2021 New Jersey Election Analysis
The 2021 election was predicted to be boring. All the polls pointed to an easy win for Governor Murphy. Democrats outnumbered Republicans in voter registration by nearly 1 million. Democrats had resources and incumbency to fall back on. And Democrats believed that Donald Trump had killed the GOP brand in the suburbs and with independent voters.
By all accounts, New Jersey is a “Blue” state, and following President Biden’s easy win in 2020, the races for governor, State Senate and General Assembly were expected to be called quickly on Election Night in favor of the Democrats.
But polls don’t vote. New Jersey voters in every region of the state defied the pundits and pollsters with an unexpected red wave that swept Republican candidates into offices Democrats felt were safe and put a scare into a number of incumbents whose seats were never expected to be in play. While a few races remain too close to call as vote by mail and provisional ballots continue to be counted, many Democrats were privately left stunned by the election results across the State.
The results are being construed as a once-in-a-generation message from voters that they are dissatisfied with the direction of the state and the nation. Election Night wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the anti-Florio tax revolt of 1991, but the GOP was able to ride a wave so wide that it cost the Democrats unexpected losses in many state legislative, county and local government seats.
Voters have many reasons for their voting habits and there is plenty in the political environment for voters to be unhappy about this year. COVID fatigue, mask mandates, property taxes, high gas prices, the lack of accomplishments from the Biden administration and Congress and other issues could have led to blowback on the Murphy Administration and Trenton Democrats.
While the smoke needs to clear, a few themes have been exposed, at least for this one election. People are unhappy and they blamed the party in power. Democrats can’t beat the GOP just by invoking the name “Trump.” Suburban and independent voters acted like free agents – willing to back Biden in 2020 but support Republicans in 2021. And that was enough to give the GOP an unexpectedly good night.
In the end, there is one thing to know about New Jersey voters. They don’t need a poll to tell you how they feel. They will let their votes do the talking. And with that said, let’s look at what happened:
Murphy re-elected in close race
Every eye was on the Virginia governor’s race. When a question was asked of a Fox News reporter to explain the close race in NJ during their Election Night analysis, the answer was a confused “We never studied the New Jersey Governor’s Race.” That is how certain a Murphy re-election was and few outside of the Ciattarelli campaign truly believed there was an upset in the making.
Jack Ciattarelli ran a race focused on specific “kitchen table issues” and personal outreach to voters. As pandemic and economic issues remained front and center for New Jerseyans, Ciattarelli stayed on his campaign messages for months, went to places GOP candidates don’t usually campaign and never got dirty to prove his point. And he ran in an environment that saw a growing dissatisfaction with national politics and a surging GOP base.
Governor Murphy, on the other hand, ran on an agenda of progressive accomplishments that he was truly proud to discuss. He felt assured that his handling of the COVID crisis kept the state from the crushing impact of the virus, and public polling supported his approach. He delivered the first full public employee pension payment in nearly 30 years and his budget surplus lifted the state from its weakened credit rating. He also ran with the advantage of a huge Biden win in New Jersey a year ago, a million more Democrats than Republicans and name recognition that his challenger had to work hard to equal.
Not since 1977 had voters re-elected an incumbent Democratic Governor even though three Republican governors had been elected for consecutive terms during the past 43 years. The stars were aligned for 2021 to be the year the curse was broken. Then, the polls closed and a new reality set in. But despite his 67,000-plus vote win, this was not the election any Democrat expected.
Instead of an early victory party, both candidates were forced to recognize that the day after the election came about with Ciattarelli clinging to a small but stubborn lead. However, in the days following Election Day, Murphy reclaimed the lead on the strength of the Democratic vote-by-mail advantage.
Post-election analysis showed late arriving vote-by-mail totals breaking two-thirds for the governor. As of this writing, Ciattarelli stated that the race is not over, and he is urging people to wait until all the votes are counted and the election results are certified before a winner is declared. Whether the results will be enough for Ciattarelli to request a recount remains to be seen but as the Murphy margin grows, that possibility may be diminishing.
Republicans pick up seats in legislature
Ever since the aftermath of the 2001 redistricting of the State Senate and General Assembly, the Republicans have been losing ground in the legislature. The Democrats went into the election with safe majorities (25-15 in the Senate and 52-28 in the Assembly) based in districts that most felt would be easy for the incumbents to hold. Only three districts were expected to be battlegrounds. While a few others were on the wish list for both parties, there was little expectation that the seat totals in both houses would move all that much.
But the red wave that swept across the state upset the assumption that most districts were safe for Democrats. It is critical to note that everywhere the GOP picked up seats or held seats in close races, were at one time in recent history or are currently Republican seats or in areas where Donald Trump beat Joe Biden. As such, this could be a sign Republicans and GOP-leaning independents simply came home after giving Democrats a chance.
