With Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, despite a tumultuous and embarrassing process to select Kevin McCarthy as Speaker, the GOP should be feeling good about itself. According to Reuters polling, President Joe Biden started off his administration with an approval rating in the mid-fifties, but it steadily declined until last September when more Americans disapproved than approved of the president. Biden has yet to recover from this, with a slim majority continuing to disapprove. The year 2023 has shown some slight improvement for the president, but he continues to be dogged by economic woes from the American public, despite a decrease in unemployment nation-wide. Inflation, rising costs, and a general struggle to get by—even if employed—remain the top concerns of both Democrats and Republicans. For a party that made some gains in the Capitol, even though an expected “Red Wave” did not actually materialize, New Jersey Republicans have continued to get mired, stumbling over themselves.
To be clear, New Jersey is not necessarily representative of the United States as a whole. The
Democratic Party is firmly in control of the entire legislature and Governor Phil Murphy has positioned himself as a progressive champion, occupying a place of national prominence as chair of the National Governors Association, and frequently jets off to Europe and Asia for economic (and vacation) opportunities. While the Republican Party has been the minority party for some time on the state level, Jack Ciattarelli’s close-run campaign for governor shows that the GOP is not to be dismissed. With redistricting in the state, Democrats were willing to throw Tom Malinowski out into the cold, to fight for himself against Tom Kean, Jr., while solidifying and entrenching safer congressional incumbents. A deal, as such, may not have been struck with the Republican Party in the conventional sense, but a 9-3 arrangement was the plan. A 10-2 arrangement would have been a bonus for Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones and the New Jersey Democratic Congressional delegation, but it was not to be.
To an outsider, academically, logically, theoretically, presumably, the New Jersey Republican Party should be celebrating and planning for further ascents, given that Governor Murphy cannot run for another term and the pendulum swings back to the opposition party during times of uncertainty. But, while it would be unfair and premature to suggest that the Republican Party is about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the elephant-led marching band parade is finding itself getting bogged down in the mud.
The retirement of Republican Leader Senator Steve Oroho is a blow to the GOP’s long-time power structure. A fixture in the rural part of northern New Jersey, Oroho has served in the state senate since 2007. The Franklin resident has had a position of great power and influence in the chamber as a member of the State Budget and Appropriations Committee. With his retirement, a vicious battle has begun for his succession between Assemblyman Parker Space and former Bogota mayor, Steve Lonegan.
In South Jersey, another bastion of Republican power has announced he would not seek re-election. Senator Christopher Connors from Ocean County entered state politics in 1982 as an assemblyman. His father, the late Senator Leonard Connors, served in the upper house until 2008, when his son came in. Now, after 15 years in the senate, Connors announced his retirement. This has set the stage for another contentious primary battle, and as in the case of Oroho’s district, there is little chance of a Democrat making headway. Both are concrete Republican strongholds. The only question is how much mud will be thrown by Republicans at each other until the primary elections?
While it is the obvious nature of democracy that office-holders should change—indeed, a permanent political class would have little credibility—something that the parties do not typically plan for is the matter of defection.
When Congressman Jeff Van Drew turned in his D card for an R, outraged howls from the left were drowned out by applause from the right. An ardent Trump supporter and at times speculated as a potential VP choice, Van Drew has not electorally suffered for his change of party affiliation. The Democratic Party has, in fact, conceded the districts represented by Van Drew and Smith entirely. The battle for CD-7 was lost, but not unexpectedly, as the district gained an advantage in Republican voters.
On the state level, however, a more surprising change-of-party came from Senator Sam Thompson of LD-12. Senator Thompson said that he could no longer serve as a Republican and had officially changed to a Democrat.
When asked, Thompson did not say that he had necessarily had an ideological change of heart—his voting record is thoroughly conservative—but that he was no longer interested in running in Republican circles following his treatment by fellow Republicans.
“Some of the Republican leadership has abandoned me,” Thompson said. “My county chairman called other county chairmen, expressing his opinion that I am too old and may die in office.” This affront was, he said, his primary motivation for switching parties.
“Without the support of the leadership, why should I be there with them?” Thompson told Insider NJ. “Quite frankly, I don’t think I’d have a problem winning a primary because the people out there know me. I placed a great deal of emphasis in my time in office on serving my constituents individually. They call me with a problem, I resolve it, aside from what I do in Trenton. I had 35,000 constituent contacts during my time in office. It takes 25- to- 30,000 votes to win a legislative race in an off-year. So, it was not because I did not feel I couldn’t win the election, but I just felt betrayed.”
Thompson told Insider NJ that he had been in contact with Governor Phil Murphy prior to his official change of party affiliation and was very pleased with the reception he received from the governor. “As a matter of fact, I have been in touch with most of the Democratic county chairmen and I anticipate that I’ll be getting their endorsements.”
Murphy said that the Democratic party was “a big tent” when he welcomed Thompson into Team Blue. Thompson, however, does not fit the profile of a typical Democrat as he supported Donald Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns. Yet, his political journey has come full-circle, in a manner of speaking.
“I was born a Democrat,” Thompson said. “I was born in Mobile, Alabama, in the 1930s, and there were no Republicans there at that time. My mother would’ve turned over in her grave before voting for a Republican. Of course today, the reality is that the Democratic Party is what the Republican Party was then and vice versa. I was in the Young Democrats. I am not abandoning my party; my party leadership has abandoned me.”
While LD-12 is strongly Republican, Thompson is banking on his services to his constituents over the years to translate into being given another term in office. “My record is both in the legislature and also in the constituent service I provided to those 35,000 people, they have family, relatives, friends, etc. If you do something for somebody personally, they remember.”
