How Blue is New Jersey ?

One of the most enduring legacies of the 2000 Bush-Gore Presidential race has been the use of the colors "blue" and “red” to identify Democratic and Republican states, respectively. This addition to the political idiom of America resulted from the colors on the 2000 NBC Election Night map used to identify states carried by each Presidential candidate.

Throughout this decade, it has been conventional wisdom to say that New Jersey is definitely a "blue" state. New Jersey has certainly been a blue state during this decade in view of 1) the Democrat hold on the governorship and legislature since 2002; 2) their voting registration edge; 3) their hold on both U.S. Senate seats since 1979; and 4) their retention of a majority of New Jersey’s U.S. House of Representatives delegation since the election of 1998.

My belief, however, is that from the standpoint of history, there is a strong argument that at various times, New Jersey has been a "purple" state – a combination of "blue" and "red" – and there is a possibility that New Jersey could move in a purple direction again. In this regard, consider the following historical facts:

- In six consecutive Presidential contests from 1968 through 1988, the Republican candidate carried New Jersey in each election. Furthermore, George H.W. Bush would have certainly carried New Jersey in 1992 had it not been for the Ross Perot vote impacting the President’s vote totals in Morris and Somerset counties.

- From January, 1992 until January, 2002, the Republicans controlled both the New Jersey Assembly and Senate.

- From January, 1995 until January, 1999, the Republicans controlled a majority of the 13-member New Jersey delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives.

- The Republicans have controlled the Governorship of New Jersey for 16 of the past 28 years, by virtue of the two term tenures of Tom Kean and Christie Whitman. Furthermore, during this 28 year period, no Democrat has been reelected as governor, and it appears increasingly unlikely that Jon Corzine will be reelected in 2009.

- The 2001 Larry Bartels-approved legislative district reapportionment has given the Democrats a much more firm control of the state Assembly and Senate than they would have received under the previous map. The key evidence of this is the results of the 2003 legislative elections. The Republican legislative candidates actually carried 53 per cent of the total votes cast statewide; yet the New Jersey GOP lost seats in both houses.

So while New Jersey in 2009 is clearly a blue state, it is fair to say that the blue is not indelible. The increasing likelihood of Chris Christie winning the governorship this November certainly will help move the state in a more purple direction. There are, however, four serious challenges that the New Jersey GOP will still have to confront in breaking the current solid Democrat control of the Garden State.

The first is an ironic one: the New Jersey Republican party, the so-called “party of the rich” has no money.

The New Jersey GOP in the 1990s was able to raise money at all levels not just because of its incumbent status but largely due to the efforts of two “mega-fundraisers” of national stature: Lew Eisenberg and Cliff Sobel. Both of these individuals would prove themselves to be outstanding ethical and competent public servants as well, Eisenberg as Chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and Sobel as Ambassador to the Netherlands and later Brazil. New Jersey Republicans are now in extreme need of a similar thirtysomething or fortysomething mega-fundraiser in order to move the state to a “purple” political status in the next decade.

Second, with the notable exception of Tom Kean in his 1985 reelection campaign, the Republicans in New Jersey have been dismal failures in attracting the growing African-American and Hispanic vote. In fact, the rising voting turnout of the African-American and Hispanic populations in New Jersey has been the major change in the New Jersey political culture over the past two decades. Increased voting participation by New Jersey African-Americans and Hispanics is indeed a most welcome and salutary development in the politics of the Garden State. The failure of Republicans to attract voters in these communities, however, has hurt the party at both statewide and local levels.

In fact, in 1988, Republican party leaders in New Jersey made an historic mistake in this regard when they chose Pete Dawkins to run for U.S. Senate against Frank Lautenberg instead of Len Coleman, an African-American and the then Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. Coleman was a superb government official with major support not only in the African-American community but also from “Reagan Democrats” largely of Central and Eastern European ancestry. He is an outstanding individual who also served magnificently as president of baseball’s National League. Had he defeated Lautenberg, as I believe he would have, Coleman would have been a magnet for increasing African-American support for the New Jersey GOP for the ensuing decades. Instead, the party leadership anointed Dawkins, who ran an absolutely pathetically inept campaign. This historic mistake constitutes perhaps the major missed opportunity for the New Jersey GOP over the past three decades.

Many key GOP players in New Jersey simply write off the African-American and Hispanic vote, hoping to offset its support of Democrat candidates by increased Republican vote totals elsewhere. Such a strategy is doomed to failure. If New Jersey Republicans do not improve their vote totals from African-American and Hispanic voters, the state will remain in its solid blue status, regardless of any occasional GOP triumphs in gubernatorial elections.

Third, New Jersey Republican leaders must develop a sound strategy when the New Jersey Legislative Apportionment Commission is reconstituted in 2011 to determine the new boundaries for New Jersey’s forty legislative districts. Unless there are substantial variations from the present map, Republicans will continue to fail to attain a majority in either legislative house, regardless of what success a Governor Chris Christie may achieve.

Fourth, Republicans face a delicate and difficult situation on the issue of Congressional redistricting in 2012. The 2010 census may well result in the New Jersey delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives being reduced from thirteen members to twelve.

It will doubtless be Democratic strategy to throw Scott Garrett and Leonard Lance into the same Congressional district, thus setting up not only a contest between two eminent Republican Congressmen but also making this new district a venue for a bitter conservative versus moderate Republican fratricidal civil war. Republican party and legislative leaders will have to have both compelling arguments and Kissingerian diplomatic skills to persuade the tiebreaking member of the Apportionment Commission not to push Garrett and Lance into the same district while avoiding changes that affect the relatively “safe” status of Congressmen Rodney Frelinghuysen, Frank LoBiondo, and Chris Smith.

All four of the aforementioned issues constitute daunting challenges to Republicans in their efforts to transform New Jersey from a blue state into a purple one. New Jersey Republicans, however, can take some comfort and encouragement from the course of New Jersey political history from 1973 through 1985. After Brendan Byrne’s landslide 1973 gubernatorial victory and Nixon’s Watergate disgrace and resignation from the Presidency in 1974, New Jersey political pundits were forecasting the demise of the Republican Party as a serious political factor in the Garden State.

By 1982, however, New Jersey had elected a Republican governor, Tom Kean, who in his 1985 landslide reelection campaign would carry into the State Assembly a substantial Republican majority consisting of 50 members. If Chris Christie is elected as governor this November, he will doubtless view Tom Kean’s record not only as a guide to outstanding governance of the Garden State but also as a precedent for achieving resurgence of the New Jersey Republican Party as well.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.

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