In the big picture, despite a GOP celebration, the party was not able to break Democratic dominance in voter-rich area like Bergen County or battle past the protection the legislative map gives to some Democrats.
Let’s look at some of the close races:
District 2: Senate GOP hold; Assembly GOP plus 2
The Atlantic County based 2nd District has been a battleground for several election cycles with voters willing to split their ticket or flip from Democrat to Republican and back for more than a decade. But the district was a major Democratic target, so much so that the senate president refused to seat former Republican Assemblyman Vince Polistina when he was selected by the county GOP to fill an unexpired term when Senator Chris Brown stepped down this year. Polistina and his running mates, former GOP Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian and attorney Claire Swift, ran over their well-funded Democratic challengers regardless. The result will retain the seat in the Senate for the Republicans and cost the Democrats two seats in the Assembly. The fall of this domino was the first sign that the South Jersey Democratic machine was not having a good night.
District 3: Senate GOP pick up; Assembly GOP plus 2
Some races are surprising, and some others are so shocking that the numbers don’t make any sense. The 3rd District – home to Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly mates John Burzichelli and Adam Taliaferro – hasn’t been in Republican hands since 2001. But by the time all the votes were counted, the powerful senate president and his Assembly mates had lost to the GOP’s Ed Durr, Beth Sawyer and Bethanne McCarty Patrick. It was a loss absolutely no one saw coming.
Senate President Sweeney is the longest serving leader in Senate history and one of the most influential Democrats of the past 20 years. His loss to Ed Durr is so stunning considering his statewide influence and his impact on South Jersey that the results became national news. Sweeney had every possible resource, while Durr’s campaigned was unknown. Sweeney’s loss not only signals that his District was leaning more conservative (Trump did well in the 3rd) but it is the biggest proof that 2021 was a message election from voters upset about the environment in government today.
District 8: Possible Senate GOP pick up; GOP Assembly hold
If there was a District that South Jersey Democrats had hoped to send a message of their strength it was in the Burlington County-based 8th District. The 8th was on pace to be the costliest race of the year with Democratic leaning super PAC’s financing months of ads on Philly based TV. State Senator Dawn Addiego had flipped parties to become a Democrat. But the 8th is formerly a safe GOP District historically and the two Assembly seats were already in Republican hands. In the days leading up to the election, Democrats felt comfortable they would sweep the district as a show that Burlington County has further slipped away from GOP reach.
But the voters in the 8th have sent a message that this is indeed a competitive district. While the results in the days after the election show the Republicans winning all three seats, thousands of late arriving vote-by-mail and provisional ballots still need to be tallied. Addiego and running mates will need to win a super majority of the remaining votes to come back from the hole they are currently in. If the current lead holds, the GOP will pick up a Senate seat.
District 11: Potential Assembly GOP plus 2
The 11th District had been considered “leans Republican” since its creation in 2011 until Democrats Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling stunned two incumbent Assembly Republicans in 2015. That was followed by Vin Gopal becoming Senator in 2017. Gopal shot to the top of Senate leadership as a thoughtful legislator and keen political thinker. But the Republicans felt there was potential to target the 11th to reclaim what they had lost previously.
As the dust settles, it is clear Senator Gopal will hold on to his seat, but the GOP is holding a small lead to take the Assembly seats. Republicans Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner currently are running just a few hundred votes ahead of Assemblywoman Downey and Assemblyman Houghtaling with an unknown number of vote-by-mail and provisional ballots left to be counted. The race was not decided at press time, but a GOP sweep would add two more members to the Assembly Republican caucus.
District 16: Senate Democrat pick up
The 16th District was yet another Democrat target as the district’s demographics have been pushing Democrat for a decade. But Republicans were counting on the popularity of Ciattarerlli in what was his former Assembly District to give the GOP a boost. Despite election night indications that the GOP could sweep the district, the Democrat’s advantages in the district and their vote-by-mail operation were enough for Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker to take the open Senate seat, for Assembly Roy Freiman to be re-elected and for Sadaf Jaffer to be elected to the open Assembly seat.
District 21: Senate and Assembly GOP hold
The Democrats had their own wish list district outside of targeted races in the 2nd, 8th and 16th, and the 21st District was on it. The district reflects the growing strength of Democrats in New Jersey’s northern suburbs. What was once safe GOP territory had shown potential to move away from the party once and for all. The Senate seat was being vacated by Senate Republican leader Tom Kean and his running mate Jon Bramnick stepped up to hold the seat. His longtime GOP running mate Nancy Munoz was joined on the ticket by Michele Matsikoudis.