The newly re-minted Democrat Thompson said that a Republican chairman, who he chose not to name, had come to see him and express his continued support for him going forward. Thompson said that a Super Bowl party of Republican figures in Hudson County reportedly had the reaction that they, too, would consider switching from Rs to Ds. “It was right there at their party and apparently that was the reaction which took place.” Time will tell if Hudson County’s few remaining points of red opt to go blue. To do so might, at the very least, be a pragmatic consideration for those looking to make advances politically.
That notion, political calculation, has been lobbed against Senator Thompson, who would have otherwise faced a primary challenge from Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry. While Thompson claims he changed parties after being insulted by ageist insinuations, the 87-year-old incumbent—should he get the Democratic nomination—will still need to face Henry, 63, in a general election, if not a primary.
“I’m disappointed in Senator Thompson,” Henry said. “After so long a career as a Republican, I don’t know what he is trying to accomplish. LD-12 is a relatively Republican-run conservative district. I think that’s why he’s been elected numerous times as an assemblyman and as a senator. Republicans supported him, so to go to the Democratic Party, after all his support and his career were based on support from Republicans, I don’t understand what he’s thinking. I guess you’d have to ask him. I always take the high road as a public official, I will never speak down or say anything negative about anyone, especially with someone who had such a long career as a Republican.”
Having an opponent with such a long incumbency in front of him removed, Henry has had a potential obstacle cleared from his path as he pursues a shot at winning the State Senate. “I hate to say it, but I guess it’s good news for me,” Henry told Insider NJ. “To be honest with you, I thought my biggest hurdle would be a primary. I think in the general election, as in the past, the district will stay Republican. So my biggest hurdle, I think, has been removed.”
While nothing is ever guaranteed in politics, party defections can cause sharp and hurt feelings—at least among politicos. Van Drew demonstrated that if the voters themselves approve, in general, then the effect is blunted outside the often self-obsessed realm occupied by politicians and their enablers. Thompson is betting on that, and his name recognition in what should be a low-turnout election, while Henry will have to prove himself as the challenger.
“Obviously, if I’m unopposed in the primary, I will be supported [by the Republican Party],” Henry said. “I already have gained the support of all the four county chairs of the towns. I’ve been to the towns that I will be representing in that district and I have their support. I bring a lot to the table as a businessman and I’ve had success as a mayor in a very large town in New Jersey in a very Democratic county. That says a lot of what we’ve been able to accomplish here in Old Bridge.”
Henry listed a number of accomplishments and described how Old Bridge was able to be insulated from some of the worst effects of the county and municipal public sector insurance rate increases, an issue which impacts all New Jersey taxpayers. “We’re an anomaly with that in Old Bridge. We were one of the only towns that went into the state health benefits plan this year in 2023. While a lot of towns were opting out, we had other forms of insurance. Through the insurance industry, the rate increase that was given to us outside of the state health benefit plan was enormous. I’m not going to say we saved money, but the increase was a lot, lot less than if we had stayed outside the state health benefits plan. We were able to mitigate that huge increase.”
Old Bridge itself is no stranger to party-swapping. Councilman Mark Razzoli had been a Democrat but said the party had become too far left, “hijacked” by socialists, and switched to the Republican Party. In a special ward election last March, he was defeated by Board of Education member Jill DeCaro. Senator Thompson, still a Republican at the time, was not spared an attack from Razzoli in August, when the former councilman slammed the senator for voting to table the creation of a Senate committee investigating New Jersey nursing homes’ pandemic responses.
Henry said that he could understand why a political figure might change affiliation, but did not see the value in Senator Thompson doing so. Henry dismissed the idea that Thompson’s age was a factor.
“The age thing. I think Sam is making that up,” Henry said. “I would never bring up his age. I don’t know anyone else who has. It’s more actions than age.” Henry seemed repelled by the idea of an ageist element. “I’ve never said that, nor would I have said that. I’m not a disrespectful person.”
Thompson did not accuse Henry of singling out his age as a problem in his conversations with Insider NJ, but rather discussions among Republican party leaders.
On the point of respect, something often in short supply in the public sector, Henry expressed further disappointment with the tone of the Space/Lonegan contest. With barbs and personal attacks flying back and forth between the owner of Space Farms, serving in the assembly for a decade, and Lonegan, who has launched multiple bids for offices on the state and federal level, the atmosphere vacillates between a mire and a circus. This reflects poorly on the GOP, a party which Henry says needs to appeal to younger people and grow, especially with Democrats holding about a million more registered voters in the state. On the Lonegan vs. Space slugfest, Henry said, “I hope I would never take part in this circus. I think sometimes it’s embarrassing. I can’t speak for other people and I won’t do that. But I can assure you I will never entertain any type of circus atmosphere. We need to take government seriously. And when we turn it into a circus, how do you take it seriously on either side of the aisle? People lose faith when they see a circus. Unfortunately, some people like to see that craziness. They think the crazier the candidate is, the better. That’s not the way it should be. Look at Santos down in Washington, what an embarrassment.”
In New Jersey, Republicans and Democrats alike recognize that the unaffiliated constitute the largest bulk of voters, even if Democrats have the majority in power on the state level. That grip on power is always subject to the will of the people, but getting the people on board with a party’s given ideas represents the challenge. While the Republican Party itself may be entering a period of some setbacks with the loss of institutional figures, new candidates will emerge as it seeks to redefine itself in the Biden-era. In each case, with Thompson and Henry, they look to the people themselves for their own advancement, and if the unaffiliated voters of New Jersey do tend to lean more conservative, then that may provide the essential umbilical cord the NJGOP needs. The uncultivated base can provide the fertile ground for electoral victories, provided that the essential needs of constituents—something every politician claims to cater to—are adequately met, and, crucially, they are convinced are being met to the fullest.