5 things to watch for in New Jersey on Election Day

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Rep. Jeff Van Drew on stage at a campaign rally for President Donald Trump, in Wildwood, N.J. | Mel Evans/AP Photo

Democrat Joe Biden will almost certainly capture New Jersey’s 14 electoral votes on Tuesday, but there are plenty of other things worth paying attention to in the Garden State on Election Day.

From hotly-contested congressional races to local elections in suburban towns that were once solidly Republican to the way this year’s election is being conducted, the outcome could have a more profound impact on New Jersey’s political future than a normal election.

Here are five developments and results to look for:

Congressional races

This is the most obvious — and most important — thing to watch.

Democrats hold a 10-2 majority in New Jersey’s House delegation. That’s down from 11-1 after U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew switched parties from Democrat to Republican. Just four years ago, the delegation was split, 6-6.

There are several reasons for the shift, including changing demographics. The biggest reason, however, is voter backlash to President Donald Trump.

Races in two congressional districts — the 2nd in South Jersey and 7th in Central Jersey — remain hyper competitive.

In the 2nd District, Democrat Amy Kennedy is challenging the incumbent Van Drew. Kennedy is out-raising Van Drew, but Van Drew has tapped a controversial Democratic operative, Craig Callaway, to help his campaign through his notorious mail-in ballot operation.

The district, while Democratic-leaning on paper, went for Trump in 2016 and has more rural white voters than districts farther to the north. Democratic and Republicans super PACs are also spending big in the district.

Kennedy halted all of her in-person events on Monday after interacting with someone during an event on Saturday who has since tested positive for the coronavirus. She has tested negative.

POLITICO rates the district a “toss-up.”

The 7th District, where incumbent Democrat Tom Malinowski is facing Republican Tom Kean Jr., the state Senate minority leader, is very different demographically from the 2nd. It’s in the New York City commuter belt and is one of the wealthiest and best-educated congressional districts in the country. It‘s also home to Trump’s Bedminster golf club.

The district was solidly Republican until Malinowski defeated Republican Leonard Lance in 2018 as the voters soured on Trump. Now, Kean Jr. — the son of the famously moderate former Republican Gov. Tom Kean — is seeking to lure those moderate voters back.

POLITICO rates the race “lean Democratic.”

The once-competitive district that appears to have dropped off is South Jersey’s 3rd District, where freshman Democratic Rep. Andy Kim — who narrowly defeated Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur, a Trump loyalist, in 2018 — has a commanding fundraising lead, and where Republican outside groups have been spending little to boost GOP challenger David Richter.

Confusion at the polls?

Because of the pandemic, state leaders redesigned New Jersey’s primary and general election this year to be predominantly vote-by-mail.

Republicans aren’t happy about this, and have been warning that the process could create chaos. Some have also sent mixed messages, telling people that Gov. Phil Murphy canceled in-person voting when, in fact, he did not. Voters can cast provisional ballots at polling places between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. Many voters — perhaps disproportionately Republican — likely will, as Trump has sewn mistrust about mail-in ballots.

A big potential problem is that some races likely won’t be called Tuesday night because provisional ballots can’t be counted until at least a week after the election. For this reason, some Republican campaigns don’t think they’ll concede or declare victory on Election Night.

The counting of ballots in some counties took weeks during the July primary. But this time, most county boards of elections — with the permission of the Legislature — began counting ballots 10 days ago.

If Election Day becomes messy — with long lines at the polls to cast provisional ballots and results delayed by days or even weeks — New Jersey’s mail-in voting experiment may not continue. But if it goes relatively smoothly, don’t be surprised if Democrats seek to expand mail-in voting — and perhaps in-person voting on machines — if the Legislature agrees to invest the roughly $25 million it will take to purchase the necessary electronic poll books.

Down-ballot races

The damage Trump has done to New Jersey Republicans isn’t limited to congressional districts. Democrats in suburban, traditionally solid GOP areas have seen their fortunes improve in the Trump era.

