HAMILTON – Making the race local in an anti-Democrat Election year was critical for Democratic message-makers in the 14th Legislative District, but don’t tell that to labor leaders, who at the end of it interpreted a wider and more concussive victory over Gov. Chris Christie.
“My only fear was the national environment, where Democrats last Tuesday ended up losing over 600 seats in state legislatures and 18 chambers,” said Chief Strategic Advisor Michael Muller, a Democrat, who advised state Sen.-elect Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro). “Take a look at the Minnesota senate, which in one night went from 46-21 Democratic control, to 37-30 Republican.”
Finally, tax-strangled local voters turned on one of their own fellow residents on Election Day, according to Democrats breaking the special election down in its aftermath, while Republicans insist the results were no more complicated than public sector union boots and party money that steered the tide away from Republican Tom Goodwin.
Monmouth University Political Scientist and Pollster Patrick Murray said the 2-1 Democratic District ultimately showed its essential character, where triumphant Republicans must rely on public union support – support that Goodwin lacked and which Christie antagonized in his statewide brawl with the teachers union.
“In spite of Bill Baroni (the former GOP senator), it is basically a Democratic district,” Murray said. “You have a lot of state workers who were up in arms, and it was just a tough year for Tom Goodwin to hold on.”
Still, Muller realized early he and the Greenstein team would have to do more than simply vilify Christie, who polled better than expected – 55% approval rating in the 14th.
Greenstein’s inner circle gradually shifted away from their kick-off day hammering of the governor and went instead to Goodwin’s votes on key issues not only in the legislature, but on local issues in the Republican senator’s hometown of Hamilton, where turnout numbers showed mayoral election year enthusiasm.
“Our very first ad highlighted no aversion to working with Gov. Christie when he’s right and opposing him when he’s wrong,” said Muller. “We didn’t want to come across as being against everything. We wanted to underscore Linda’s independence.”
In beating Goodwin overall 53.7% to 46.3%, Greenstein ended up losing Hamilton by just 366 votes (12,034 to 12,400), a town Goodwin beat her in three years ago by a couple of thousand votes when they ran against each other for an assembly seat.
Greenstein’s well-financed campaign targeted independent women with advertising that highlighted the Republican’s vote against women’s healthcare funding. She inevitably benefited too from her own brand of sweating every detail and a veteran’s record of relentlessly working the district, as well as a local mayor’s race in South Brunswick, which bucked up turnout in her favor (5,974 to Goodwin’s 4,429).
But ultimately the public sector bedrock of the 14th District crashed heavily on Goodwin’s shoulders come Election Day, according to CWA Area Director Hetty Rosenstein, who, notwithstanding the poll-driven decision by the Greenstein campaign to mostly avoid attacking Christie directly – was eager to interpret the results in Greenstein’s favor as a resounding bloody nose for Christie.
“Public sector workers heard exactly what Chris Christie said, which is that this was his most important race,” said Rosenstein. “Hamilton is a place where kids have lost services. It’s the kind of middle class community that is being destroyed by a vitriolic anti-public sector worker sentiment. I just find it interesting that we did not see massive right-wing turns in New Jersey, even though we have the Republican rock star in Trenton.
“I agree with the governor that it was one of the most important races,” Rosenstein added. “In Bergen County, you had a history of corruption that colored that race. In the 14th, you had a referendum on the local politics, you didn’t have a football star like you had in the 3rd Congressional District. That 14th District senate seat has been a Republican seat for a very long time, and in the midst of a swing rightward, you had a Democrat take longtime Republican seat.
“We have a governor who is being demagogic,” added the labor leader. “We have so many problems and it’s so important not to be so divisive and angry.”
A day after the election, a CWA memo surfaced that Rosenstein won’t confirm or deny, in which Rosenstein apparently trumpeted labor credit for helping to launch Greenstein to victory over Goodwin.
“It looks as if New Jersey made it through the fires mostly intact – without question – in part due to our work,” she wrote. “Yesterday, we had three full phone banks going, calling union members until 7 p.m. We had over 300 people door-knocking in Mercer and Middlesex. We raised a lot of money for Greenstein and we helped to keep New Jersey a blue state, with Pallone beating back Tea Party crazy Anna Little and (Holt) beating Hedge Fund Pig Sipprelle.”
Matt Mowers, Goodwin’s campaign manager, said he mostly agreed with the assessment that union muscle and money made a big difference in the final outcome.
“We hit our targets across the board,” Mowers told PolitickerNJ.com. “We contacted over 15,000 voters out of our Hamilton office alone. The district is winnable, but when you have a lot of powerful interests it makes the path to 50% plus 1 that much more difficult.”
“The unions were a very big factor on the ground,” Muller said. “A lot of communication has to happen in the context of the campaign. A lot of messaging we’ve done works very well with their members.”
But he added that Greenstein’s easy ability to transcend the party hack tag also inspired volunteers to get involved in the campaign.
Wounded by the loss, Goodwin said he didn’t want to talk about the race. At least two of the Democrats’ ads stung him on the campaign trail, one of them painfully. The tax hikes he presided over on the Hamilton council were the consequence of a mess left by former Mayor Glen Gilmore, Goodwin insisted. But the Greenstein ad eye poke over his vote against women’s health troubled him and left him injured and in self-protection mode post-election.