It’s the time of the year when political pundits make predictions regarding the year to come. In order to make any reality-based projections regarding New Jersey, it is first essential to assay the political landscape of the Garden State.
There are three dominant factors regarding the New Jersey political landscape as we enter 2019.
First, the prevailing political party orientation is mainstream Democrat: Mainstream Blue in contemporary political argot. Mainstream Blue may be distinguished from the Progressive Blue of Bernie Sanders supporters.
Second, the most significant political mood is anti-Donald Trump. To the overwhelming majority of the New Jersey electorate, Donald Trump is anathema, and his presidency may be summarized in electoral terms as Trump toxicity. In virtually all sections of the state, a candidate’s identification as a Trump supporter is a certain prescription for defeat.
Third, the vast majority of the state’s electorate is currently largely apathetic to state political issues.
These three factors are interrelated and cannot be considered to be isolated.
The Mainstream Blue orientation of the electorate is a significant factor in the antipathy of the New Jersey electorate towards the Donald Trump message.
The Trump scandals and controversies literally take all the oxygen out of the political theatre room. The typical New Jersey voter, pro or anti Trump focuses so heavily on the Trump Washington drama that he or she has little time or energy to pay attention to New Jersey political issues, regardless of how significant they may be. This is THE major reason for the current prevailing apathy of the New Jersey electorate towards state political issues.
Trump toxicity continues to cause New Jersey voters to view the Republican brand with at best disdain and at worst repugnance. New Jersey electorate’s Mainstream Blue orientation, its prevailing apathy towards Trenton, and the current unattractiveness of the GOP brand throughout the state make it most difficult for Republicans to oust Democratic incumbents in elections, gubernatorial, legislative, or municipal.
Each of the three aforesaid elements of the New Jersey political landscape has certain underpinnings – and certain direct consequences as well.
The Mainstream Blue orientation is of relatively recent vintage. It wasn’t always this way.
Keep in mind that from the election of 1964 through the election of 1988, the Republicans carried New Jersey in every single presidential election. That includes the presidential elections of 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, and 1988.
The Republican victory of incumbent President Gerald Ford in New Jersey in the presidential election of 1976 was remarkable in that it occurred in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, which resulted in that election’s national victory of Jimmy Carter.
That GOP success was a harbinger of the arrival of Tom Kean, then the Assembly Republican Minority Leader, who performed superbly as the New Jersey Ford campaign manager. Since the election of 1992, however, the Democrats have carried New Jersey in every single presidential election: 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016, seven consecutive presidential elections.
Moreover, from 1969 through 2017, the GOP won seven of the thirteen New Jersey gubernatorial elections and maintained dominant, in fact overwhelming control of both houses of the State Legislature from 1992 until 2002. Yet the current Mainstream Blue orientation will make that era of significant GOP success a trend of the past.
There are basically three reasons for the deepening Mainstream Blue orientation of the New Jersey electorate. The first is the continued movement into New Jersey of Democratic voters from the Metropolitan New York City and Philadelphia regions. The second is the increase in minority voters, i.e. primarily African-American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban-American voters. The third is the increase in the number of millennial voters.
All three of these Democratic constituencies tend to eschew the para-socialism of the Progressive Democratic movement. This was demonstrated most graphically by the landslide loss in the 2016 New Jersey presidential primary of Progressive Democrat Bernie Sanders to the mainstream Democratic presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.
While these three increasing Democratic constituencies want to preserve capitalist economic principles and initiatives, they do want an expanded government role in assisting middle class and working class New Jerseyans in coping with increasingly difficult affordability issues, most notably health care. Republican opposition to virtually every governmental health care proposal will only serve to deepen the New Jersey Mainstream Blue orientation.
Governor Phil Murphy is politically speaking the weakest governor in New Jersey over the past three decades. His lack of political acumen is augmented by the profound political incompetence of his front office. He does have a highly competent political advisor in Brendan Gill, but Brendan has chosen not to serve in the Murphy administration.
Accordingly, while Murphy has demonstrated an inclination to move the party in a more Progressive Blue direction, his political weakness prevents him from doing so. The political message and tone of the Democratic Party in New Jersey is set by the state and county chairs, who are decidedly Mainstream Blue.
While Trump toxicity will continue to relegate the New Jersey Republican Party to decidedly minority status and statewide electoral defeat, the Trump movement will continue to hold the loyalty of a large segment of a New Jersey Republican Party experiencing a decreasing percentage of the state electorate. We may expect the entry of a decidedly Trump true believer in virtually every significant GOP primary in the state, even after Trump leaves the presidency, voluntarily or involuntarily.
