By John Celock
As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) travels the cornfields of Iowa and the towns of New Hampshire’s Seacoast in his presidential campaign, Republicans in his home state suffered big defeats Tuesday night.
Tuesday night’s results show New Jersey Republicans losing three seats in the state Assembly with the possibility of a fourth flipping Democratic after provisional ballots are counted. The result lowers Assembly Republicans to at least 29 seats and their lowest Assembly count in 36 years. It also shows a stinging rebuke by New Jersey voters of the Republican governor, who easily glided to reelection just two years ago.
With Democrats already controlling the state Senate and expanding their control of the Assembly, Christie’s last two years in the governor’s mansion will become tougher as he battles a Democratic Legislature already looking ahead to the post-Christie era. It also showcases a state GOP that has become more of an extension of Chris Christie than of the GOP.
Christie has largely steered the New Jersey Republicans towards showcasing his own aspirations rather than party building. While the state’s legislative map has not been friendly to the GOP his entire term, Christie has largely stayed clear of party building and did not focus on the state party for much of his second term. Since winning reelection, Christie’s political trips have more likely involved Manchester, Wichita and Baltimore than any of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities.
The governor’s service last year as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and presidential campaign this year have led him out of state, along looking towards New Jersey donors to help prop up his national ambitions. He has largely left party building to Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) and the Assembly races to Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield).
Last night’s results also show the GOP struggling in districts that have largely tilted GOP historically. A loss of a seat in Cape May County was largely expected, given the swing nature of the district. Two seats were lost in Monmouth County, historically a GOP stronghold and Guadagno’s home county. The Monmouth races were a combination of a last minute strong outside effort by Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop (D), a likely 2017 gubernatorial candidate, and South Jersey Democrats to gain a foothold in the suburban Jersey Shore county. The intricacies of state Democratic politics, which includes South Jersey Democrats backing Senate President Steve Sweeney for governor in 2017, played heavily in to this race.
Also in Monmouth County, county Democratic Chairman Vin Gopal has become a star of the state party, focusing on party building and building statewide alliances to make his county a focal point for state Democrats. Gopal’s efforts paid off big time Tuesday night, with Democrats gaining state legislative seats in the county for the first time in a decade. The last time Democrats had first taken seats from the GOP in Monmouth was in the wake of a corruption scandal impacting county Republicans in 2003, only to see the seats lost in 2005 and 2007. Gopal has also shown gains for county Democrats at the town level.
The fourth seat, in a suburban Central Jersey district, showcases the changing nature of that part of the state, along with the placement of heavily Democratic Princeton in with largely Republican parts of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties. Republican Assemblywoman Donna Simon narrowly trails Democrat Andrew Zwicker in a race that is not over yet.
Tuesday’s results were not just limited to the state Legislature, with several Republican local officials either losing or barely hanging on. In Summit, Mayor Ellen Dickson (R) became the first Republican mayor in her city’s history to lose to a Democrat, with Mayor-elect Nora Radest (D) becoming only the second Democrat to become Summit’s mayor. A big result in a city where a Democrat running for Common Council was considered a novelty only 15 years ago and where Democrats would routinely run as Republicans in order to win.
Going forward, Tuesday’s results will be a black eye for Christie. He will have to show on a national GOP stage that he has not let Republicans fall in his own home state. At the same time he will have to showcase what he says is his ability to work with Democrats to have a chance at accomplishing anything on his agenda for his final two years. It will be a balancing act and one that will involve him having to walk without a net.