After President-elect Donald Trump’s victory during Tuesday’s general election, the Republican brand seems strengthened nationwide. The party now has control of the White House, the U.S. Senate and the House. However, that nationwide strength stands in contrast to the GOP’s beleaguered position in New Jersey.
In the Garden State, the Republican brand has been struggling with Governor Chris Christie’s alleged role in the Bridgegate scandal. That connection has impacted the once-popular governor to such a point that his approval rating currently stands at only 19 percent among New Jersey residents. In Bergen County—the state’s most populous—Republicans have been on a steady losing streak over the last few elections. This year, the GOP in Bergen officially lost all representation at the county level and managed to pick up a congressional seat in the previously Republican held district 5. And, while a Republican won the presidential election, a significant portion of NJ Republicans—including 2017 gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli and likely candidate Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno—separated themselves from Trump and were unwilling to publicly endorse him throughout the election.
With New Jersey’s Republican brand at such a low point in the blue-leaning state, the question on the minds of many is where the state’s party goes from here. Will Trump’s win and the overall Republican strength nationwide lead to a rebirth for New Jersey’s fractured GOP?
While Christie’s approval ratings are at an all time low, his early and enthusiastic support for Trump may reflect well on the Republican brand in New Jersey. Christie’s closeness to the newly elected president—something for which he faced significant criticism in his home state after his February endorsement—shows political savvy on the part of the governor. If Christie’s connection to New Jersey as a likely member of Trump’s cabinet stays strong, those Republicans that backed Trump alongside Christie also stand to come out favorably. If Christie does move on with Trump, New Jersey having a former governor as a high-ranking member of a national administration also would reflect well on the state’s GOP and would, perhaps, lead to an increase in confidence from state Republicans who had become disillusioned with Christie’s leadership.
According to early Trump supporter state Senator Joe Pennacchio (R-26), Christie’s proximity to Trump will likely have a positive impact on the New Jersey Republican Party.
“I think it will impact the party and the state in a very positive way,” Pennachio said. “He has got the president’s ear. I am sure he can get them to listen right away. It is the type of relationship you need with the president and, my god, we have it now.”
Pennacchio said that even if Christie leaves New Jersey to work in a Trump cabinet or staff, the connection will likely still be a net positive for the state.
“Governor Christie is a Jersey guy. He was born in Jersey. He is the governor for crying out loud. To think that he won’t have our best interests in mind, I think, is shortchanging him,” Pennacchio said.
According to Pennacchio, the fact that Trump was able to earn votes from working class voters who often lean left suggests that those voters can be captured by the NJ GOP in the same way.
While Bergen County lost Republican representation this year, the result was not the same in other parts of New Jersey. Republican stronghold Ocean County came out decisively for Trump. Results in both Monmouth and Burlington Counties also point to a GOP resuscitation in NJ. While there has long been chatter about a weakening Republican presence in Monmouth (due primarily to the loss of two assembly seats there last year), this election Republicans there crushed their Democratic competition. In Burlington County, Republicans usually lose seats in high turnout election years. This year, however, the Republicans under the guidance of Chairman Bill Layton maintained their majority even in the high-turnout election climate that usually costs them control.
For Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, the chance for resuscitation of the New Jersey Republican Party hinges on the candidates put forth in future elections. He said that candidates must be able to resonate with voters in a similar way to what Trump did this election. Bramnick said he does not feel that a strong national GOP necessarily will impact New Jersey’s Republican brand.
“My position is that it is always based on the candidates,” said Bramnick, a possible 2017 gubernatorial candidate. “The mood of the country and the mood of the state is important but candidates are the most important.”
According to Bramnick, New Jersey’s 700 thousand more registered Democrats than Republicans will have a big impact on future elections and any potential growth of Republicans.
“We always start with Democrats having a lead just based on the numbers,” Bramnick said. “Consequently, if someone in New Jersey who is a Republican runs and the state likes that candidate, the candidate can win. I am not sure what happens on the national level has much of an impact on what happens in New Jersey.”
Pennacchio said that Trump’s role as president might come into play in 2017 gubernatorial race in New Jersey.
“It is something that the Republican Party has to look forward to. If we have a president coming in and being supportive—and I think it is the only race of consequence in the country—of Republican causes it can reflect well,” Pennacchio said. “I think we need to take heed of what happened. He tapped into a populist message where we have to put our economic interests first.”
Another New Jersey connection to the new president is Christie’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien. This election, Stepien worked on Trump’s campaign and next year is poised to work with Guadagno during her gubernatorial run. That connection may benefit Guadagno because, while the likely gubernatorial candidate has never endorsed or supported Trump, she will have someone from the Trump team behind her as she pursues election.
Like Christie, 2017 gubernatorial candidate Joe Rullo was an early and enthusiastic Trump supporter. He has called on those gubernatorial candidates who did not back Trump to withdraw from the race.
In the 2017 gubernatorial election, Democrat Phil Murphy is expected to best the Republican challenger partly due to the damaged GOP brand in New Jersey. If Republicans can turn that brand around before the campaign for governor dominates political conversation in the state, however, the race might be closer than expected.