If there were to be a sign the GOP was in trouble it would be in the 21st. But the GOP had a team of good candidates with positive name recognition who simply beat political trends. Bramnick, Munoz and Matsikoudis easily maintained the seats for the Republican ticket.
Plenty of legislative close calls
Election Night was also uncomfortable for several other Democratic incumbents who ultimately survived to be reelected. These districts were also signs of a GOP surge in safe Democratic areas that required a flood of vote-by-mail to pull off Democratic victories:
In 4th District, the same Gloucester County trends that appear to have ensnared Sweeney and his running mates sent a jolt into the Democratic team of Senator Fred Madden, Assemblyman Paul Moriarty and Assemblywoman Gabby Mosquera, who held their seats by a few thousand votes.
A different version of the 14th District had been in GOP hands throughout the 1990’s and had been a split district in the early 2000’s. But Democrats had expanded their power since, and the district was placed in the “Safe D” category. No one expected the tighter race than what resulted here.
In Bergen County, the 38th District is often discussed as a theoretical battleground district. Resting in an area of the state that at one time elected Republicans to the legislature, it is another example of the Democrats solid command of votes outside of New York City. But until the vote-by-mail numbers were released late into the night, it appeared Democratic Senator Joe Lagana and his running mates Assemblyman Chris Tully and Assemblywoman Lisa Swain were in danger of losing. However, Democratic strength in vote-by-mail and early voting saved the day for the party in the 38th.
GOP wins extend to local level
The Ciattarelli campaign and the movement of voters toward the GOP had coattails extending to county and local races.
Republicans won the sheriff’s office and two county commissioner seats in a sweep over the incumbent Democrats in Gloucester County.
Republicans ran the table in Atlantic County by taking the clerk’s office from the Democrats and winning all the county commissioner seats up for election this year.
In Cumberland County, Republicans knocked out two Democratic county commissioners.
In Passaic County, two Republican commissioner candidates hold extremely small leads for three of the county seats with a few Democratic election districts still not counted as this goes to print. Wins here would put Republicans back on the county commission board for the first time in many years.
Why were the races still undecided a week after the election?
New Jersey has recently adopted a new early voting and vote-by-mail law that came into effect for this election. The law itself has led to what appears to be late arriving votes that have upended early reported victories for some GOP candidates. The law permits that as long as ballots are postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day and arrive by the Monday following the election they must be counted. Therefore an unknown number of ballots were arriving across the state and being opened on Nov. 8.
In addition, the new voting law prevents election officials from counting ballots that arrived prior to Election Day until after the polls close. This meant that many people looking at election results who saw 100 percent of precincts reported were shocked to see the results change dramatically in the days following the election. This new vote-by-mail process complicated the complete calculation of votes and led to confusion about where many races actually stand.
What happens now?
Traditionally, in the days following a legislative election, the Republican and Democratic caucuses in both houses meet to elect their leadership team for the next session and the Lame Duck legislative session begins. But the GOP pickup of as many as six Assembly seats and the potential loss by the Senate President and, at a minimum, by a few of his Senate allies have temporarily scrambled those leadership elections.
While Assembly Democrats have announced their intention to re-elect Craig Coughlin as Assembly Speaker, Senate Democrats were forced to wait for the Sweeney race to be finalized before formally voting for next session’s Senate President. However, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nick Scutari was elected by the Democratic caucus to become the next senate president.
Governor Murphy had announced his hopes for an active Lame Duck session and issues like Reproductive Rights, more gun control and other Democratic priorities were potentially on the table. The question will be what takeaways the Democratic majorities in the Senate and Assembly come away from the election with and whether it makes them reconsider some of their agenda. On the other hand, the number of outgoing Democrats could make passing the governor’s agenda much easier and with less consequences politically.
Looming not so far into the future is the upcoming redistricting of the New Jersey legislative map. The process to redesign legislative districts is underway and during the past 20 years, the maps have protected Democratic majorities while the state has turned more reliably to their party. Some districts will need to change because of population changes regardless.
Whether this helps or imperils any of the newly elected incumbents is open to question as the process proceeds. The sensitivity of the Democrats holding slightly smaller majorities in both Houses (currently predicted at 24-16 in the Senate and 46-34 in the Assembly) may moderate some of Governor Murphy’s second term plans. Or it could lead progressive Democrats to double down and push for an activist agenda to excite their base.
What is certain is that the 2021 election was a once-in-a-generation eruption of voter frustration, it proves that blue and red are just colors when voters decide they want to send a message to the party in power. New Jersey politics may have changed for a night, but how they may have changed for the future will takes months to determine.