Democrats also capitalized on backlash from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade, warning voters that New Jersey Republicans would chip away at abortion rights.
“This is a big night for Democrats,” Gov. Phil Murphy told NJ Spotlight News.
The Democratic victories in New Jersey seemed to fit a pattern of party enthusiasm at the polls around the country. In deep-red Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear won another term against a Republican backed by former President Donald Trump. Democrats took control of the state Legislature in Virginia, denying Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin full party control. And in Ohio, voters overwhelmingly approved protecting abortion rights in the state constitution, extending a winning strike on that issue for Democrats.
Despite their built-in advantages, New Jersey Democrats displayed nervousness as they spent much of the year on what appeared to be the wrong side of Republican attacks.
Having taken lessons in 2021, when the party lost six Assembly seats and one in the Senate, Democrats sought to moderate their message and focus on fiscal “kitchen table” issues.
Many political observers didn’t think it was a coincidence that residents received property tax rebate checks weeks and days before the election. And Democrats over the summer passed an even bigger property tax relief program for seniors, even if it won’t take effect until 2026, and Republicans suspecting Democrats will pull out of it when it’s actually time to pay up.
But as the campaign progressed, the culture wars dominated the campaign ads and media coverage.
Contentious school board meetings hosted continued debates about sex education and school policies on whether to inform parents if their children identify as different genders in schools — issues Republicans seized on as attacks on “parental rights” by Democrats. Lawsuits from the State Attorney General’s office against school districts that put policies in place to inform parents about their children’s gender identities inflamed the issue in key districts.
“Democrats … are insisting that parents not be part of the discussion if kids express questions about being LGBTQ,” Steve Dnistrian, the Republican challenger to state Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), said in June.
Dnistrian and his Republican Assembly running mates lost, turning the Shore district fully Democratic after two years of split representation.
When the State Board of Education in August narrowly voted to amend its equity code to use more gender-neutral language, Senate President Nick Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin criticized it for not coordinating “with policymakers before they take actions that may affect school districts throughout our state.”
Democrats also took on the culture wars by targeting Republicans on abortion rights — an issue that has galvanized the Democratic base since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe last year.
Democrats used a 2020 social media post by Durr (R-Gloucester) that women should “close their legs’’ as an albatross against Republicans around the state, while a Planned Parenthood Super PAC warned that New Jerseyans were “just one election away from losing abortion access.”
“My opponent said some things that offended women, and they rallied to say to him ‘that’s not something we’re going to accept’,” said John Burzichelli, a Democratic former assemblymember who defeated Durr Tuesday, told NJ Spotlight News. “I think that was the driving issue.”
Republicans, several of whom have introduced bills that would restrict some abortion rights, countered that they would not ban abortion in New Jersey because their party has diverse viewpoints on the issue and that it’s protected by state law.
Wind energy, a once widely popular energy initiative, became a hot topic when seabed sonar surveying coincided with a spate of whale deaths along the coast even as state and federal environmental officials said there was no evidence of a link. The issue especially put Democrats on the defensive in shore districts, which held two of the race’s competitive districts.
After the state Board of Public Utilities received more bids for offshore wind projects, Coughlin and Scutari issued a joint statement expressing concerns of the “economic impact these projects will have on ratepayers as well as potential impacts to one of our state’s largest economic drivers, tourism at the shore.” The issue only appeared to get more perilous for the party when Danish developer Ørsted canceled its two major wind projects off the coast.
Nevertheless, along the shore in the 11th District, Gopal, a Democrat, easily defeated Dnistrian. Gopal had been critical of offshore wind in his campaign, but Dnistrian had sought to tie him to Murphy’s support for the industry.
Looming over it all was Biden, who polls show is unpopular in New Jersey despite the state’s blue hue, and the indictment of Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez on charges of bribery and working as a foreign agent for the Egyptian government. Neither appeared to have significantly affected Democratic state lawmakers.
“Voters did not want to hear about Bob Menendez. They did not want to hear about attacks on our teachers and saying inappropriate things are happening in our schools,” Gopal toldNJ Spotlight News. “They want to talk about the issues that matter.”