019 when Testa, and now Assemblymen Erik Simonsen and Antwan McClellan ‘flipped the First’ (with the help of big margins out of Cape May County), Testa and team have not looked back. Today, the Cumberland County GOP is a county organization that is energized and able to recruit quality candidates. Credit also goes to strong local GOP leaders like Vineland Mayor Anthony Fanucci, whose success with a diverse constituency is something that Republicans around the state would be wise to emulate.
The tale of two states will likely be replayed in the upcoming 2023 state legislative and 2024 Congressional and Presidential elections. Next year, there will be some incremental GOP gains. But how the GOP will fare in these elections, may ultimately depend on what side of the Driscoll Bridge you are standing.