All the worries that New Jersey Democrats would lose more seats in the state Legislature — and maybe even lose control — Tuesday night quickly evaporated after the polls closed. By midnight, it was clear that whatever red wave crashed upon the Garden State in 2021 had receded in 2023.
Democrats had won or led in every competitive race, not just keeping control of the Legislature but expanding it. Democrats were on track to maintain their 25-15 majority in the Senate and pickup a handful of seats in the Assembly.
“This is a significant accomplishment for Democrats who are overcoming tough political challenges with hard work and effective campaigns,” Senate President Nick Scutari said in a statement.
Here are six takeaways from election night.
Biden didn’t drag down Democrats
After losing seven legislative seats in 2021, including that of Senate President Steve Sweeney, Democrats pointed to the unpopularity of President Joe Biden, among other reasons, for their stinging failures.
Biden is even less popular — he had a 43 percent approval in October 2021 and 41 percent approval in August — but Democrats reclaimed seats they lost two years ago and picked up at least a couple more.
That could be good or bad news for Biden in 2024. The optimistic view is that the results show Democratic resilience. The pessimistic view is that Democrats are resilient despite Biden, and that he as a presidential candidate is weak.
South Jersey is resurgent
South Jersey Democrats avenged Sweeney and held seats they needed to strengthen their relevance in Trenton.
Ed Durr, the unknown trucker who stunned the country by defeating Sweeney in 2021, proved he is not in it for the long haul. He was defeated by John Burzichelli, a longtime Democrat who lost his 3rd District Assembly seat against the Durr ticket two years ago.
Now Burzichelli will take Sweeney’s old seat. His Democratic running mates, Heather Simmons and Dave Bailey Jr., held leads early Wednesday morning but The Associated Press hadn’t called the race in their favor.
In the 4th Legislative District, Assemblymember Paul Moriarty won the Senate seat vacated by Fred Madden (D-Gloucester), who is retiring. Moriarity’s running mates, Dan Hutchinson and Cody Miller, also held leads Wednesday.
The question is what these victories mean for George Norcross, the longtime boss of Democratic politics in South Jersey. He told POLITICO earlier this year he was stepping back from statewide politics after the 2021 losses. But he never left his own backyard and groups affiliated with him campaigned aggressively to reclaim power.
With Norcross’ South Jersey Democrats on track to restore their voting bloc in Trenton, sharp political observers will be looking at the relationship between Norcross and Scutari. Norcross warned ahead of the elections that Scutari “will have to answer” for not delivering financial support in the south, a decision by Sweeney’s replacement after a heated phone call with Norcross.
GOP didn’t win on wind, whales or gas stoves
Republicans attempted to win races by attacking offshore wind, repeatedly citing unfounded links between the industry and dead whales; by labeling attempts to curb the use of natural gas as a gas stove ban; and by blaming rising energy costs on clean energy.
Those issues didn’t win the day, with other things on voters’ minds — or perhaps rising fears of climate change helped neutralize some of the concerns.
Yet even though progressives’ environmental agenda wasn’t torpedoed, some parsing of the results suggest key Democrats who won on Tuesday may want to temper some of Murphy’s most ambitious energy plans and goals.
For instance, along the Jersey Shore, Sen. Vin Gopal, a moderate Democrat, won reelection while distancing himself from the governor’s position on offshore wind. (Some campaign attacks on Gopal probably didn’t work as well because they came from a Republican opponent who in fact worked in the offshore wind industry.)
Burzichell has criticized the governor’s plan to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035.
The issue came amid the near future of offshore wind in New Jersey being all but dead late last month after the Danish developer Orsted pulled out of two of the state’s three planned projects. It dealt a blow to Murphy’s climate goals and put Biden’s in doubt. Murphy has insisted New Jersey will rebound and start building windmills off the coast, but that won’t happen while he is governor.
Democratic upset in a deep-red district
Democrats flipped an Assembly seat in one of the state’s reddest legislative districts, a sign of power from the region’s burgeoning Orthodox Jewish community.
Rabbi Avi Schnall — a longtime Republican who recently became a Democrat — flipped the crimson red 30th Legislative District based in and around Lakewood, one of the state’s largest municipalities which also has a fast-growing Orthodox Jewish population. The new district would have gone for former President Donald Trump by around 35 points in 2020 and not a single town went for Democrats in the 2021 gubernatorial election.
But Schnall’s victory is evidence of the axiom that “all politics is local.”
The Orthodox Jewish community is most concentrated in Lakewood, which showed up for Schnall at the polls overwhelmingly. While Lakewood (and the district) leans socially conservative — and Republican — Schnall’s candidacy centered on getting the Orthodox Jewish community influence in the state’s Democratic Caucus.
“For 20 years, we’ve been represented in the minority party,” Schnall said in a preelection day video. “Things cannot get done. We need to change that. we need to get into the majority party like they’ve been doing for decades in New York.”
Schnall had been endorsed by Lakewood’s Vaad, an influential council of religious and community leaders. His victory elevates the political potency of Lakewood’s Orthodox Jewish community — ensuring their support is courted in future regional and statewide races.
Abortion was a factor
On a night when voters in Ohio overwhelmingly voted to protect abortion rights, Democrats seemed to benefit from the strength of abortion protections and female votes.
They faced relentless attacks on cultural issues like LGBTQ policies in schools and countered with warnings that Republicans would strip women of their right to the procedure if they won. Democrats hit Republicans particularly hard in the 3rd District, resurrecting old social media posts by Durr that said women should “close their legs.”
“This race was the lack of respect for women,” Sweeney told NJ Spotlight News on Tuesday night. “No one can tell me what to do with my body. So why should I be able to tell a woman what to do with her body?”
Attention pivots to ’24 and ’25
And onto next year’s races. First lady Tammy Murphy is considering a run for indicted U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez‘s seat next year, a move she’s been leaning heavily toward in recent weeks. Her entry would set up a Democratic primary with at least Rep. Andy Kim — Menendez has not said whether he’ll seek reelection — and raise scrutiny on the governor’s wife who has had a hand in policy and ran a dark money group for nearly two years.
Then there’s the governor’s race. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop is already in, but others are expected to follow. Sweeney, who eyed a bid in 2017, says he’s still considering whether to run for governor in 2025. But it’s good news for him that South Jersey Democrats had a strong showing Tuesday night.