One thing LD16 shares with our other “lean Dem” district (LD38) in this year’s legislative race ratings, Save Jerseyans? This district often gets Republicans’ hopes up but rarely delivers. In fact, there were high hopes for flipping this Somerset/Hunterdon/Mercer district in 2021 but they never materialized.
The challenge is a familiar one: the educated white voter realignment. Not unlike Bergen’s LD38 where once reliable Republican towns like Glen Rock have become overrun by wokesters, LD16 is dominated by Somerset County which is populated by relatively wealthy suburbs increasingly predisposed to lining up behind Democrat candidates and causes. Jack Ciattarelli actually represented this district until he declined to run for reelection in 2017 for his first ill-dated gubernatorial effort, and his seat promptly switched allegiances.
The rest of the district – home to nearly 18,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans – is comprised of Hunterdon County (pretty deeply red) and Mercer County (more specifically, Princeton and Montgomery), a haven of the state’s large limousine liberal class. Senate candidate and former Congressman Mike Pappas is running again against Andrew Zwicker this year after coming up short two years ago. Last time around, he took ill with a nasty bout of COVID in October 2021 and lost valuable time on the trail down the homestretch.
But while LD16 is ground zero of the Trump-era suburban shift and Somerset is certainly “lean blue” these days despite a stiff GOP resistance led by County GOP Chairman Tim Howes, this region remains fairly competitive during cycles when the GOP enjoys a palpably favorable electoral climate.
Here’s why I haven’t lost hope for this district despite Joe Biden’s 21-point romp here three years ago: the upended dynamics on the local Democrat ticket. One term Democrat Freshman Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer shocked many observers (including myself) by retiring earlier this year, so the cycle began with one vacant Assembly seat. Open seats are usually easier to win than incumbent seats for obvious reasons.
The GOP is fielding two rock-solid Assembly recruits of their own: Ross Traphagen is a young, energetic, up and coming 20-something who is a councilman in Clinton (Hunterdon County), and Grace Zhang who hails from Princeton (a place where the GOP badly needs any inroad it can find) . She’s a CPA/business owner. This district is home to a significant population of Asian-Americans, a demographic which Republicans hope and pray Zhang can help her party break into this November.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Just like our two “toss-up” seats (LDs 4 and 11), this is a must win for Republicans if they hope to win a majority. The math just doesn’t work without it. I continue to believe LD16 is more competitive in 2023 than the naked math might suggest. It got a little better during redistricting (Ciattarell did 0.7-points better in the new LD16 than on the old map). Like I said, LD16’s high density population of younger and affluent middle-aged voters have made it tough to win in recent years. Inflation might not matter as much with voters here because, frankly, this is a more affluent district which doesn’t feel $10 eggs in quite the same way as down in LD4.
With parental rights figuring prominently into the current environment, however, many of these lean Democrat suburban voters with kids have cause to be distrustful of Murphy, Zwicker and the Democrats. A recent Monmouth Poll found an overwhelming 77% of New Jerseyans in opposition to the Murphy Administration’s policy of forbiding parental notification when a child attempts to “change genders” in a public school. Joe Biden is also slipping badly across the board which doesn’t hurt Republican chances in off-cycle contests. So keep your eye on this one, folks. Especially the Assembly race which, with all due respect to Mr. Pappas, I think is a bit easier to win than the Senate contest if for no other reason than one of the Assembly seats is open, but no result here would shock me which is precisely why it’s not in the “safe”or even “likely” Democrat columns.
Not deep blue. A favorable issue matrix for Republicans. An open seat. About sums it up…