While the presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton has been dominating the national conversation ahead of November’s general election, a number of races in New Jersey demonstrate a potential for shift as state Democrats continue to make strong efforts to put down roots in long-held Republican districts and counties.
PolitickerNJ spoke with Montclair University political scientist Brigid Harrison to identify some of those districts. Here is a list of NJ locales where Democrats might–but not necessarily will–strengthen their hold during the 2016 races. In some districts those battles will be much more hard-fought than others.
1. Congressional District 5
According to Harrison, Democratic congressional candidate Josh Gottheimer presents one of the biggest opportunities for Democrats in the lead-up to the 2016 election. In that district, former Clinton speechwriter Gottheimer is attempting to supplant long-time Republican incumbent Scott Garrett. For Harrison, this race is one to watch because of the strength of Gottheimer’s campaign so far paired with political snafus made by Garrett when he stated that he would not support his party’s fundraising arm due to recruitment of gay candidates. However, Harrison said that Gottheimer’s path would not be easy.
“The most competitive election and perhaps the most important election in the state is in the fifth congressional district,” Harrison said. “Those who watch politics have identified the fifth as perennially being in play. Every two years, there looks to be a relatively strong challenger and we all tend to call this as competitive but, time and time again, Scott Garrett has proven us wrong.”
According to filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Gottheimer has raised approximately $2.9 million. Garrett has raised about $1.3 million. According to Harrison, that monetary difference could play a large role in a potential Gottheimer victory.
“Many of the financial services corporations that have, for years, bankrolled Garrett’s campaign have been withholding their campaign contributions,” Harrison said. She said that the withdrawal of support is tied to Garrett’s comments about gay individuals.
2. Bergen County
In New Jersey’s most populated county, Sheriff Michael Saudino announced early this year that he would be switching parties and becoming a Democrat in order to run for reelection. Saudino is expected to win in his reelection bid, something that will strengthen Democratic ties without him ever leaving office.
According to Harrison, however, Bergen represents other ample opportunities for Democrats.
“All of the offices are up for grabs and with this being a down ballot race under a presidential ticket, there is this kind of symbiotic relationship,” Harrison said. “In the portion of the fifth [congressional district] that is Bergen, there will be, I expect heightened numbers. There is going to be relatively high turnout in the most populous county in the state.”
For Harrison, the high turnout year might provide Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato “the potential to demonstrate just how important Bergen is looking ahead to 2017.”
3. Congressional District 7
Democrat Peter Jacob has been pushing hard to try and get his name out there in a district that has been steadily Republican. In that challenge, Jacob has pitted himself against Congressman Leonard Lance. However, according to Harrison, moves made by Jacob and other congressional candidates–barring Gottheimer–will more than likely come up short.
“Despite the fact that you have a really strong Democratic presidential candidate this year, at least in New Jersey, the way the congressional districts are structured, it really leaves very, very little opportunity for challengers to make headway against incumbents,” Harrison said. “No matter how qualified the challenger, no matter how well funded they are, the advantage typically goes to whatever the incumbent’s party is.”
One thing that Jacob has on his side is his support of grassroots phenom Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential run. Because Jacob was actively involved in the Sanders movement, he has a baseline for support in his district.
According to FEC reports, Jacob raised only $35,182 up to June 30 while Lance raised slightly under $833,000.
4. Burlington County
This South Jersey county is one of the few in which the GOP suffers during high-turnout elections. With presidential elections garnering the highest turnout of any race, this year in Burlington could be tricky as more Democrats than normal flock to the polls and vote down ballot for candidates that, in other years, get typically little play. Even on the Republican side, there has been little excitement in Burlington with the likes of Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg making it known that she has no plans to back Trump, something that could reflect on overall party attitudes in the county leading up to this November.
“The polls are indicating now that the enthusiasm gap really is Trump’s enthusiasm gap,” Harrison said of areas like Burlington and other counties in NJ that could see a boost for Democrats. “People are starting to be more enthusiastic about Clinton now, after the convention. People who traditionally vote Republican may vote Democrat. Those who would be inclined to vote Republican but are put off by Trump’s candidacy may stay home.”
5. Somerset County
Harrison also said she believed that Somerset was a place where Democrats could do well this year. She cited that “enthusiasm gap” as a primary reason why the party could be bolstered in that county. Somerset has seen a number of Republican elected officials who have decided not to support Trump. Among them are state Senator Kip Bateman and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, a potential 2017 gubernatorial candidate.
However, Republican Freeholder Pat Walsh seems poised to keep her seat as her opponent Maria Rodriguez is not well known and has never held elected office. Incumbent Sheriff Frank Provenzano is facing a challenge to his seat from Darrin Russo but that seat will also be difficult for Democrats to claim.
6. Monmouth County
This Jersey Shore county leans heavily toward Republicans but, as with Burlington and Somerset, could fall victim to the dip in enthusiasm that follows Trump for many New Jersey voters. Monmouth County GOP Chairman Shaun Golden has yet to come out decisively for Trump. However, according to a source close to the county party, enthusiasm is strong for the candidate among the general Republican voters.
Even with such a strong Republican base in the county, U.S. Senator Cory Booker recently made an appearance at a fundraiser in Monmouth for the local candidates. As Booker continues to climb into the national eye, appearances such as this one can help bring legitimacy to such Democratic races.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of PolitickerNJ and Observer Media.