Trump and Impeachment Cast a Shadow Over New Jersey’s Elections

By 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Nov. 1, 2019

Bob Andrzejczak, a Democratic state senator, is running in a Republican-leaning district.

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In a legislative district in southern New Jersey, where Trump bumper stickers are nearly as common as American flags, the polarizing national battle over impeachment is playing out in real time.

A Democrat trying to hold on to his seat in the state’s sole Senate contest on Tuesday was pressed into saying that he would not rule out voting for President Trump, and that he certainly would not support two of his own party’s front-runners, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

His Republican opponent rebuffs criticism from the Democratic incumbent with the hashtag #fakenews.

Amid the rancor of the presidential impeachment inquiry, New Jersey candidates locked in a small handful of competitive off-year election battles find themselves walking a thin line between avoiding talk of Washington and embracing it.

After Representative Jeff Van Drew, who held the district’s Senate seat until last year’s blue wave helped carry him to Washington, became one of just two House Democrats to vote against a resolution laying out impeachment inquiry rules, the political drama captivating the nation seemed to take on even more import locally.

“There are lots of shades of red,” said Senator Bob Andrzejczak, an Iraq war veteran who was appointed to Mr. Van Drew’s seat in January. “And there are lots of shades of blue.”

The battle unfolding in Mr. Van Drew’s former district is perhaps the clearest example of how the impeachment-related news emanating from Washington has seeped to varying degrees into local races.

“The impeachment process,” said Mike Testa Jr., a lawyer who is leading Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign in New Jersey and is running against Mr. Andrzejczak, “has greatly fired up the Republican base.”

But the national debate is also resonating in other races in a solidly blue state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a million voters.

It has the power to cut both ways: The top Republican in the Assembly is fighting to keep his seat in a northern district, in part because of a challenge by conservatives angered by his criticism of Mr. Trump. In a race for freeholder in Somerset County, a campaign flier for a Democratic challenger superimposed Mr. Trump’s photo next to an image of the Republican incumbent.

Joseph DeMarco, campaign manager for the Somerset County Democrats, said the president continued to factor into local political strategy.

“It’s a big motivator for us, for the base, especially in an off-year, low-turnout election,” Mr. DeMarco said.

Mr. Andrzejczak’s legislative region, District 1, includes Cape May County, where Mr. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than 19 percentage points. (Statewide, Mrs. Clinton handily defeated Mr. Trump by 14 percentage points.)

Buoyed by a write-in candidate who is challenging Mr. Andrzejczak from the left, Republicans consider the race in District 1 to be among their best chances for flipping a seat. “It’s in our wheelhouse,” the state Republican chairman, Doug Steinhardt, said after a debate last week in Cape May Court House.

Mr. Andrzejczak and his two Assembly running-mates are campaigning as The Van Drew Team, yoking themselves to the retired dentist who served four terms in the State Senate before being elected to the House.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said Democrats in the district that crosses several counties including Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic were “assiduously avoiding talking about what’s going on in Washington.”

“These Democrats,” he said, “realize that in order to win, they can’t upset these Trump voters.”

In addition to the Senate contest, there are elections for all 80 seats in the Assembly, where Democrats hold a 54-to-26 advantage — a majority they are seeking to expand.

Sue Altman, director of the progressive New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said that while she believed the impeachment hearings were having little direct impact on campaigns, they did offer a compelling back story for an already mobilized Democratic base.

“The default setting in politics across the country is: Everyone is paying attention to Trump,” she said.

A spokesman for the State Democratic Party said he was not aware of any overt messaging for an Assembly candidate that related directly to the impeachment inquiry.

And many voters said they saw little connection between the national controversy and local elections. “I think that’s pretty separate,” said Candi Alva, 21, a student studying psychology at Union County College.

In District 21, which includes parts of Morris, Union and Somerset Counties, the Assembly’s Republican minority leader, Jon M. Bramnick, is working to fend off challengers from both sides.

Democrats in the area successfully flipped a House seat last year and remain energized, even as pro-Trump conservatives are running a protest campaign in response to Mr. Bramnick’s past criticism of the president.

Mr. Bramnick’s challenges go beyond the shadow cast by Mr. Trump. He has apologized for language that appeared on his law firm’s website that was seen as disparaging to victims of sexual violence, and read: “We will investigate your case and seek to discredit your accuser.”

He said the language was written by an outside agency and “we didn’t catch it.”

Mr. Bramnick and his Republican running-mate, Assemblywoman Nancy Muñoz, have sought to highlight the value in electing leaders from both parties in Trenton, which is controlled by the Democrats. Mr. Bramnick, in an interview, said most voters wanted to talk about issues like the high cost of living, not impeachment.

“Not one person has brought up impeachment,” Mr. Bramnick said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Trump remains deeply unpopular in New Jersey.

After the release of a transcript of a call between Mr. Trump and the president of Ukraine, a small majority of New Jersey voters supported the impeachment inquiry, according to a poll done by the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

Still, it was Mr. Bramnick’s comments about Mr. Trump — he blamed Republican losses in the midterm on a divisive environment created by the president — that led two conservative challengers to enter the race.

“If you’re going to consider yourself a Republican leader, and you can’t find anything nice to say about our sitting president, then you should probably just be quiet,” said Martin Marks, a former mayor of Scotch Plains running as an independent against Mr. Bramnick.

Mr. Marks and his running mate, Harris Pappas, have the potential to be “spoilers” who siphon Republican votes and swing the election to the Democrats, Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman, in an election that is likely to have low voter turnout, Mr. Murray said.

If Mr. Bramnick were to lose, it would represent yet another blow to a party already licking its wounds after last November.

But in swing districts like the 21st, it is hard to predict which way the impeachment inquiry might cut, said John J. Farmer Jr., the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

“You don’t really know how voters are going to skew on impeachment,” Mr. Farmer said. “It’s going to be an interesting one to watch.”

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