The New Jersey Republican Party will not win control of either state house over the next two decades. As is the case in the Deep Blue States of Massachusetts (Charlie Baker) and Maryland (Larry Hogan), however, the Republicans still can win a gubernatorial election.
In New Jersey, however, the GOP can only win the governorship if the incumbent Democratic governor is perceived as a massive failure. Such a perception will only take hold if 1) the incumbent Democratic governor is tarnished by a massive scandal; or 2) the Democratic governor or legislature propose a major broad-based tax increase or toll hike (e.g. the Corzine proposed “asset monetization” toll hike). Otherwise, for the foreseeable future, public apathy will be a continuing major factor in the Democrats controlling the governorship.
Taking this analysis of the New Jersey political landscape into account, one can make a studied projection as to what lies ahead regarding the three most significant 2019 New Jersey political questions, to wit ; 1) the political future of Governor Phil Murphy; 2) the November, 2019 Assembly elections; and 3) the decision to be made by State Senator Tom Kean, Jr. as to whether he runs against newly elected Congressman Tom Malinowski for the 7th District House seats (word is he already has commitments in the party of support).
There are two political storm clouds on the horizon for Phil Murphy. The first is whether he proposes to close the widening budget deficit gap by a broad-based tax increase. The second is whether he will be implicated personally in his administration’s disgracefully improper handling of the highly credible Katie Brennan rape allegations.
It appears likely that Murphy will choose to close the deficit by a “soak the rich” increase in the “millionaire’s tax.” While “soak the rich” constitutes poor economic policy, hampering small business-spurred economic development in the Garden State, it does enable Murphy to avoid the increased unpopularity from a broad-based tax increase that doomed Jim Florio’s reelection campaign. “Soak the Rich” works for Murphy politically but fails economically.
As for the Katie Brennan scandal, Murphy is likely to avoid political damage if he is not found to have had knowledge of her allegations before they became public in the Wall Street Journal story and chosen to ignore dealing with them. He deserves condemnation, however, for his administration’s contemptible and insensitive handling of her complaint. He should fire all those in his front office charged with dealing with this matter.
The apathy of the New Jersey electorate is the major factor politically benefitting Phil Murphy, a most ineffective governor. Unless he either enacts a broad based tax increase or is personally implicated in the Katie Brennan investigation, he will govern below the political radar screen and continue to maintain a positive, albeit unenthusiastic approval rating. He will be a reelection favorite with a remarkable lack of governmental achievement.
Similarly, in the absence of a broad-based tax increase, which Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin resolutely oppose, the Democrats are certain to retain overwhelming control of the State Assembly in the 2019 elections. This election will be distinguished by profound apathy and minimal turnout. It will be a status quo election, with little or no numerical change in the Assembly’s political party composition.
The most difficult thing to predict is Tom Kean, Jr.’s forthcoming decision as to whether to run against Tom Malinowski. Since he was defeated by Bob Menendez in his 2006 run for the US Senate, Tom Kean, Jr. has grown in stature and compiled an outstanding record of legislative accomplishment. His ethics and integrity are impeccable and beyond dispute.
He is being encouraged to run against Tom Malinowski in 2020. He would be a superb candidate and outstanding Congressman. The Kean name continues to be political magic in New Jersey, and deservedly so. Tom Kean, Sr., the greatest governor in modern New Jersey political history, remains the most popular New Jersey political figure virtually thirty years after he left the governorship, despite all the changes in the Garden State political landscape.
The problem with a Kean, Jr. 2020 candidacy is that 2020 promises to be an absolutely horrific Republican year in New Jersey. In addition to the forbidding existing political landscape for New Jersey Republicans, 2020 will be a year of maximum Trump toxicity in New Jersey, either due to his previously having left office in disgrace or his appearance on the ballot as a reelection candidate.
Accordingly, Tom Kean, Jr. has three options:
1. He can bypass the 2020 Malinowski race and run for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2021, setting up a highly competitive primary contest between him and Jack Ciattarelli.
2. He can run against Malinowski in 2020, leaving Ciattarelli as the 2021 presumptive GOP gubernatorial nominee.
3. Kean, Jr. is only 50 years old – and a youthful 50 at that. He can bypass the Malinowski 2020 race and the 2021 gubernatorial race, leave the state Senate to make some serious money, stay active in the media and campaigns, and run statewide for a US Senate seat and/or the governorship if and when a favorable opportunity becomes available and there is an improved landscape for the GOP.
I have no idea what Tom Kean, Jr. will decide, but we will know soon enough. In the words of the late, great New York Yankees announcer, Melvin Albert Israel, a/k/a Mel Allen, we shall see what we shall see.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.