NJ's GOP has become the Trump Party. There's no turning back. I Stile

Charles Stile

State Republican Chairman Douglas Steinhardt's abrupt dismissal of former Gov. Christie Whitman from the state GOP last week marked a turning point in New Jersey history.

He was declaring, in effect, that New Jersey's GOP will no longer be defined as the Big Tent Party that welcomed moderate stars like Whitman.

It is now an official Donald J. Trump Make-America-Great-Again machine, fueled by white grievances and combative populism that rolls roughshod over its establishment Republican forefathers and mothers.

"President Trump is our best line of defense against Joe Biden and the far left's attack on our economic freedom,'' Steinhardt told me last week..

The party faithful will rally this week for the coronation of Trump's candidacy for a second term, and it's likely that it will be done with far more enthusiasm than the lackluster New Jersey celebration for Trump at the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland.

Douglas Steinhardt,  chairman of the New Jersey Republican State Committee

But the wisdom of transforming the New Jersey GOP into a full-on Trump affiliate — in a state where polls have chronicled his unpopularity — will quickly be put to the test.

The major question looms: Will Trump prove as toxic to Republican candidates as he did in the 2018 "blue wave" that bolstered the Democrats' dominance of the state congressional delegation? 

Republican operatives express confidence in this year's congressional candidates, arguing that a far-larger turnout is expected to cast ballots than in 2018.

They are banking on Republican-leaners and independents who voted for Trump in 2016 but stayed home in the congressional contests two years ago to return in force this November.

The larger turnout, they say, combined with the name recognition and retail politicking skills of their candidates, will carry them to victory this fall.

Republican candidates include Rep. Jefferson Van Drew, the party-switching incumbent in the 2nd Congressional District, who earned the undying loyalty of Trump and an appearance at a Wildwood rally in January, and veteran legislator Thomas H. Kean Jr., carrying the mantle of his popular father in the 7th Congressional District.

"While Democrats spent their entire convention negatively attacking the president, next week voters will see a Republican National Convention that will be a celebration of the stories of everyday Americans who have been empowered thanks to the policies of President Trump,'' said Phil Valenziano, executive director of the Republican State Committee.

Yet that swagger and forecast ignore the impact of Trump's bungling of the COVID-19 crisis, which plunged his political value in New Jersey below penny stock status. 

Radioactive liability

Trump's dismissive attitude to the virus, his peddling of Lysol cures and mocking of mask-wearing, further eroded New Jersey voters' confidence. The prized economy collapsed, and his push for police-state "dominance" as the nation looked aghast at the George Floyd killing turned Trump from an political liability into a radioactive one.

Van Drew, for example, was favored to win the seat in November, despite the outcry over his defection. Trump carried the 2nd District, which includes Atlantic City but covers much of rural South Jersey, by five points in 2016, and it was a district represented for 24 years by a moderate Republican, former Rep. Frank LoBiondo.

But he is now facing Amy Kennedy, a former teacher from Brigantine, who is married to former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. She has injected the glamour of the Kennedy name, the ability to raise cash and the momentum from a surprise victory in the primary against a Democratic Party machine candidate.

Rep. Jeff Van Drew, left, who switched from the Democratic Party to become a Republican late last year, appears with President Donald Trump at a rally in Wildwood on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

A recent poll commissioned by House Democrats found the race virtually tied, prompting the Cook Political Report, the respected Washington, D.C.-based handicapper of congressional races, to declare the race a tossup.

"Trump embraced Van Drew after he voted against impeachment and switched parties,'' wrote David Wasserman, a Cook analyst. "But now Biden is running neck-and-neck here and Van Drew may be paying a price."

Kean is also facing a challenge made more difficult by Trump. As a legislator, Kean forged a reputation as a moderate, but like many Republican candidates this fall, he desperately needs a large turnout of loyal GOP voters if he is to unseat Rep. Tom Malinowski, the Democratic freshman from Ringoes.

But embracing Trump brings the risk of alienating suburban voters — especially women, who came out in droves to register their disgust against Trump in 2018. Their votes carried Malinowski to victory over Rep. Leonard Lance, the Republican incumbent.

It also would fuel attacks from Malinowski, who tries to fuse Kean to the hip of Trump at every turn.

In taking Kean to task last week for refusing to condemn the Trump campaign's lawsuit seeking to overturn Gov. Phil Murphy's order for mail-in balloting in November, Malinowski's campaign said Kean has "made it clear he stands with his party and Trump over the people of New Jersey."

Kean has been walking a tightrope.

On The Record: Tom Kean on 'mail-in' race against Tom Malinowski | Video | NJTV News

"This race is about the people's house, not the White House,'' Kean said when asked if he was running away from Trump, in a recent NJTV interview. "It's about the individual who can go down to Washington, D.C., and best advocate and find the right solutions for the constituents who are going to send him there."

But Wasserman, who favored Malinowski to win, believes Trump will prove to be too much of an albatross for Kean.

“If the Kean-Malinowski race were happening in a vacuum, or happening a decade ago, it would be an epic battle,'' he said in an email. "But President Trump has turned off so many voters in the 7th District that he’s probably going to drag Kean down with him.”

Harrison Neely, a Kean spokesman, said Kean is a "bi-partisan uniter" while Malinowski, "between his partisan Twitter tantrums and his 97% voting record with Nancy Pelosi, will never get anything done."

GOP conundrum in suburban base

The state's prosperous suburbs in Union, Somerset, Bergen and Morris counties was a cornerstone of the state GOP's strength, producing moderates like former Gov. Thomas H. Kean Sr., Whitman and even former Gov. Chris Christie — before he enlisted in Trump world as a trusted adviser.

But in recent years, Democratic Party registration has continued to swell and spread into those Republican redoubts, including Somerset County, where the Democrats have taken control of the Freeholder Board for the first time in decades.

And statewide, there are now a million more registered Democrats than Republicans, an advantage that grew by 200,000 from the 2016 presidential election.

That trend has some analysts baffled by the state GOP's new pro-Trump tilt — and the harsh attack on Whitman.

"It seems to me that [the GOP] strategy is about appealing to ... an even more narrow margin of the state,'' said Micah Rassmusen, director of the Rebovich Institute of Politics at Rider University.

But in some ways, the GOP may not have much of a choice. Trump is wildly popular with Republican voters, polls show. As the pandemic still raged in May, Trump garnered an 86% job approval rating among Republican voters in a Rutgers-Eagleton Institute Poll.

In other words, the GOP has closed ranks around Trump's abrasive brand. That helps explain the party's decision to sue Murphy last week over mail-in balloting last week. That's what the base wants — not Christie Whitman's moderation.

"I don't begrudge her that right. After all, this is America,'' Steinhardt said, referring to Whtiman's remarks at the Democratic National Convention last Monday. "But no one in America should ever think that Christie Whitman represents the values of the New Jersey Republican Party."

Charlie Stile is a veteran political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: stile@northjersey.com Twitter: @politicalstile