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New Jersey GOP Looks to Move Past Trump for Legislative Control

Next year’s election will give Republicans an opportunity to take control of the state Legislature away from the Democrats. But many believe that to succeed, they have to distance themselves from the ex-president.

(TNS) — Two years after gaining seven seats in a surprising election, New Jersey Republicans next year will seek something they haven’t had in two decades: control of the state Legislature.

All 120 seats will be on the ballot, and state Sen. Holly Schepisi said she has a “strong” feeling about her party’s chances of dethroning the Democrats. That is, she noted, if Republicans reject former President Donald Trump.

“For the sake of the party, we’ve got to rebrand, refocus. It can no longer be about one person,” said Schepisi, R- Bergen.

“Speaking to so many Republican leaders, everyone is of the same mindset. We’ve got to move past Trump. We’ve got to be strong in doing so and put forth actual policies on how we intend on doing things better.”

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

In New Jersey, the GOP actually gained a congressional seat in the mid terms, helping the party win back control of the U.S. House, albeit narrowly. But an anticipated red wave never materialized, with polls showing that voters were as concerned about the loss of abortion rights and threats to democracy as much as the issues Republicans hammered home: economy, inflation, crime, and education.

Trump, who is facing investigations for his role leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection and who continually falsely claims that he won the 2020 election, has shouldered blame from some parts of the GOP for the softer-than-expected showing. There is a growing debate over whether the party should embrace Trump again or move on to another candidate, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But there is no broad agreement.

State Assemblyman Robert Auth, R- Bergen, a longtime Trump supporter, said the former president put forth “ideas that resonated not only with Republicans but a lot of people” and “they felt the alternative was dour.”

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

So will he back him again?

“I think his policies are vastly superior to the policies we are living under,” Auth said. “Right now, he’s my man.”

“He’s gonna go through a primary process like everybody else,” he added. “This is gonna be a good test to see where the base of the party really wants to be.”

Where Other Jersey Republicans Stand

At least one high-ranking Republican, U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a South Jersey lawmaker who switched parties and pledged his ”undying support” to Trump, has already endorsed the former president’s 2024 bid.

“He’s the guy who had the guts to go in there and break this whole thing open and show the underbelly 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 issues, foreign affairs issues ... just anything that you can think of, we were doing better.”

The state’s other Republican House member, 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 District in the midterms, did not return messages seeking comment.

Several top Jersey Republicans demurred when asked about supporting Trump.

State Sen. Joseph Pennachio, R- Morris, New Jersey co-chair of Trump’s 2020 campaign, praised the former president as an outsider with a populist message that appeals across the board. But Pennachio said his “focus is on the Republican caucus getting back majority in Trenton.”

“Whenever I give that support, it’s going to be based on a reciprocity of how they are going to help us do it,” Pennachio said. “Say what you want about Trump, I liked his policies. ... But DeSantis is a rising star, and (Mike) Pompeo, Nikki Haley — there are a lot of good, quality candidates. Even the former governor of New Jersey,” he said referring to Chris Christie, who is considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate.

Christie made his case over the weekend while addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas. The ex-governor — a longtime Trump friend and advisor who has lately repeatedly criticized the former president — urged the audience to pick a leader who will make the Republican Party the “party of we” instead of the “party of me.”

“We keep losing and losing and losing. And the fact of the matter is, the reason we’re losing is because Donald Trump has put himself before everybody else,” Christie said.

Asked about where he stands on Trump’s candidacy, Assembly Minority Leader John DiMaio, R- Warren, said he’s “laser-focused on our election.”

”I’m not focused on that right now. There are a lot of options,” DiMaio said. “We have a deep bench.”

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

“I try to keep things at a level playing field,” Hugin said. “As a person, I am a patriot. I want what’s best for the country. I do think we should forward-looking.”

Looking to 2023

A former Atlantic City casino magnate and owner of three New Jersey golf clubs, Trump has never been widely popular in the Garden State, according to polls, but he has long seen solid support across conservative parts of New Jersey — such as Cape May, Ocean, and Salem counties in the southern region; and Hunterdon, Sussex, and Warren in the northern region.

Still, there’s a fear among some Republicans he has worn out his welcome and could complicate their efforts to woo back the independent and moderate suburban voters who left the GOP during the Trump presidency. Winning those areas is likely to be crucial to taking back the Legislature.

“It doesn’t matter whether you love Donald Trump or loathe Donald Trump. The only question is: What’s the best choice we can make to maximize the likelihood that we will win, both the presidency and down-ballot,” said state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R- Monmouth.

“If you look at the lack of red wave, the underperformance nationally, where was it? It was in places where swing voters appear to have been turned off by Donald Trump.”

State Sen. Jon Bramnick, R- Union, has routinely criticized Trump for being too divisive and said the former president’s denial of the 2020 election results and penchant for personal attacks will hurt the Jersey GOP, even among people who have soured on Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“I want to lead the effort to convince people we aren’t crazy and we’re the reasonable alternative,” Bramnick said. “I want the Republican majority (in the Legislature). If that’s gonna happen, we’ve got to get people to trust us in swing districts. … If we don’t do that, we’ll be a permanent minority party in this.”

Republicans shocked Jersey politics in 2021, cutting into Democrats’ majority in the Legislature, seeing a truck driver upset Democratic state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, and watching Murphy win re-election by a much-closer-than-expected margin.

In this year’s midterms, Republicans cut the Democrats’ control of the state’s U.S. House delegation to 9-3 but failed to flip more than one seat. That has quelled some of Democrats’ fear about next year’s legislative elections.

Hugin, the state party chair, said Republicans “absolutely” would have captured more seats in the midterms if there wasn’t a new Democratic-drawn congressional district map that New Jersey’s independent redistricting commission adopted. The map favored all incumbents except Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski, who lost.

But Hugin said he’s “optimistic” about next year’s elections, partly because of a new legislative district map that Democrats and Republicans agreed to and also because Republicans can still target Democrats over the economy and the state’s COVID-19 response.

“It’s been 21 years of one party controlling both houses,” said DiMaio, the Republican Assembly leader. “You think people would be getting tired of the old tax-and-spend.”

O’Scanlon stressed it will be an election focused on New Jersey since there aren’t national races next year.

“The same things that affected voters two years ago still there,” the lawmaker said.

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

“If I tone it down, what good does that do for someone who gets robbed?” the lawmaker asked. “If we allow human trafficking, how does me toning it down that help the effort? We have to continue to speak about the efforts. The issue for us is an issue of logistics. Times are changing, the way people are voting are changing.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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