New Jersey Republicans are wrestling with Trump’s influence as they seek to retake the state legislature

Two years after winning seven seats in a surprise election, next year New Jersey Republicans will seek something they haven’t had in two decades: control of the state legislature.

All 120 seats will be up for election, and Senator Holly Schepisi said she had a “strong feeling” about her party’s chances of dethroning the Democrats. That is, she noted, if Republicans disapprove of former President Donald Trump.

“For the sake of the party, we have to rename ourselves, realign ourselves. It can no longer be about one person,” said Schepisi, R-Bergen.

“When you talk to so many Republican leaders, they all agree. We have to get past Trump. We have to be strong and have concrete guidelines on how we want to do things better.”

Republicans across the country — particularly in swing and blue-leaning states like New Jersey — have grappled with Trump’s influence in the party after the former president announced last week that he was running for the White House again. The move comes after a midterm election that fell short of expectations for Republicans.

In New Jersey, the GOP actually won a seat in Congress mid-term, helping the party regain control of the US House of Representatives, albeit narrowly. But an expected red wave never materialized. Polls showed that voters were just as worried about the loss of abortion rights and the threat to democracy as they were about the issues Republicans were hammering: the economy, inflation, crime and education.

Trump, who is under scrutiny for his role leading up to the Jan. 6 riot and who constantly falsely claims he won the 2020 election, has taken the blame from some sections of the GOP for the underperforming. There is a growing debate over whether the party should re-accept Trump or move on to another candidate like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But there is no broad agreement.

Rep. Robert Auth, R-Bergen, a longtime Trump supporter, said the former president “put forward ideas that resonated not just with Republicans, but with a lot of people” and “they thought the alternative was surly.”

“Now it’s up to him to tone down the rhetoric maybe a bit,” Auth said.

So will he support him again?

“I think his politics are vastly superior to the politics we live under,” Auth said. “Right now he’s my husband.”

“He’ll go through a primary process like everyone else,” he added. “It will be a good test to see where the party’s base really wants to be.”

WHERE OTHER JERSEY REPUBLICANS STAND

At least one senior Republican, US Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a South Jersey lawmaker who switched parties and pledged his “undying support” to Trump, has already backed the former president’s 2024 candidacy.

“He’s the guy who had the guts to go in there and break this whole thing up and show the down side of Washington,” Van Drew, R-2nd Dist., told NJ Advance Media. “He was the guy that had us two years ago, whether it was economic matters, foreign policy issues… just anything you can think of, we’ve done better.”

The other member of the state’s Republican House of Representatives, Chris Smith, R-4th Dist., declined to comment on whether he will support Trump. Rep. Elect Tom Kean Jr., who flipped the state’s 7th Circuit in the midterm elections, did not return messages seeking comment.

Several top Jersey Republicans hesitated when asked if they would support Trump.

State Senator Joseph Pennachio, R-Morris, New Jersey co-chair of Trump’s 2020 campaign, hailed the former president as an underdog with a populist message that resonates across the board. But Pennachio said his “focus is on the Republican faction regaining a majority in Trenton.”

“Whenever I give that support, it’s on a mutual basis on how they’re going to help us out,” Pennachio said. “Say what you will about Trump, I liked his politics. … But DeSantis is a rising star, and (Mike) Pompeo, Nikki Haley — there’s a lot of good, quality candidates out there. Even the former governor of New Jersey,” he said, referring to Chris Christie, who is believed to be a potential presidential nominee for 2024.

Christie made his case over the weekend while speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas. The ex-governor – a longtime friend and adviser to Trump who has repeatedly criticized the former president lately – urged the audience to pick a leader who would make the Republican Party a “party of us” rather than a “party of mine.” will do.

“We lose and lose and lose. And the fact is, we’re losing because Donald Trump put himself ahead of everyone else,” Christie said.

When asked how he felt about Trump’s candidacy, Assembly Minority Leader John DiMaio told R-Warren he was “laser focused on our election.”

“I’m not concentrating on that right now. There are many options,” DiMaio said. “We have a deep bank.”

Bob Hugin, leader of the state Republican Party, declined to say who he would support in two years, saying it is his “job to make sure every Republican feels they have an equal opportunity.”

“I try to keep things level,” Hugin said. “As a person, I am a patriot. I want the best for the country. I think we should be forward looking.”

LOOKING TO 2023

A former Atlantic City casino magnate and owner of three New Jersey golf clubs, Trump was never very popular in the Garden State, according to polls, but he has long had solid support in conservative parts of New Jersey — like Cape May, Ocean , and Salem counties in the southern region; and Hunterdon, Sussex and Warren in the Northern Region.

Still, some Republicans fear he’s exhausted his reception and could complicate their efforts to woo back the independent and moderate suburban voters who left the GOP during the Trump presidency. Gaining these territories is likely to be critical to retaking the legislature.

“It doesn’t matter if you love or loathe Donald Trump. The only question is what is the best choice we can make to maximize the likelihood that we will win both the presidency and the vote,” said State Senator Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth.

“If you look at the absence of the red wave, the underperformance nationally, where was it? It was in places where swing voters seem to have been shut down by Donald Trump.”

State Senator Jon Bramnick, R-Union, has routinely criticized Trump for being too divisive, saying the former president’s denial of the 2020 election results and his penchant for personal attacks will hurt Jersey’s GOP, even among people , who were angry with the Democratic governor. Phil Murphy and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“I want to lead efforts to convince people that we’re not crazy and that we’re the sane alternative,” Bramnick said. “I want the Republican majority (in the legislature). If that’s going to happen, we need to get people to trust us in the swing neighborhoods. … If we don’t do that, we will be an enduring minority party on this issue.”

Republicans shocked Jersey politics in 2021 by narrowing Democrats’ majority in the legislature, watching a truck driver upset Democratic Republic Senate President Stephen Sweeney and watching Murphy win re-election by a much smaller margin than expected won.

In this year’s midterms, Republicans reduced Democratic control of the state’s U.S. House delegation to 9-3, but couldn’t trade more than one seat. That has allayed fears among some Democrats ahead of next year’s general election.

Hugin, the leader of the state party, said Republicans would have won “absolutely” more seats in the midterm elections had it not been for a new Democratic-drawn congressional district map adopted by the New Jersey Independent Electoral Commission. The card favored all incumbents except Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski, who lost.

But Hugin said he’s “optimistic” about next year’s election, in part because of a new legislative district map that Democrats and Republicans have approved, and also because Republicans are still asking Democrats about the economy and the COVID-19 response of the state can target.

“One party has controlled both houses for 21 years,” said DiMaio, the chairman of the Republican Convention. “You think people would get tired of the old tax-and-spending.”

O’Scanlon emphasized that since there are no national races next year, it will be a New Jersey-focused election.

“The same things that concerned voters two years ago are still there,” lawmakers said.

Pennachio, meanwhile, dismissed concerns that Republicans should tone down Trump-like rhetoric.

“If I turn it down, what’s the use to someone who’s being robbed?” asked the lawmaker. “If we allow human trafficking how can I mitigate it to help the effort? We need to keep talking about the effort. For us, this is a logistics issue. Times are changing, the way people vote is changing.”

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Brent Johnson can be contacted at [email protected]. Follow him up @johnsb01.

Jonathan D Salant can be contacted at [email protected]. Follow him up @JDSalant.

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