Triaging the Trump Damage

The day after losing his race for the U.S. Senate, Bob Hugin was dissed by the president from his own party.

In a rambling and at times confrontational press conference Wednesday, President Trump seemed to take pleasure in pointing fingers at GOP candidates across the nation who refused his “embrace,” metaphorically speaking. In typical Trump fashion, the president noted that Utah Rep. Mia Love, who was once seen as a rising star in the GOP,  “gave me no love and she lost.”  Love said she would not vote for Trump after the infamous Access Hollywood tape surfaced in the fall of 2016.

The president was not done. He rattled off more names of candidates who had eschewed his blessing and eventually came to Hugin, who Trump said was in a race he should have won.

It’s true Hugin sought to distance himself from Trump in the campaign, but it’s also true the president offered Hugin a last minute endorsement the day before the election.

The view here is that Trump certainly played a role in New Jersey’s election, but not the one the president enunciated Wednesday. Quite the opposite. Republicans were beaten in many places simply because Trump has so sullied the Republican brand in New Jersey.

Let’s review the damage.

In losing to Bob Menendez, Hugin lost to a man who was accused of various ethical lapses and who was admonished by a Senate committee, Democrats included.

When all is said and done, there may be only one Republican member of Congress from New Jersey. The GOP already has lost three seats with the one now held by Tom MacArthur still to be decided. What is most surprising is that two of the three seats the GOP lost are in what used to be seen as solid Republican terrain – the suburbs of northwest New Jersey.

Come January, the two members of Congress representing Morris County will be Democrats Tom Malinowski and Mikie Sherrill, neither of whom live in the county. Talk about a kick in the gut for Morris Republicans.

Moreover, Democrats continue to chip away at what once was a solid GOP wall.

Tuesday’s results gave Democrats control in Morris Township and the mayor’s seat in Morris Plains, a post being vacated by the venerable Frank Druetzler. The biggest town in the county, Parsippany, is now purple and looks very much like it’s about to turn blue.

In neighboring Somerset County – the home of the president’s golf club – Democrats won two freeholder seats a year after they took the county clerk’s office.

At an election night gathering, Chip Robinson, the Morris Democratic chair, said the party is “not there yet,” in terms of winning freeholder seats. But the “there” is getting closer. The top Democrat on a three-person slate was only about 8,000 votes short of victory.

So, why is this happening and why is it happening now?

Sure, there are demographic changes, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

To understand why Democrats did so well last year and again this year in what had been safe Republican areas, you really have to look at Trump.

If Republicans are now the Trump Party. they are a party that seeks to reverse progress on civil rights, scorns environmental protection, is hostile to new immigrants and whose leader enjoys demonizing all who disagree or question him. Hence, the term “fake news” for just about any news the president does not like.

Those attributes may be popular elsewhere around this country, but not in suburban and well-educated New Jersey. And for many years, they would not have been popular with New Jersey Republicans.
We saw the opposition to Trump and his policies manifest itself with marches this year in Morristown and elsewhere to support women and gun control. We also saw the formation of many left wing organizations like  NJ 11th For Change and Blue Wave New Jersey.

With that in mind, Tuesday’s results were not surprising.

But in a political world where many partisans only talk to themselves (on both sides), it’s so easy to overlook what other people are doing. In covering Jay Webber’s campaign in the 11th District and in going to many Republican events, I sometimes got the feeling that in some GOP quarters all the excitement on the left was not taken seriously. Over the summer, I actually overheard some Republicans dismiss Sherrill as just a liberal from the “People’s Republic of Montclair and others say they assumed people in the district would vote “the way they always do.”

Not exactly.

In the aftermath of Tuesday, there  undoubtedly will be some soul-searching and backbiting among Republicans. That would be both understandable and misplaced.

Visceral opposition to President Trump among most New Jersey voters is why at least three  GOP congressional candidates in Republican districts lost and why a Democratic senator under a very dark cloud won. It’s that simple.

Want more evidence?

The president did endorse Webber and even appeared at a fundraiser with him.  How did that work out?

In Morris County, which once was the top Republican county in New Jersey,. Webber actually lost by a staggering 12,000 votes to that liberal from the “People’s Republic of Montclair.”

No, it wasn’t because of demographic change. It was because Donald Trump’s approval rating in the state is less than 40 percent.

And that’s something loyal Republicans can no longer ignore.

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