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DEMARSEY: Why Republican candidates keep losing in New Jersey

The Scarlet State

If New Jersey Republican politicians wish to stand any chance against their Democratic opponents, they must learn how to re-connect with the values of their electorate. – Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

Heading into the 2023 general election, New Jersey Republicans had high spirits. Despite their ambitions, they ended up losing six seats in the State Legislature. To make matters worse for the party, it underwent a major upset defeat in what was considered a safe South Jersey district.

The current balance of the State Assembly is 51 Democrats to 28 Republicans. In New Jersey’s upper chamber, the State Senate consists of 25 Democrats and 15 Republicans.

Instead of capitalizing on their gains from 2021, which saw GOP victories in the third and 11th districts, Republican electoral efforts collapsed. What is the cause of their failures?

Quite frankly, the New Jersey GOP has fallen into the same trap that is currently consuming the national party at large. Candidates and Republican Party officials are fixated on pitching their values and ideals on the basis of “culture war” issues that do not resonate with Independent and suburban voters.

For example, a campaign's foundation on addressing a radicalized sex education curriculum does not give voters a reason to support candidates.

The vast majority of parents, students and teachers do not come into contact with this sort of issue. As most school districts draft their sex education curriculums on an individual basis, voters were not invested in the priorities that this year's GOP candidates were offering.

Another great example of culture war issues that consumed the Republican headspace this year was off-shore windmill development. GOP candidates sounded like representatives from the World Wildlife Foundation for how often they expressed their concern about the recent increase in whale deaths, which they attributed to the beginning phases of windmill development off the coast of South Jersey.

The only voters that bought into this rhetoric were Jersey Shore homeowners who were already likely voting for Republican candidates. To make matters even more confusing, candidates who ran in districts likely more than 50 miles away from the nearest beach town campaigned on this issue, which had little relation to the constituents of their community.

What brought Republicans success in 2021, a notable election for New Jersey Republicans, was their campaign against the affordability crisis in the Garden State. Gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli addressed crowds in nearly every community throughout the state on the issues that mattered to them.

What the state's Republican organization lacked in “machine politics,” such as that of the Camden, Hudson or Middlesex County Democrats, they made up for in effective grassroots efforts.

In this wide reach to New Jersey voters, Ciattarelli and GOP legislative candidates campaigned heavily on school funding reform, addressing ballooning property taxes and reducing state taxes on small businesses. These policies, among other common sense initiatives, resonated with voters in largely suburban New Jersey.

As a result, the state's GOP candidates saw massive gains in the state legislature and nearly defeated Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.), an incumbent Democrat with overwhelming fundraising support. This effective campaign allowed candidates like Sen. Edward Durr (R-3) of Gloucester County, Assemblywoman Marilyn Piperno (R-11) and Assemblywoman Kim Eulner (R-11) of Monmouth County to ride the coattails of Ciattarelli to the State House.

New Jersey Republican candidates and organizations expected this election to fall within their laps. They expected the South Jersey Democrat machine to underperform as it did in 2021, and for high-propensity Republican voters to carry them over the line in a low-turnout election.

What they forgot was that they still needed to give Independent suburban residents, a significant proportion of Garden State voters, a reason to support their campaigns.

If Republicans want to be competitive in New Jersey and win elections for either the Governor's office or state legislature, they have to rethink what their message is and how they are going to connect with average New Jersey voters. Instead of attacking green energy policies and fabricating culture war policies, they must return to bread-and-butter kitchen table issues.

To find success, New Jersey Republicans must continue to expose the fiscal failures of the Murphy administration, advocate for relief to overburdened New Jersey business owners and push for school funding reform to remind voters of how local property tax relief can be achieved. 

New Jersey Republicans, as well as the national party as a whole, must address common sense issues that people actually care about, not meaningless culture war theories.

Aiden DeMarsey is a sophomore in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in public policy and minoring in government & business as well as military science. His column, "The Scarlet State," runs on alternate Thursdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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