Inside the New Providence Senior Center on a Wednesday night, neighbors are packed shoulder to shoulder. Familiar chatter about the goings-on about town is filling the room and energy is running high ahead of a local forum for candidates seeking two borough council seats.
It’s a big turnout for the small Union County town, but perhaps that’s because in this election cycle the stakes are a little higher.
“We’re definitely seeing a momentum and a wave and an energy and an excitement,” said Stacey Gunderman, chairwoman of New Providence Democrats.
Stacey Gunderman is one of dozens of women who participated in the Women’s March on D.C.
Immediately following, she and several others mobilized to revive the New Providence Democrats, a group that’s been dormant for over a decade in a town that’s had a Republican stronghold for over 50 years.
“It’s a very red town and red area, especially in mindset but not necessarily in demographics. What’s interesting in the makeup of our town is the registered Republicans is about 30 to 31 percent, 26 percent or so is registered Democratic with the majority of 40-plus being unaffiliated,” said Gunderman.
They’re actively working to flip the council and legislative seats blue. Incumbents who’ve been unopposed for years are in a real heat this election with first-time political candidates as the challengers. The New Providence Democrats have been canvassing neighborhoods on target to knock on every door in the borough by Nov. 7.
“Quite frankly, the Republican Party hasn’t had to work hard. It’s like they just kind of choose who is going to be next and they’re on the ballot and they’re kind of coronated,” said Jamie Baer Peterson, a candidate for the New Providence Borough Council.
“New Jersey holds a very interesting place in electoral history. At this time, we can be a bellwether for the national races from 2016,” said Keith Doll, candidate for the New Providence Borough Council.
He could be right; New Providence is a microcosm of similar movements happening in Berkeley Heights, Chatham and Summit. The entire 40th Legislative District is in the midst of a “flip” campaign. Senate and Assembly seats there have been held by republicans for 45 years.
If you use the June primary as a litmus test, the Democratic organizers say their efforts are working. Democratic voter turnout increased 500 percent since the last gubernatorial primary.
But as any political analyst will tell you, success is measured in votes. And if the Democratic challengers are banking on this statewide election as a referendum on what’s happening in Washington D.C., public polling doesn’t support it.
“If you look at public opinion data and the extent to which we’re seeing a Trump effect, that is to say a willingness by people to say that their vote in 2017 is motivated by either approval or disapproval for President Trump, we’re not seeing much of an affect. Our most recent poll of likely voters finds one in four, or 25 percent, say their 2017 vote is motivated or Donald Trump plays a factor in their minds,” said Krista Jenkins, director of the FDU PublicMind Poll.
“I’ve driven through many different neighborhoods and right now there’s a lot of signs out on both sides. I wouldn’t say people that many people are looking at it as a Republican/Democrat thing, we are just looking at it as best candidate for the job,” said Nadine Geoffroy, a candidate for the New Providence Borough Council.
In fact, it may be the presidential election that galvanized this blue wave, but FDU PublicMind data show Trump’s influence inside the voting booth may have less of a splash.