ELECTION RACE RATING: Could LD38’s Deli King be 2023’s big upset story?

Let’s not beat around the bush: this district has often been a MASSIVE tease to those of us who obsessively cover this stuff. For 15 years, this North Jersey suburban outpost has been routinely mentioned as a GOP pick up opportunity. It never happens (though the party came agonizingly close in 2013 and 2015), and insiders in recent years are beginning to roll their eyes whenever victory in LD38 is contemplated.

You won’t catch me rolling my eyes… at least not in 2023.

Consider this: while Senator Joe Lagana won re-election by 5 points in 2021, the GOP only lost the Assembly race by a skimpy 2 points two years ago. LD38 also got a little less blue during redistricting, and the Paramus portion of the district has gone Republican locally as of late. As far as we can tell, the GOP didn’t invest as many resources here as it did in other districts two years ago (places where we picked up seats, notably districts 2, 3, 8 and 11). That’s not a knock on anybody; there’s only so many resources to go around, and when you consider that we only won some of the aforementioned districts by a couple hundred votes, it starts to look like the NJGOP maximized its gains last cycle.

But it’s not “last cycle” anymore. The players in 2, 3, 8 and 11 are in infinitely better positions now with the winds of incumbency at their backs. LD38 is a place where Republicans need to take a good, long hard look this time around.

Assemblyman Chris Tully in particular appears vulnerable, having run 800 votes off of his running-mate, Assemblywoman Lisa Swain, in 2021. Never heard of either of them? Not surprised. They’re rather unremarkable and fly under the radar, but they’ve been reliable rubber stamps for all the wacky shit coming out of Trenton. As has the top of their ticket, Senator Joe Lagana who is leading the Democrat whitewash of the increasingly unpopular offshore wind industry.

The GOP has assembled a fairly strong ticket. The legislative team is led by Micheline Attieh. Micheline boasts an American dream type story. She emigrated from Lebanon, put herself through college, and is now a successful entrepreneur. She has been a key behind the scenes player in Bergen GOP circles, including in helping some behind the scenes to help the Paramus GOP resurgence. On the Assembly ticket, you’ve got Gail Horton, who has run for office before and seems to have a strong, residual base of support. And then there’s Barry Wilkes who is best known locally as the semi-retired figurehead of the popular Wilkes Deli franchises. There isn’t a soul in that part of Bergen who hasn’t enjoyed a Wilkes Deli chicken salad on a croissant or Taylor Ham (we’re talking about North Jersey, so back off!) breakfast sandwich. He’s generating energy, raising money, and continues to attract surrogates to his fundraisers including Jack Ciattarelli and, next month, Congressman Jeff Van Drew.

With all of that being said? This district is about as “blue” as New Jersey as a whole if you go by how Murphy and Biden performed here. There were 24,331 more registered Democrats than Republicans as of September 1st, a gap that’s shrunk by almost 1,000 from 2021 thanks in part to redistricting but it’s still unambiguously daunting. Republicans need to do better than run well here to win; they need a wave of some scope and size for an assist. Not necessarily a 100-foot monster, but something more than a ripple if we’re being honest.

THE BOTTOM LINE: There’s no getting around the fact that for Republicans to win a majority in either chamber, as is the case in LD16 (stay tuned), Republicans must win here. Simple as that. There’s also no denying the extent to which this district favors the Democrats, but the GOP’s solid and hardworking ticket could benefit from a souring environment for Democrats nation-wide in addition to a favorable issue matrix (e.g. parental rights). With continued effort, enough cash, and continued deteriorating in Democrats’ fortunes? Yes, the NJGOP isn’t crazy for thinking gains in this district are absolutely possible.

Matt Rooney
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MATT ROONEY is SaveJersey.com's founder and editor-in-chief, a practicing New Jersey attorney, and the host of 'The Matt Rooney Show' on 1210 WPHT every Sunday evening from 7-10PM EST.