An ally of Leonard Lance watched 2017 unfold and told InsiderNJ the Central Jersey Democratic Party was finished. By his reckoning, President Donald J. Trump would be riding an economic high in 2018, while Governor-elect Phil Murphy would have come in and raised taxes, which would tomahawk the chances of anyone looking to run against Lance.
“Leonard will be fine,” said the source, dismissing InsiderNJ’s reference to the Republican congressman being fitted for judges’ robes. Moreover, he added with a wink, Lance had essentially innoculated himself going forward against the routine brutal primaries coming from his right and tearing at his pant legs every two years, having jumped up to a podium early to back movement conservative Steve Lonegan’s doomed 2013 run for senate against then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
“Leonard will be fine.”
The words still rang in the ears of those respectable golf cart riding souls in these parts, some of whom still can’t fathom the double unhorsing of political family names as time-tested and plaque-crested as Lance and U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11).
Needless to say, the path to victory for Lance didn’t go according to GOP plans.
Bothered early by Murphy for a variety of reasons, and in caucus protection (and expansion) mode (South Jersey’s LD1 and LD8, unlike their other battleground competitors, don’t contain the vitriolic anti-Trump movements evident in Central and North Jersey), state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), with Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19) in tow, killed Murphy’s millionaire’s tax in 2018 (and would do it again in 2019), ironically helping to prevent even a suggestion of the suspenders-wearing Irish-Italian South Jerseyan’s dreaded political enemy from getting Florioed. Establishment Democrats aligned with Sweeney will make the case that despite their hatred for him, they’re saving Murphy from himself; only to reinstall a legislature that again denies him, and again saves him.
Deny and save, deny and save.
“Despite the appearance of racture, we’re actually getting a lot accomplished,” Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16) said.
InsiderNJ offered the narrative to state Senator Bob Andrzejczak (D-1) who stared back in stony silence, unwilling to absorb any positive assessment of the legislature’s troubled relationship with the effervescent liberal governor, who simply makes his conservative district-life harder, not easier.
But it was much more than that, something the Lance source could never have forseen.
It was Trump.
He eliminated the state and local property tax (SALT) deduction. He didn’t move the Gateway Tunnel project, despite Frelinghuysen securing funding for the desperately-needed transportation project. He prioritized the needs of what U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5) liked to call “the moocher states”. But at the heart of it, he galvanized women and the friends of women, and minorities and the friends of minorities, all revolted by equal parts sexism, nativism, and probably egocentrism, especially unbearable to a culture of miniature egocentrics. On the night the unknown Tom Malinowski squared off against Lance at NJTV studios, a squirming Lance gave Trump a “B” grade as president.
It was a moment.
In response, “The president has praised white nationalists in Charlottesville,” Malinowski said. “The president is a role model. It’s not enough to say you disapprove. The congress has a constitutional obligation to act. We have a problem. We are not going to solve that problem by saying, ‘oh, I wish he wouldn’t tweet so much.’”
On the heels of her own victory over a 28-year incumbent, Lambertville Mayoral candidate Julia Fahl told InsiderNJ that Malinowski was mobilizing a suburban army, evident in her own anti-establishment Democratic Primary victory and growing behind the borders of the Hunterdon County river town.
Malinowski beat Lance, 52-47%.
A year later, with Trump “underwater,” to borrow a Patrick Murrray word, at 37% approval, as much as Republicans want to try (and should) to make the election about Murphy (who has a 41% job approval rating) and turn him into the 2019 version of Jim Florio, Trump continues to be the most obvious motivating force for voters in areas where Democrats can pick up seats in a legislature they already own 54-26, at ground zero of precisely those congressional districts where Democrats were never supposed to compete, including Frelinghuysen’s Morris County-based district and Lance’s Somerset – at it turned out – sojourn.
In the simplest terms, Trump’ a bigger, more obnoxious boogeyman than Murphy, who should be the dominant poster boy for dysfunction in a state government cycle.
“Trump is in everyone’s head and he is in everyone’s stomach,” state Senator Bob Smith (D-17) told InsiderNJ. The veteran lawmaker marveled at the landscape. “To think that in an assembly race, you can run against Donald Trump,” he said, almost in disbelief. “He has given Democrats a more energized voter base in key areas and contributed to better organization.”
How bad is it?
For years, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21) could expend energy in other regions of the state, leisurely spending time in South Jersey, for example. But this year, sandwiched dreadfully between Shelley Brindle‘s 2017 local victory in his hometown of Westfield and Malinowski’s 2018 body slam of Lance, Bramnick finds himself in the most resource-animated district of the cycle, as he attempts to stave off elimination. Underscoring the GOP dilemma elsewhere, state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-21) appears more intent on his own hail mary pass 2020 challenge of election than he is with picking up a senate seat in LD1. “Two guys should never be running the party from the same district,” a South Jersey Republican complained bitterly while observing Bramnick and Kean in back-to-back bunker bomb mode. Trump is not the dreaded enemy in LD1 that he is elsewhere (confirmed by battleground occupant Mike Testa assuming the co-chairmanship of Trump’s 2020 NJ Campaign, an olive branch offered by the White House in the aftermath of an infamous Trump tweet), the source said, angry over the party establishment’s continuing disregard of a regon where South Jersey Democrats bully the oppising party out of real commitments in the back rooms of Trenton.
Prior to Trump, suburban LD11 and LD16 were the battleground legislative districts.
Prior to Chris Christie’s meltdown, suburban LD14, LD2, LD18 (somewhat) and LD38 formed the battleground stage.
But those times appear over, at least for now, in LD8 coin toss time points South, as long as Central and North Jersey Democrats – vying this year to take over long-time Republican county Somerset, home to Trump’s golf course, once the safe and leafy domain of Frelinghuysen and Lance, now prime time cable country for desperately aired ads by the GOP in self-protection mode countywide and in LD21 – can point to Trump in the White House and identify an overriding common source of suburban voter agony.
- Andrew Zwicker
- Bob Andrzejczak
- Bob Smith
- Bob Smmith
- Cory Booker
- Craig Coughlin
- Donald Trump
- Donald Trump Phil Murphy
- Jim Florio
- Jon Bramnick
- Julia Fahl
- Leonard Lance
- millionaire's tax
- Morris County
- Patrick Murray
- Phil Murphy
- Rodney Frelinghuysen
- Shelley Brindle
- Somerset County
- Steve Lonegan
- Tom Kean
- Tom Malinowski
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