Thursday, June 10, 2010

New Jersey's Primary: What's it Mean for November?

So what does the outcome of New Jersey’s Congressional primaries mean? The Tea Party movement certainly made a statement, but there is a lot more to the message voters sent on Tuesday. Basically, voters of all stripes are frustrated, but that frustration was voiced in different ways by Republicans and Democrats.

On the GOP side - assuming Anna Little holds on in the 6th district - the Tea Party can claim only one clear winner. However, nearly all their candidates had stronger outings than are typical for challengers to the party organization’s anointed picks.

Typically, a House incumbent facing a primary challenge in New Jersey will garner a majority of 85% or better. This year, Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) and Frank LoBiondo (R-2) were held to about three-quarters of the vote, while Chris Smith (R-4) fell just shy of 70%, and freshman incumbent Leonard Lance (R-7) eked out a 56% majority against three challengers. Scott Garrett (R-5) was the only Republican incumbent to avoid a challenge.

In nearly every other Republican contest, the party-line candidate was held to 60% or less of the vote: 1st - Dale Glading 55%; 3rd – Jon Runyan 60%; 6th – Diane Gooch 50%, 12th – Scott Sipprelle 54%. Only Roland Straten, a sacrificial lamb in the 8th, exceeded 80%.

Clearly there is some disagreement within the Republican Party base about who should bear their standard. But, contrary to most media reports from Tuesday, these near-upsets were not due to low turnout.

More than 245,000 New Jersey voters cast ballots for Republican House candidates on June 8. To put that in perspective, votes cast in GOP House primaries between 2002 and 2008 ranged from 132,000 to 193,000. [The larger number was driven by a hotly contested 3-way race for the U.S. Senate nomination in 2002.] This was, by most measures, a very strong Republican turnout for a primary without a statewide office at stake. [See NJ House turnout trend tables below.]

The fact that 10 out of 13 GOP House primaries were contested (including 4 out of 5 incumbents) is just another indication that voters want to send a message. In a typical year, only one or two GOP Congressional primaries attract more than one candidate (although that number did jump to 7 in 2008). The increased turnout seems largely attributable to these challengers.

For example, Chris Smith typically garners 16,000 to 20,000 votes in an uncontested race. Faced with a challenger, he was only able to increase his total to just over 21,000, while Alan Bateman tallied nearly 10,000 votes.

And, while Leonard Lance increased his vote total from 10,000 in 2008 (when 7 Republicans were vying for an open seat) to 17,000 this year, his predecessor, Mike Ferguson, garnered similar numbers in his uncontested primary races.

On the Democratic side, the story is much different. Only 3 incumbents faced challengers, and 2 won with typically large 86% margins – Rob Andrews (D-1) and Albio Sires (D-13) – while freshman John Adler (D-3) was held to 75%. The remaining five Democratic officeholders ran unopposed.

But there still were a total of 5 contested Democratic House primaries this year, when 2 or 3 is the norm. And yet, Democrats could only manage to get 158,000 of their voters to the polls. Democratic turnout for House races in the prior four cycles ranged between 184,000 and 278,000 (the higher number coming in 2008).

This is exactly the kind of disappointing primary turnout that foreshadowed Jon Corzine’s defeat in last year’s race for governor. After the euphoria of 2008, Democratic voters seem forlorn.

One interesting example is in the 1st district. Between 2002 and 2006, Rob Andrews could count on at least 18,000 votes when he ran unopposed. With a challenger this year, the vote total – including Andrews and his challenger – was less than 16,000. Steve Rothman’s (D-9) 14,000 votes was also a few thousand shy of what he typically gets.

Other Democratic incumbents, Frank Pallone (D-6), Donald Payne (D-10), and Rush Holt (D-12), pulled in numbers similar to their prior races. Only Bill Pascrell (D-8) at 13,000 votes performed slightly better than in past contests. [One caveat: Without a statewide office at stake, uncontested House primary turnout can be driven by down-ballot races, which generate varying levels of interest by district]

So what does this all mean for November?

On one hand, the Democratic base shows very little enthusiasm. Advantage Republicans.

On the other hand, the Republican base appears angry and divided. If that rift can’t be healed and those with Tea Party affinities can’t be persuaded to support the GOP nominees, these voters might sit on their hands this fall. That would be good news for the Democrats.

The bottom line is that a lot of voters – for widely different reasons – are simply unhappy with the performance of their government. The question is: Do they voice their frustration at the ballot box, or do they throw up their hands and refuse to participate in a system they see as unresponsive?

That unpredictability could to lead to a wild fall campaign.

Ironically, though, it could just as easily lead to maintaining the status quo.

At least, that’s what New Jersey’s 13 Congressional incumbents hope will be the case.

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        2010 numbers are unofficial election night vote counts.
        Contested races with more than one candidate on ballot are in red.
        “nc” = No candidate on the ballot.

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