Bar Stool Observations from the 2019 Election Cycle (So Far)

Gaburo

SOMERVILLE – The barkeep plopped a Bloody Mary on the counter amid the dizzying dormant swarm of sports show imagery, as the calls came in on the political front.

The Jets are dead.

Long live New Jersey politics.

Some nuggety observations from the trail as we try to piece together some of the plot lines in this slowly-coming-together and blandly intriguing (more about overkill and broad, Jackson Pollock splatters of emotions than small engine mechanics) cycle.

A Republican source regarded an InsiderNJ piece about GOP leadership with skepticism.

LD26 Assemblyman Jay Webber
LD26 Assemblyman Jay Webber

If Democrats encroach on Republican turf and topple another (or two incumbents), Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26) – poised to win reelection – would take a hard look at leadership, the source told InsiderNJ. Purveyor of the art of compromise, battleground district occupant Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21) on the other side of a win would be teetering on a fine edge of having to face an argument for taking the caucus in another direction.

Especially if he wins and someone else – like Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R-8) – loses.

Opposed within his party by that same school of conciliators and soft-in-the-middle operators, flinty movement conservative Webber would find it difficult to resist making that case, the source said, especially with a caucus hardened by the loss of battleground incumbents trained to eschew ideology, or trying to live with the loss of a star quality Navy SEAL like Peters.

But others are confident that Bramnick would get back in on the strength of his political skill and people power ability. “I mean, who would really want that job now,” one Democratic source wondered.

Bramnick, a genuine people person, would still have the upper-hand against someone trying to bump him off to take the party closer to Trump.

It depends on who’s left standing.

“The closer the caucus the caucus looks like Arkansas on the other side, the more troublesome it gets for Bramnick,” one GOP source said.

So there’s some buzz about leadership in GOP circles, as Republicans – rugged individualists to the last – try to blame themselves for what Trump wrought, especially – like everyone else – when there’s something to be gained.

Democrats?

Democrats running for seats in battleground districts are not doing so as “Murphy Democrats.” For one,

Murphy
Murphy in India.

operatives close to the GN3 engine room run the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee (DACC) so they’re not inclined to front-end load Governor Phil Murphy-friendly messages against the backdrop of a civil war between George Norcross III and the governor. Also, of course, in his neophyte, post-Goldman Sachs quest to define his own political turf in a state run by transactional party machines, Murphy has packaged himself as a progressive not uncomfortable (going back to his 2017 run for governor) with exacting $1.5 billion in new taxes. To those who don’t like it, he reminds them, “We won by two touchdowns” when he defeated Republican Kim Guadagno statewide. The other piece of evidence directly demonstrating the bifurcation within the party goes to last month’s New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) endorsements.

LaPlaca and Peters
LD8 rivals Democrat Gina LaPlaca, left, and Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R-8).

In those battleground districts where Democrats seek to enhance the Norcross-friendly Assembly super majority that bucked the governor on his call for a millionaire’s tax (barring a sneak attack in another district), the NJEA backs Republicans: LD8 (Assemblyman Ryan Peters and Sheriff Jean Stanfield), LD21 (Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz) and LD25 (Assemblyman Tony Bucco [and Democrat Lisa Bhimani]).

Of course, the governor can always make the case that he will be back come crunch time, but if this were D-Day, he’s in India. Literally. When he does come back, he likely won’t be visible for any extended period of time in a district hardened by weeks of air wars amplifying a DACC (not Murphy) vision for the state and the GOP fighting back with anti-Murphy anti-aircraft fire – unless he wants to undo the potential for a Norcross-connected victory. If the governor’s political operatives really want to get cute, they will drop him into those battlegrounds to vigorously campaign at the sides of Democratic challengers to help finish off the potential for a more obnoxious Norcross endzone dance on the night of Nov. 5th and award a fig leaf to the NJEA.

Democrats will nationalize wherever they can.

They started early.

In LD8, the hits on Peters go to guns. They’ll go women’s issues. They’ll go Trump. They’ll go to outrage over the overreach on social media by that unapologetic Trump corner of the party.

Of course, their toughest races (and even the possibility of a backyard humiliation?) could prove

Testa
Testa

defensive on their home terrain in LD1 (where Cumberland Republican Chair Mike Testa is going up against incumbent state Senator Robert Andrzejczak) in a district with significant rural country not unfriendly to Trump (proved last year with the better than expected movement conservative, all-Trump all-the-time congressional candidacy of Republican Seth Grossman). There the anti-tax message is not merely an exercise in governor-bullying but survival.

Remember this from NJ.com:

In the 2nd District, Cook and Sabato say the district “leans” Democratic for 2020, but they also cite Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s unexpectedly close 2018 win against Republican Seth Grossman, whose shoot-himself-in-the-foot campaign inspired guffaws from political pros. Also, the 2nd went for Donald Trump by 4.6 points in the 2016 presidential contest.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, broke down LD1.

“This is really a Republican district at its core,” Murray told InsiderNJ. “It’s been held onto largely on the strength of  Jeff Van Drew. There is no secret at all as to why that team is running as the ‘Van Drew Team.’ He has long carried his running mates across the finish line. I would say overall that either the 1st or the 8th is the most competitive this cycle. If Van Drew on the ballot, it would not be as competitive. Certainly, in the past we have seen Democratic assembly candidates run in LD1 without Van Drew on the ballot, but they ran as the Van Drew team. Now, with him not serving in the senate but in Congress, the dynamic is a little different.”

In Somerset County, and spillover Union, it’s already all Trump all the time from the Democrats as a way of shaming a party discombobulated by the president’s presence in the White House. It took the GOP years here in Somerset to build Millicent Fenwick/Doris Duke/Rodney Frelinghuysen/Christie Todd Whitman political fortifications that Trump has kicked down in two plus years. What might have been a GOP-prioritized district (LD16, defended by Democratic Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker and Assemblyman Roy Freiman) is less important than Republicans throwing limited resources at incumbent Freeholder Pat Walsh to maintain party control of the county. Sources in both parties don’t give much of a shot to Republican challenger Mark Caligure and his fellow Montgomery resident Christine Madrid (if it were an inter-county-engineered Republican campaign effort, a Hunterdon Republican would occupy the ticket, not two party members from Somerset, let alone the same town.

Walsh
Walsh

In LD21, there’s a little Chris Christie thrown in on top of Trump by the Dems. Westfield was the heart of one of the former governor’s key brain trusts. Bramnick will have to answer for that as he attempts to change their narration into his own drumbeat of civility.

Democrats don’t want to talk about the EDA (the Economic Development Authority) (except in the broadest of terms) as much as they are content to allow the nativism of Trump’s national brand speak for itself. New Jersey could be the most miserable on earth, and as long as Trump is tweeting in the trees, Democrats (including those looking to flip educated suburban districts) will point there with a sense of condemnatory discomfort.

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