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The blue wave skips New Jersey as Democrats lose legislative seats

It was a good night for New Jersey Republicans. They could claim as many as four new seats when the new legislative session opens next year.

NJ 8th District Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R) reacts after he and his running mate Jean Stanfield won their race for 8th Dist. Assembly. They were watching the returns at the Burlington County Republican Committee Office in Mount Holly on November 5, 2019.
NJ 8th District Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R) reacts after he and his running mate Jean Stanfield won their race for 8th Dist. Assembly. They were watching the returns at the Burlington County Republican Committee Office in Mount Holly on November 5, 2019.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

It seems the blue wave missed New Jersey.

Republicans fared better than expected Tuesday night in an election where all 80 seats in the General Assembly were at stake, plus one in the state Senate. This was one of the few election contests nationwide that didn’t go well for Democrats.

They won’t lose their control of the Assembly, having held a 54-26 majority going into election night. But experts predict Republicans will add two to four seats when the new legislative session begins next year. The lone Senate seat on the ballot flipped from Democratic to Republican.

“It’s a great starting-off point,” Douglas Steinhardt, New Jersey GOP chairman, said Wednesday. “It should make Republicans hungry for 2020 and 2021."

With the election dust settling, here are some takeaways.

Trump played a role

In New Jersey’s 1st District, which leans conservative and voted handily for Donald Trump in 2016, the president loomed large.

Democratic State Sen. Bob Andrzejczak lost a reelection bid to Republican challenger Mike Testa, cochair of Trump’s reelection campaign in New Jersey. This race got swallowed up in the national fervor surrounding the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry of Trump.

Republicans benefited from a low-turnout election in the 1st District, in Atlantic, Cumberland, and Cape May Counties, and got more of their base to turn out by capitalizing on Trump’s popularity in the district and residents’ opposition to the impeachment inquiry, experts say.

“Angry voters are more likely to turn out than happy voters,” said John Froonjian, executive director of Stockton University’s William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy.

» READ MORE: Democrats win across the Philadelphia region as Republicans are fading even on friendly turf

Andrzejczak caused a stir when he declined to rule out voting for Trump in 2020. Experts say he was playing to moderates in his district but couldn’t swing conservatives his way, signaling an environment where party affiliation matters more than policy platforms.

“Impeachment has hardened the partisans,” said Benjamin Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute of Public Policy, and "partisanship probably boosted Republican turnout.” About 33% of voters turned out in the 1st District Tuesday, according to unofficial campaign results. That is higher than analysts predicted.

Dems lose in historically red areas

Last night’s other South Jersey surprise was in the 8th District, which spans Atlantic, Burlington and Camden Counties.

Gina LaPlaca and Mark Natale, former campaign volunteers for U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, conceded the election to Republican candidates Ryan Peters and Jean Stanfield in a race that was predicted to go down to the wire.

The results were a setback for Democrats, who had turned the district increasingly blue in the Trump era. Tuesday’s loss dampens the momentum Democrats gained in 2018 when Kim narrowly beat former Republican U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur in New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District.

But experts say a Democratic loss in this district is not as stark as it seems.

“The pendulum is swinging back a little bit,” said Froonjian, indicating that the 8th is simply returning to its conservative roots after a series of blue-wave elections in the Trump era.

» READ MORE: The blue wave crashed down on Pennsylvania again, as voters from Philly to Delaware County turned left

The 1st District also runs conservative, with Republicans holding a registration advantage over Democrats. But for more than 15 years Democrat Jeff Van Drew translated his moderate brand into victory in the area. Andrzejczak, along with his Assembly running mates, tried to capitalize on that by billing themselves as the “Van Drew Team" but couldn’t translate it into victory at the ballot box.

“People vote for the person who’s in front of them, not necessarily for the endorsement,” Dworkin said.

Progressive activists say losses in South Jersey are less about Republican energy, and more about “Democratic machine candidates” who can’t inspire voters to get to the polls.

“In these mixed districts, you’ll get higher turnout if you embrace a bolder agenda,” said Sue Altman, state director of New Jersey’s Working Families Party.

What this means for 2020 and impeachment

There’s no risk of Trump’s winning New Jersey next year, experts say, but swing-district Democrats should worry about Republicans who feel more confident in their chances to take back congressional seats they lost in 2018.

“Those Democrats are going to come under assault,” Dworkin said. In 2018, Democrats captured four House seats from Republicans.

Van Drew, whose congressional district encompasses the 1st District, holds one of those seats that flipped.

» READ MORE: Republican Brian O’Neill beats back challenge from Judy Moore in 10th District City Council race

Political analysts say he’ll be taking note of the strong Republican showing in his district, and it could affect his votes related to Trump’s impeachment inquiry. Van Drew is one of two House Democrats nationwide who voted against a Trump impeachment inquiry last Thursday.

"If you’re Jeff Van Drew, you’re a little concerned,“ said Froonjian. “He’s at the center of a political storm that’s really riling up.”