It certainly wasn’t a blue wave. It wasn’t even a storm surge. It was more like a high tide. It was, though, sufficiently strong to wash Republicans out of power and turn control of the House of
Representatives over to Democrats, guaranteeing endless conflict, gridlock, investigations, bitterness and even greater incivility for the next two years.
Most Republicans saw this coming, although they spent a fair amount of time whistling past the graveyard and insisting the party had a clear path to maintaining control. Even Silly Putty couldn’t stretch that far.
By any objective measurement — the history of mid-term losses by the party in power, the shadow of a controversial president who blotted out any attempt at delivering a clear and coherent message — Democrats held the upper hand from the outset.
They held a lead in generic polling that rose to as much as 14 per cent, fell to as slim as two per cent before finally settling in at seven per cent but never relinquished it.
Needing a net gain of 23 seats to regain the majority, Democrats took at least 30 with the possibility of adding a few more. While it was enough to wrest control for the first time since 2011, it was a far cry from the euphoric predictions — unrealistic though they were — that the party would sweep anywhere from 45 to 65 seats.
The high tide became the ebb tide in the Senate as Republicans tightened their grip with a net gain of two and potentially one or two additional seats.
While the President was a factor to one extent or another in Congressional districts across the country, his impact was felt heavily and disastrously in New Jersey, costing at least one and possibly two incumbent members of Congress, the loss of two open seats and near-landslide defeat of the U. S. Senate candidate at the hands of a seriously ethically damaged incumbent.
The Senate race initially gave Republicans hope that after losing contests for the past 46 years, a victory was more than possible.
Sen. Robert Menendez was clearly vulnerable, having spent two months last year in Federal Court fighting off official corruption charges, eventually walking free only after a jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.
He was so deeply damaged that a primary challenger — unknown and without money — drew an astonishing 38 per cent of the vote for no other reason than her name was not Menendez.
Despite some nervousness among party leaders, Menendez refused to consider stepping aside and the party, with some reluctance, closed ranks behind him.
Republican Bob Hugin, a retired biopharmaceutical executive, poured $36 million of his own resources into the campaign, assailing Menendez — often brutally and personally — as unfit to continue in office, emphasizing the admonition delivered by the Senate Ethics Committee concerning Menendez’ ethical flaws.
A combination of factors — major financial support from the national Democratic Party, a voter registration edge of nearly one million more Democrats than Republicans, a well-oiled voter turnout machine and — most telling — Hugin’s close association with Trump — carried an exhausted Menendez across the finish line.
His victory is not a mandate nor can it be construed in any way as a popular affirmation of his service in the Congress.
It is, rather, indicative of voters’ high level of tolerance for ethical misbehavior in high public office, a quality shared by a number of newspaper editorial boards as well as by Gov. Phil Murphy and Sen. Cory Booker, among others.
Were it not for the deep dislike of Trump and an apparent desire to send a message to the White House, Hugin likely would have become the first Republican to win a Senate seat in New Jersey since 1972.
Armed with national Democratic Party talking points and an anti-Trump drumbeat, the near sweep by Democrats reduced the Republican Congressional delegation to its lowest point in modern history.
Democrat Tom Malinowski defeated Rep. Leonard Lance in the Seventh District while the contest between Rep. Tom MacArthur and Democrat Andy Kim in the Third District awaits tabulation of provisional ballots and a potential recount.
State Sen. Jeff VanDrew won a surprisingly close six-point victory over Republican Seth Grossman who never pulled closer than 15 points in the Second District, a seat left open by the retirement of Rep. Frank LoBiondo.
Democrat Mikie Sherill blew out Assemblyman Jay Webber for the seat left open by the retirement of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen in the 11th District.
Aside from the Second District where Grossman doggedly stuck to right wing dogma and flirted with off the wall conspiracy theories, the seats achieved by Democratic candidates resulted from a virulent strain of anti-Trump feeling that posed too steep a hill to climb for Republicans.
New Jersey Democrats contributed mightily to the control shift in the House and, in January, will become part of a governing majority already at an ideological war with itself and over its leadership.
Nancy Pelosi has made it clear she expects to be elected Speaker, even though dozens of new members of her party vowed to oppose her selection, while other newcomers will insist on dragging the party further leftward while demanding impeachment of the President.
The internal politics and the competing pressures will certainly prove a major test for Pelosi and her leadership team as she seeks to build a governing coalition while confronting an unruly bunch of freshmen many of whom got to Congress by attacking the entrenched establishment represented by Pelosi. The Senate remains firmly in Republican hands and will surely thwart some of the more outrageous impulses of the Democratic House.
The “Never Trump” cry may have produced the high tide that got the Democrats there, but it is the nature of things that all tides eventually recede.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.