2013 should have been a blow-out for the Democrats. Republican Governor Chris Christie romped to victory by an impressive twenty-point margin. And yet, the Democrats were able to hold on to their legislative majorities and Republicans failed to pick up a single seat in either the Senate or Assembly.
The following year -- this time in Pennsylvania -- Republicans pulled off a similar feat, capturing 12 legislative seats from the Democrats while the Democrat candidate for Governor was coasting to a ten-point win. How did they do it?
For some insight into how the Democrats held the Legislature in 2013 and to what Republicans should be doing this year with the possibility of a 2013 in reverse, we need only look to Legislative District 38 and how the Democrats held this seat in the wake of the 2013 Christie landslide. In a February 2014 article written for Campaigns & Elections magazine, an associate with the political consulting firm, The Campaign Group, explained how they prevented SRM and ARV from capitalizing on the Christie landslide.
The Campaign Group is a Philadelphia-based media firm that has run advertising campaigns for Commerce Bank of New Jersey, Cooper University Hospital, Comcast, Rob Andrews for Congress, and John Adler for Congress. The article sets the scene:
"In 2011, incumbent state Sen. Bob Gordon eked out the narrowest victory of any state senator, and 2013 promised to be even more competitive, particularly after Christie singled out Gordon for criticism. Voters in each New Jersey legislative district elect one state senator and two assembly members district wide, and both Democrats running for state Assembly in this district were relatively untested: Paramus Borough Council President Joe Lagana and first-term incumbent Assemblyman Tim Eustace, the first openly-gay person elected to an open seat in New Jersey. So it was clear that all three races would be hotly-contested."
The article goes on to helpfully explain that the Democrats "were rightly concerned the lackluster campaign of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono could lead to decreased Democratic turnout that would sink their candidates." So they resolved to do something about it by going back to their base:
"They convened focus groups in LD38 of Democrats who were not certain to vote in November’s election. If we could find out what would motivate them to turn out, despite the lack of a competitive gubernatorial campaign, we’d have a real shot at altering the turnout dynamic."
They launched an effort "independent of what the candidates were doing." The field campaign connected with more than 11,000 voters and generated 803 vote-by-mail applications. The article continues:
"Field Strategies identified a list of 2,300 households with voters believed to contain only rock-ribbed Democrats. These voters didn’t need to see our ads criticizing the Republican candidates, because there was no way there would vote for a Republican. But many of these voters were not particularly likely to vote in the November elections, so we wanted to build on the existing GOTV messages and use our TV buy to motivate them to get off their behinds and vote."
The trend in New Jersey over the last two decades has been to target fewer and fewer "likely" voters. You've all heard those references to 4 of 4 voters and 3 of 4, and so on. What these Democrats did was to reach out to their "unlikely" voters and persuade them to "change their habits" and come out to vote. It is what the Republican legislative campaign did in 2014 to produce a pick-up of 12 seats that year in the face of a gubernatorial defeat.
All this happened in 2013 and 2014. Pennsylvania Republicans used it again in 2016 to pad that "blue" state's Republican legislative majorities -- giving them a 34 to 16 Republican majority in the State Senate, and a 121 to 82 Republican majority in the State House of Representatives. In contrast, New Jersey Republicans ignored their conservative base in 2015 -- and lost legislative seats.
This year marks yet another in which the lessons of 2013 have not been applied. Movement conservatives were not called upon until very late in the campaign and at this point, with less than two weeks to election day, have still not been fully mobilized. In contrast, in 2013 the Democrats had all their base's issues groups activated and with marching orders to begin their voter turnout operation nine weeks prior to election day.
In Pennsylvania, conservative grassroots activists are part of the party's bloodstream and issues groups form a sharp-pointed "irregular" militia working in general concert with the GOP "regulars." This has been resisted in New Jersey and, sadly, the prospects for 2017 appear headed for a repeat of 2013 and 2015 -- except with the added sadness that the gubernatorial campaign may be blamed and no lessons learned.
But fight on while the fight is still going. There is time enough still.