Less than three weeks before an election in the pandemic, which will be mostly mail, the New Jersey Democrats are returning ballots at rates that beat Republicans in some of the state’s most conservative strongholds.
In the rural north, Jersey coast, and Horse Country, Democrats beat Republicans to the mailbox – and the mailbox – in an election that saw a ballot paper mailed to each voter to turn in by November 3rd.
In Ocean County, home to more Republicans than any other part of the state, nearly 39 percent of registered Democrats had voted by Wednesday, compared with 25 percent of Republicans, according to county records. Rural Sussex County had an almost identical split: more than 39 percent of Democrats had returned ballots by Wednesday, compared with 24 percent of Republicans.
Pollsters, lawmakers and campaign advisors see this as a sign of intensity among Democrats eager to show their displeasure with a polarizing president and a degree of suspicion among Republicans of postal voting – a method that President Trump has attacked without evidence as ripe for fraud.
Republican leaders say they expect personal voting to spike closer to election day.
“They’re very suspicious of the Post,” said Senator Joseph Pennacchio, a Republican chairman of the New Jersey presidential re-election campaign who advised voters to use Dropboxing. “If you had a $ 100 bill, would you trust it to mail $ 100? Of course not.”
Just two years after a turning point mid-term election that saw Democrats flipping four of the state’s congressional seats, political analysts could say the mail-in trend has hit Republicans, who are already struggling to gain a foothold in an increasingly liberal state, could cause more trouble.
Before Representative Jeff Van Drew changed parties in December, there was only one Republican who represented New Jersey in Congress: Chris Smith, who is in his 20th term. Loud opponent of the impeachment of the president, Mr Van Drew is now fighting for his political life against Amy Kennedy, a first-time candidate and former school teacher who is married to a nephew of President John F. Kennedy.
A poll released earlier this month found that Ms. Kennedy had a five-point advantage in the conservative district, which the president won in 2016.
But it is a competition between Senator Tom Kean Jr. and Representative Tom Malinowski – in a district that crosses a northern part of New Jersey – that many observers are watching most closely.
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Mr. Kean, a Republican, is the son of Thomas H. Kean, a distinguished former governor who led the investigation into the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mr Malinowski is a freshman Democrat who was elected against Mr Trump in 2018 as part of a so-called blue wave.
Given Senator Kean’s notoriety and family ties, the outcome of the race, which the Cook Political Report classifies as “Democratic”, is viewed as a kind of litmus test for centrist Republicans.
“Is Tom Malinowski raving about Kean?” asked Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
“And does that mean Tom Kean Sr.’s mark of Republicanism is dead?” he added.
District clerks were required to send ballots to every registered voter in New Jersey no later than October 5th. In many parts of the state, election officials began casting ballot papers in mid-September so voters could submit their ballots more than a month before Election Day by mail or to an election office or secure Dropbox.
Residents can also cast paper votes at their polling station or polling station on November 3rd. People with disabilities can request the use of voting machines.
As with other states, the Trump campaign sued New Jersey for an attempt to block postal voting and early voting, which is expected to begin in just over a week.
Mr Pennacchio said the switch to paper votes was a Democratic political power game disguised as a pandemic-related security need.
“There’s no reason in the world that New Jersey can’t vote in person,” said Pennacchio, who noted that people were still queuing in shops and outside auto offices. This week, Governor Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, also allowed full contact winter sports such as basketball and wrestling to begin in schools.
Mr. Pennacchio, a Brooklyn-born dentist and one-time Democrat who now heads the Republican Party in Morris County, has called Mr. Trump a “poster boy for traditional values” who has not lost sight of his constituents.
“He can butcher the King’s English on occasion and god knows he tweets too much, but he has my back,” said Mr. Pennacchio. “When he went to Washington, he took me with him.”
The ballot papers only provide an early glimpse of voter response to the broadest test of New Jersey postal voting, and the numbers are changing day by day.
But the rate of return raised eyebrows among ordinary Republicans.
In Hunterdon County, Republicans control the county government, outperforming Democrats by about 13,000 voters. By the end of last week, 43 percent of registered Democrats had voted, compared to 25 percent of Republicans in a county that is in Mr. Malinowski’s district.
“They say there’s real passion,” said Christine Todd Whitman, a Hunterdon County Republican and the only woman elected governor of New Jersey.
Ms. Whitman is a vocal opponent of Mr. Trump and a Republican and Independent leader for Biden, a group that has sustained former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. as president.
If Mr Trump loses, Ms. Whitman said, his supporters will be relegated to a wing of the party and centrists can begin rebuilding. If he wins, the work gets tougher, she said, but not impossible.
“We’re going to have to work hard to get it back, but that doesn’t mean it’s dead,” Ms. Whitman said of the party that, like her father and grandfathers before her, once helped lead the party.
“We’re not going to stop trying to give the American people a central party,” she added, “because that’s where most of the people are.”
But support for a Republican party in New Jersey that has been redesigned along the lines of Mr. Trump is also evident in the sweeping embrace of the president by Republicans in tight Congressional races in swing districts and rough rallies for the president are included.
A campaign-style event with Mr. Trump in Wildwood, New Jersey in February drew thousands of enthusiastic fans, many of whom endured freezing temperatures as they waited in line for two days. On Labor Day weekend, supporters of the President gathered off the coast to form a flotilla from which the participants pulled an estimated 2,400 boats.
In a televised debate last week, Mr Van Drew looked closely at Mr Trump’s positions on issues such as immigration, policing and the genesis of the coronavirus, which, as Mr Van Drew said, “probably came from a laboratory – we don’t know whether this was genetically mutated at all. “Scientists and US intelligence agencies agree that the overwhelming probability is that the virus developed naturally.
David Richter, a Republican who tried to remove Andy Kim – a Democratic congressman who scored a narrow victory to move seats in 2018 – turned the president down after being forced out of the running in the second district by Mr Van Drews was party counter. But now, having rented a house in an adjacent district to challenge Mr Kim, his fundraiser admits that he “proudly stands with President Trump”.
According to the United States Elections Project, an information center run by Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of New York, New Jersey is one of only four states where the early return rate is already more than 25 percent of the 2016 voter turnout in Florida.
Jesse Burns, executive director of the bipartisan League of New Jersey Women voters, said she believed the surge in votes was directly related to the pandemic.
Voters this year were enlivened not only by marquee races, but also by elections for local school boards and county legislatures that became far more relevant to their daily lives as residents struggled to find virus test sites or adapted to remote education .
“People are realizing that they are making choices about how their children go to school,” Ms. Burns said.
John Froonjian, the executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Order at Stockton University, pointed to the July primary when even candidates who had no opponents won a record number of votes.
The votes for Representative Donald Norcross, a Democrat who ran unopposed in elementary school, were twice as high as they were two years ago when he had two challengers. Having no main opponent, Mr. Kim received 79,423 votes, beating the combined 58,592 votes cast for Mr. Richter and his opponent Kate Gibbs, caught in a highly competitive Republican nomination race.
“All of these signs show a great deal of enthusiasm,” said Professor Froonjian. “It’s like they can’t wait to vote.”