Take Mount Laurel, in Burlington County, where Republicans who have long governed sought to ask voters last year to change the township’s election from partisan to non-partisan — a move widely seen as an attempt to disconnect themselves from Trump’s brand of Republicanism. The Legislature quickly passed a bill to block the move. Now, Democrats are hoping to wrest control of the council.

Morris County was once practically synonymous with the Republican Party. Democrats haven’t won a freeholder seat there in decades but this year, even Republicans acknowledge that Democrats have a shot to pick up the single freeholder seat on the ballot.

In the 25th Legislative District, which is made up mostly of towns in Morris County, there’s a special election for a state Senate seat and one Assembly seat now held by Republican state Sen. Anthony Bucco and Republican Assembly member Aura Dunn.

The once-solidly GOP district has become competitive and even though Republicans managed to fend off a Democratic challenge to its two Assembly seats in 2019, Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that 2020 — with a presidential election driving turnout — will be more challenging for the GOP.

Ballot questions

A constitutional amendment to allow for the sale and use of cannabis for adults aged 21 and over is on the ballot, and few question whether it will pass; it has polled above 60 percent in several recent surveys. While supporters have poured about $2 million into an advertising campaign in favor of legalization, opponents have spent almost nothing to oppose it.

Though the ballot question would write legalization into the state Constitution, the Legislature would still need to craft legislation to regulate it and take anti-marijuana laws off the books. While the state Constitution prevails over state law, things could still get messy if anti-marijuana laws remain on the books and some law enforcement choose to keep arresting people.

Despite the polls in support of legalization, many lawmakers have been hesitant to back it. That’s why it’s on the ballot to begin with; efforts to pass legalization legislatively have repeatedly failed. Democrats most recently fell short by just one vote.

If voters make it clear they want legalization, could it finally break the opposition of skeptical lawmakers? Some think a landslide in favor of legalization would pressure the Legislature to work more quickly.

What’s less certain is the outcome of a ballot question that would delay state legislative redistricting until 2022 and keep the current legislative districts in place until the 2023 election — if the U.S. Census Bureau delivers data to New Jersey after Feb. 15.

The only public poll on the issue so far showed a plurality, but not a majority, in support of delaying redistricting — 46 percent in support, 32 percent opposed and 22 percent undecided. Republicans and progressive groups have come out against the question, though there’s been little spending on advertising for or against it.

What it all means for 2021

Murphy, who along with the entire 120-member Legislature is up for reelection next year, has said repeatedly that he wants to remain as governor, even if Joe Biden wins the presidency and offers him a cabinet post.

Nevertheless, if Biden wins, speculation will grow about Murphy’s future. Would Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver — who would become acting governor with a Murphy departure — be the favorite for the Democratic nomination next year? If Oliver wants it, given today’s political dynamics in the Democratic Party, it would be a challenge for other Democrats to make their case against the state’s first Black woman governor.

If Biden wins and Murphy stays in New Jersey, there’s concern among some Democrats that they could see a repeat of 2009, when Republican Chris Christie unseated Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine a year into Barack Obama’s presidency during a recession.

New Jersey Democrats have been energized against Trump. Could that enthusiasm wane with a Democrat in the White House? And who knows if we’ll be out of the pandemic-caused recession by then?

The outcome of the presidential race also has implications for the contest for the Republican nomination for governor.

If Trump wins the election and New Jersey Republicans fare relatively well, the decision of GOP State Chairman Doug Steinhardt — a likely 2021 gubernatorial candidate — to align the state party with Trump will be at least partially vindicated. If Trump loses and it’s a disaster for down-ballot New Jersey Republicans, Steinhardt owns it.

While it’s not hard to see the GOP base remaining loyal to Trump, it could be challenging for Steinhardt to make a case for his party’s nomination if its power has badly eroded under his leadership.

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