TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Republicans are seizing on flashpoint issues in this year's election, aiming to energize voters over the state's lawsuits against school districts to stop them from outing transgender students to their parents as well as stoking skepticism toward offshore wind turbines.
Both subjects are turning up in GOP talking points, fueling the party's hopes of expanding Republican victories from two years ago when they netted seven seats in the Assembly and Senate.
All 80 seats in the Assembly and all 40 in the Senate are up for grabs this November, with mail-in ballots already going out to voters. Democrats have a nearly million-voter registration advantage over Republicans, and they also controlled the redistricting process last year when they had little incentive to redraw maps unfavorably to their party.
Democrats, meanwhile, are pointing to what they said was a lesson learned from a close gubernatorial race in 2021: Focus on affordability, especially in a state with among the highest property taxes in the country.
Patrick Murray, the director of the Polling Institute at Monmouth University, said he views the GOP's message discipline as a way of igniting the party faithful to turn out in what is traditionally a low-turnout election year.
“We always talk about motivating your base. It’s about turnout rather than persuasion. So these issues aren’t out there to change people’s minds. They're out there to light a fire under the base,” he said.
The attorney general's lawsuits have generated among the most intense Republican attacks in the campaign.
They revolved around Attorney General Matt Platkin’s complaints filed in June against three Monmouth County school districts, arguing that policies they recently enacted requiring school officials to notify parents if their child is transgender violate the state’s Law Against Discrimination.
Republicans argue the lawsuits defy common sense and that parents should be told if their children are transgender.
State guidelines stemming from a 2018 legislative directive call for schools not to disclose a student’s transgender identity except in narrow cases where their health or safety is concerned. The suits vary slightly. Among the school board rules at issue is calling for parental notification in cases involving students up to fifth grade. The suits haven’t been resolved yet.
Steve Dnistrian, a GOP candidate in the competitive 11th Legislative District against incumbent Democratic Sen. Vin Gopal, said education and the state’s lawsuit against Monmouth County districts are a top concern. He reflected a GOP view that the issue isn't just about motivating the base.
“Do you hear what’s going on in our schools?” he said voters ask him when he meets them on the trail. It’s "grandparents — greatest generation folks — who are like, ‘What’s happening in this country?’”
Republican state party chairman Bob Hugin said the GOP is calling for expanding school choice in cities and rural areas, traditional right-leaning views. But he also summarized what he said was emerging as a top issue in the election: the Monmouth County lawsuits.
“Democrats want us to presuppose every parent is abusive and schools should keep secrets,” Hugin said, summarizing his view.
Gopal said in an interview the the issue amounted to a “manufactured culture war.”
“I’m a father. My wife and I are raising our 13-month-old daughter. We’re going to know everything going on in the school district,” he said. Still, Gopal added, he thinks the attorney general overstepped by bringing the suits and cited home rule in the state’s more than 600 school districts.
Republicans are also aiming to galvanize opposition to offshore wind turbines — a centerpiece of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s efforts to move toward renewable energy sources in the state — after a number of whales washed ashore this year.
Hugin cast the issue as a political role reversal because Democrats have balked at exploring other energy-production avenues, like fracking.
“Republicans are fighting Democrats who are trying to industrialize the ocean,” he said in a recent interview. He also cited a recent bill Murphy signed to allow a wind company to keep federal tax credits it otherwise would have had to pass along to ratepayers.
“It’s uneconomic,” he said. “New Jersey has its head in the sand.”
Federal officials have said the whale deaths are not tied to efforts to construct offshore wind turbines in waters off the state’s coast.
Democrats have tread carefully around this issue, with Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Senate President Nicholas Scutari releasing a joint statement recently after regulators considered bids for four new offshore wind projects, in a sign of possible offshore wind energy expansion.
“The legislature has concerns about the BPU’s approach on the offshore wind projects. There are still many unanswered questions about the economic impact these projects will have on ratepayers,” they said.
Democrats have sought to rewrite a narrative that they’re not responsive to concerns about New Jersey’s high taxes, particularly property taxes.
This year they enacted a program for homeowners 65 and older who make up to $500,000 to qualify for $6,500 in property tax relief. Renters would also get up to $700 in rebates. Those benefits, though, would take until 2026 to ramp up fully, with seniors and renters expected to see $250 in immediate relief.
Last year, some 870,000 families that make up to $150,000 would get “direct relief” of $1,500; those earning from $150,000 to $250,000 will get $1,000 in credits, and for the first time ever, renters making up to $150,000 would also get $450 assistance.
Iris Delgado, executive director of the Democratic Assembly’s campaign arm, cited both property tax cut programs as signs the Legislature is mindful of voters’ concerns.
“The overall arching theme is people are concerned about the future,” she said. “What did the Legislature do? Cut taxes.”
It's unclear to what extent the swirl of national political factors like the looming government shutdown and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez’s indictment last week on federal bribery charges could play in the election. Republicans have begun to say the charges reflect the dangers of having one party in control of state government.
Democrats counter that the GOP is changing the subject. Menendez's seat isn't up for reelection until next year. He hasn't said whether he'll seek reelection, though many in his party are calling for his resignation. He has pleaded not guilty and denies wrongdoing.
Republicans haven't controlled a chamber of the Legislature in two decades.