New Jersey Republicans appeared to defend their Assembly seats in a handful of competitive races and make gains in both houses of the Legislature, bucking the national trend in a night of Democratic victories in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky.
With vote tallies still being finalized into Wednesday morning, Republicans were poised to flip Assembly and Senate seats in District 1 — the southern tip of the state — and fend off Democratic challengers in suburban districts in Burlington County and North Jersey. Among those who survived a tight race was Republican Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick of Union County.
Democrats, however, preserved their commanding majority in the Assembly, currently at 54-26, and will retain full control of state government for at least another two years. Republicans will still have little recourse to block a Democratic agenda that, despite frequent infighting, has produced a slew of progressive policies in Gov. Phil Murphy’s first two years in office.
In the conservative-leaning 1st legislative district, which includes parts of Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, the GOP was set to flip both Assembly seats.
Republicans also appeared to gain the district’s state Senate seat, which had been under Democratic control for more than a decade. Republican Mike Testa, an attorney, defeated incumbent state Sen. Bob Andrzejczak, who had been tapped to fill the seat left open after Jeff Van Drew was elected to Congress in 2018.
“WE DID IT!” Testa tweeted after 11 p.m. Tuesday. “I can’t begin to thank each of you for standing by me and encouraging us to keep fighting throughout this campaign.”
In the 8th legislative district, a Burlington County-centric territory that includes parts of Camden and Atlantic Counties, Democrats Mark Natale and Gina LaPlaca conceded late Tuesday to incumbent Republican Assemblyman Ryan Peters and running mate Jean Stanfield, a former Burlington County sheriff.
Stanfield will fill the seat currently held by Republican Joe Howarth, who fell out of favor with party leaders earlier this year.
Peters, an active U.S. Navy reservist and combat veteran, reveled in a victory that came after a tumultuous year for the Burlington County GOP.
“It’s just an amazing feeling to continue to face these headwinds that we had — the spending and all those attack ads,” he said, referring to the campaign mounted by his Democratic opponents. “To come out on top is just an amazing feeling.”
The GOP victory slowed — but did not stop — the further erosion of the party’s power in Burlington County, which was trending Democratic even before anti-Donald Trump sentiment accelerated that shift. Democrats on Tuesday prevailed in the race for county sheriff and won an additional freeholder seat, ensuring their control of the board until at least 2021.
Last year, Democrats there managed to flip a Republican-held seat in Congress — part of a 2018 midterm rout that left just one Republican in New Jersey’s congressional delegation — and gain control of county government for the first time in 40 years.
In January, they convinced the 8th district’s Republican state senator, Dawn Addiego, to defect to the Democratic Party, citing “gridlock in Washington” and the desire to be “part of the discussion.”
The Peters-Stanfield win came despite the independent “MAGA conservative” candidacy of Tom Giangiulio Jr., a former GOP committeeman in Waterford, Camden County, who threatened to play spoiler by siphoning votes from the establishment-backed Republicans. In the end, he received about 1,700 votes.
Giangiulio has ties to both Addiego and Howarth, who lost his party’s backing amid speculation he was also mulling a jump to the Democratic fold. Howarth later mounted an unsuccessful primary bid as a “MAGA Republican.”
“They did every underhanded, sneaky trick and it didn’t work,” Peters said Tuesday. “I think that just says a lot about the process and the people of this district, that they won’t be fooled.”
Republicans in some parts of the state had sought to make the election a referendum on the policies of Gov. Phil Murphy, a liberal Democrat who took office last year. Murphy has raised taxes on corporations and the rich, passed a $15 minimum wage, guaranteed workers earned sick leave and expanded the state’s family leave program — measures opposed by many Republicans and allies in the business community.
Murphy has also signed legislation to tighten gun regulations, provide college financial aid to unauthorized immigrants and impose new clean-energy mandates, in addition to taxing services like Uber and Airbnb and providing tuition-free community college for some students.
What message the Republican victories sends is hard to make out. Lawmakers may soon debate other Murphy priorities like marijuana legalization and drivers’ licenses for unauthorized immigrants, and Democrats have sufficient numbers to pass such measures without Republican support.
“Republicans in New Jersey won’t be shouted into a corner,” N.J. GOP chairman Doug Steinhardt said in a statement. “It was great to be on offense in places like LD-1. We pushed back Phil Murphy’s blue wave and in a state like New Jersey, that gives us momentum going into 2020.”
WHYY’s Joe Hernandez contributed reporting.