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Joe Pennacchio was one of the enthused Republicans at Donald Trump’s Jan. 28 rally at the Wildwood Convention Center. The co-chair of Trump’s New Jersey reelection campaign, Pennacchio even got a shout out from the president and he didn’t mind at all that Trump mispronounced his name.
Now, Pennacchio is thinking even bigger.
When we met for dinner the other night at Arthur’s, a well-known steak joint in Morris Plains, Pennacchio said he has invited the president to hold another rally in New Jersey.
Forget about a relatively small venue “down the Shore.” Penancchio is talking about MetLife Stadium.
“You fill that stadium with 100,000 people, it sends a message,” Pennacchio said, just before we attacked our substantial slabs of beef.
It would certainly send a message, but is it realistic for the president to spend campaign time in a non-battleground state like New Jersey?
Pennacchio, a state senator from District 26, counters that New Jersey is a battleground state for Congress.
He has a point there. Democrats won four House seats in 2018 previously held by Republicans. One of those “Democratic” winners, Jeff Van Drew, is now a Republican. So that leaves three Democrats – Andy Kim, Ton Malinowski and Mikie Sherrill- seeking reelection for the first time. Republicans will make a strong effort to win those seats back.
Pennacchio hopes Trump will help by campaigning in New Jersey. If not MetLife Stadium, how about coming to a smaller venue like Mennen Arena in Morris Township? That’s in Sherrill’s 11th District, but is close enough to Malinowski’s 7th District. Pennacchio says the president can do this in connection with his many visits to his golf club in nearby Bedminster.
A pertinent question here is whether more Trump rallies in New Jersey would attract more voters, or just rouse up his base. Republican enthusiasm goes only so far. Keep in mind Trump lost New Jersey four years ago by about 500,000 votes.
When I observed that Trump doesn’t seem to do much to expand his base, Pennacchio replied, “You didn’t see the Super Bowl ad?”
The ad in question featured a black woman and highlighted the president’s efforts at criminal justice reform. Trump’s signing of a criminal justice reform bill – Cory Booker was a key Democratic supporter – was a rare bipartisan accomplishment.
Political ads are one thing; actual actions are another.
If Trump indeed spends campaign time in New Jersey, you can expect Democrats to remind voters that the president and his GOP Senate allies have stymied House Democratic efforts to eliminate the $10,000 cap on SALT deductions, lower prescription drug prices, expand gun background checks and advance the Gateway Tunnel project. It was some of these issues, particularly the SALT cap and gun control, that helped Democrats flip congressional seats in 2018.
Asked his realistic expectations for the Trump campaign, Pennacchio said, “He’s going to surprise a lot of people. Can he win? It’s not impossible.”
Not much is truly impossible, but a Republican presidential candidate has not carried New Jersey since 1988.
Even if Trump doesn’t win, Pennacchio, who chairs the state campaign with state Sen. Mike Testa of Cumberland County, is convinced Trump will do better in New Jersey than he did four years ago.
“What’s important to me are his coattails,” Pennacchio said, thinking again of the House races.
“I saw the enthusiasm (in Wildwood). This guy is energizing the party.”
He recited a stat that Trump got about 120,000 votes running basically unopposed in the New Hampshire primary, far more than presidents seeking reelection normally get there.
Fair point, but there is also statistical evidence to suggest that the priority for a majority of Democrats is a candidate “who can beat Trump.”
That can work to unify a party now fractured among competing primary candidates and ideologies.