2021 saw New Jersey Democrats take a beating in an upset. Not only did Incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy cling to a paltry three-point victory, but Democrats lost eight seats in the state legislature. While Democrats clung to majorities in both chambers, they had their hopes of attaining supermajorities crushed with a 46-34 majority in the State Assembly and a 24-16 edge in the State Senate following the 2021 election.
Looking to 2023, New Jersey Democrats hope to flip many seats in the northern and central portions of the state while clawing back some seats down south. Their map has taken an unusual twist late in the cycle with a peculiar target: the heavily conservative 30th state legislative district. While the Republicans can count on the State Senate seat and at least one of the state assembly districts (NJ nests two assembly districts within one State Senate district), the second seat is in play due to a strong local nominee and a complex history of a phenomenon known as “bloc-voting.”
What is the 30th district?
The 30th is typically firmly in the GOP column, with Democrats not succeeding in the district in modern times. The white working-class voters in the district rarely vote Democrat, and neither does the heavily Orthodox Jewish town of Lakewood. However, Lakewood has bucked the trend, including in 2017, when the town backed Murphy. Lakewood tends to be a very tight-knit community, and many voters listen to the head Rabbis in the town for voting advice. There is a sense of voting loyalty in Lakewood and other Orthodox-heavy areas in the country that is unrivaled elsewhere, with the Vaad’s endorsements carrying much weight in the community.
Republicans have been breaking out historically significant wins in the community recently, but a Republican-turned-Democrat hopes to change that. Avi Schnall is the director of the New Jersey branch of Agudath Israel of America, a leading advocacy group for Orthodox Jews. This, along with the Vaad endorsement, has turned an unusual sleeper contest into one that could be competitive, and southern Jersey Democrats are relishing it. If Schnall wins, it will increase Southern Jersey Democratic representation in the legislature, which increases the influence and power of Democratic leaders from the area. However, the seat is very complicated to dissect, and recent elections elsewhere have shown the power of bloc-voting may be waning, with concentrated right-wing shifts happening all over Orthodox communities nationally.
The Race’s Significance
Murphy has arguably governed more moderately since his close contest two years ago, and much of the pain of the night remains with Democrats. While the whole state saw Democratic losses, much of the “losses” were more the result of Republican candidates holding many marginal and rapidly left-ward shifting seats in the New Jersey suburbs. Democrats saw most of their losses in southern New Jersey, which used to be state’s Democratic stronghold.
Until recently, the South Jersey Democrats were “unofficially” in charge, and former State Senate President Steve Sweeney was seen as the most influential elected Democratic official. This was not due to Sweeney but more due to George Norcross, a wealthy insurance brokerage executive who recently got headlines for being kicked out of a Philadelphia Eagles game for publicly displaying a U.S.-Israeli flag. The southern “Norcross” machine dominated modern elections, with Democrats also holding the majority of elected offices in South Jersey. That is until after Trump’s election in 2016, when polarization started to hit more.
Democrats in South Jersey were getting picked off one by one, with the bleeding becoming a rupturing in 2021 when Republicans kept the Gubernatorial contest close. In arguably one of the greatest upsets in modern state history, Sweeney was knocked off by Republican Ed Durr, a largely unknown truck driver. This sent shockwaves across the state party as the Norcross machine lost its key player. Sweeney’s loss also cemented the end of southern Jersey Democrats’ “dominance” over the party, which was already culminating.
Can South Jersey Democrats come back?
Now, in 2023, Democrats in the southern part of the state are eyeing a comeback with an especially vengeful eye for Durr. Preliminary early voting data suggests Democrats are amassing a significant lead in the district, but the Trump-won seat remains difficult for Democrats. Things did not improve when the Danish company Orsted, contracted to build two offshore wind farms off the South Jersey coast, aborted the plan due to unforeseen building costs. This cancellation has brought condemnation from Republicans, particularly Republicans in the states south where discontent at the state leadership will likely be highest.
That is why the 30th holds influence. Schnall is not liberal by any means, and his candidacy is more for helping bring forward Lakewood’s agenda. Schnall realizes he will have more control over the majority than the minority and help with leading issues in Lakewood and the district, like roadway infrastructure and transportation. He will likely vote the party line but would likely break away on more contentious issues such as codifying abortion rights. Schnall may play a decisive in some close votes, but the Democratic lead in the legislature will likely only require his vote on issues needing a 2/3 majority.
The district’s voting cannot be predicted, however, as bloc voting can be nuanced.
The significance of bloc-voting
Lakewood is composed heavily of Haredi Jewish residents. Practicing Haredi Jews are vehemently in support of Israel and are also pro-life, strong advocates of school choice, and do not use social media to not see “morally repugnant” content. These views contrast with the majority of Jewish voters in the country, who tend to be secular and more liberal.
Many recent residents of Lakewood are moving from Brooklyn, in large part due to soaring costs of living. A lot come from Brooklyn Ultra-Orthodox communities like Flatbush and Borough Park, places that also used to be left-leaning but have zoomed right recently (especially on the federal level). Many recent residents have brought their views with them, which has somewhat weakened the Vaad’s power. This became apparent in 2021 when, despite the Vaad’s backing, Murphy got pummeled in Lakewood (albeit not as bad as in some other parts of the state). This has been of great concern to local leaders, who also endorse candidates they believe can bring the most home to the community.
Bloc voting is declining but can still be intense, such as in the New York 17th Congressional District. In 2020, Democrat Mondaire Jones had great connections with Jewish leaders, which helped him nab huge wins in some towns in the district’s western half. Two years later, the Republican candidate Mike Lawler, who had good ties to the local Jewish community, not only trounced in the area but also won the district as a whole. His support from the smaller communities from bloc voting was an essential factor in his narrow victory.
Today’s election will be a paramount test of the strength of religious politics and bloc voting. Suppose Schnall fails to win or even comes close. In that case, it will likely be a stark reminder that modern political history is changing and is starting to see polarization and partisan identification replace conventional factors like candidate strength and fundraising. Democratic leaders eagerly watch the 30th, with southern Jersey Democrats particularly keen on a Schnall win.
No matter the outcome, the race should not be examined for cues of national elections. Lakewood is becoming solidly GOP on the state and national level, and if Schnall faces an enormous defeat, it can be assumed Lakewood is done voting for Democrats, period. However, a Schnall victory does not mean Lakewood will become completive again for Democrats; it just means a viral candidate with institutional support can still have a shot.