Unexpected Results in a Historically Low Turnout Year

November 5, 2015
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Republican State Sen. Jennifer Beck and Red Bank Republican borough council candidate Michael Whelan study election results Tuesday night. By John Burton

Republican State Sen. Jennifer Beck and Red Bank Republican borough council candidate Michael Whelan study election results Tuesday night. By John Burton

By John Burton

This year’s election wasn’t going to be much, with low voter turnout predicted and safe seats up for Assembly, county seats and locally. But those political prognosticators were wrong in a Monmouth County legislative race and for a surprising number of local contests.

They were correct about the turnout, which was a historic low at 23 percent, and with low turnout elections come the informed and passionate voters, analysts agree.

Results continue to remain fluid in a number of races around the area; some, as of Wednesday, continuing to be too close to call in Belmar, Neptune and Long Branch until provisional ballots are counted Monday. To further complicate things, result totals were delayed as county election officials worked with a computer software contractor Dominion Voting Services employed by the county to recover accidentally deleted vote-by-mail numbers by an employee of Dominion but were restored. Monmouth County Clerk Christine Giordano apologized to the candidates whose results changed as a result of the error and noted the county is more than displeased with the “chronic” problems with the company.

Because the turnout was expected to be a few points below the previous historic low, Patrick Murray, founding director the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said “It didn’t look like there was going to be a huge turnout effect,” to sway elections, Murray said. But the low response may have factored into some noteworthy upsets. Democrats increased that party’s majority by taking two Assembly seats in the traditionally Republican bedrock of Monmouth County, in the 11th District. Democratic challengers Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey defeated eight-year Republican incumbents Mary Pat Angelini and Caroline Casagrande.

Murray called this “a huge upset.”

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“There was talk of this all along that this would be a potential pickup,” Murray said. The major factors being that the 2011 redistricting appeared to favor Democrats, with more registered Democrats – by one estimate as much as 10,000 more Democrats. But the defining factor was likely a last minute influx of about $1 million in Democratic PAC money into the district.

“They smelled blood in the water,” Murray said of the Democrats. “And they threw some money into the race.”

And ultimately, “The Republicans were caught sleeping on this race,” Murray maintained. “No question about it.”

What that “onslaught of money” was able to do was to buy TV ad time and mailers contending the Republicans were continuously in league with Republican governor and presidential candidate Chris Christie, “tarring him with his feathers, if you will,” observed Ingrid Reed, a Rutgers University political scientist and former executive director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers.

The Democrats’ strong showing was likely a mandate on Christie, even as Christie stayed out of state during campaign season (and rarely appeared in GOP candidates’ campaign photos – much like President Barack Obama did in the 2010 Congressional races) Reed suspected.

The candidates failing to distance themselves from the increasingly unpopular governor could be blamed for Angelini and Casagrande’s loss, Murray suspected. Neither of the lawmakers ever voted for a veto override and “sometimes you have to stand up for your constituents,” Murray said, explaining that may have lead to Republican voters staying home. “The Republican Party has reaped what they’ve sown,” in this case, he observed.

“The county GOP is still strong,” countered Shaun Golden, Monmouth County Republican Committee chairman. Golden pointed to continued comfortable victories for freeholder and county clerk and solid wins in many of the municipalities, including picking up at least one seat, and probably two, in Democratic stalwart Red Bank. The Republicans have a four-vote lead for the second seat. He insisted the 11th District loss was the product of outside money and district gerrymandering. “But we’re going to get it back in two years,” which will be a gubernatorial, Senate and Assembly election. Republicans easily won the 13th legislative district returning a.

Voter Registration Up Slightly in Monmouth County

“I think the incumbents in the 11th failed to show that they should be re-elected,” was how Monmouth County Democratic Chairman Vin Gopal saw it. He accused the GOP incumbents of “arrogance.”

Gopal observed “When you take voters for granted it doesn’t work out.”

Democrats, Gopal noted, had “some very big wins,” in Matawan, Manalapan, and Spring Lake Heights. They picked up the mayor’s spot in Atlantic Highlands and very likely Oceanpor t.

What is interesting about Atlantic Highlands and Oceanport is that in both of those races, incumbents crossed party lines and offered endorsements. In Atlantic Highlands outgoing Republican Mayor Frederick Rast supported the victorious Democrat Rhonda LeGrice for mayor; and Oceanport Republican Councilman actively worked for write-in mayoral candidate and presumptive winner John Coffey.

When you have such low turnout those who bother coming to the polls tend to be the most informed and passionate, Reed pointed out.

Murray agreed. “These are the surprises you get with a low turnout.”

 

Local 2015 election coverage on The Two River Times

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