Running Scared: How A Safe Seat Campaign Saved A Democratic Machine

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In 2022, the second red tsunami in two years crashed onto the South Jersey shores. In the region’s light-red congressional district, Rep. Van Drew (R, NJ-02) was reelected by a whopping 19% margin. And in county after county, the once-vaunted South Jersey Democratic machine was absolutely obliterated, losing every major competitive race along the bay.

However, whereas the first tsunami had surged inland, flooding the New Jersey suburbs across the border from Philadelphia, the great wave of 2022 hit a flood-wall, one constructed in a fit of paranoia across the middle of Gloucester County. And when the storm waters receded, the Gloucester Democrats remained, surviving behind the protection of Donald Norcross’ campaign.

This is the story of a safe seat race. Rep. Donald Norcross (D, NJ-01) hails from a deep-blue suburban district across the river from Philadelphia. To give a sense of how blue it is, Governor Phil Murphy (D) still carried NJ-01 by 14% in the red wave of 2021, despite getting wiped out in South Jersey. It suffices to say that Norcross was not going to lose reelection under any circumstances.

And yet, by all accounts, he thought he could. His close friend, the powerful Senate President Steve Sweeney, had just lost reelection to an anonymous truck driver. And although their situations were nothing alike — Sweeney represented a Trump district — Norcross became demonstrably paranoid. During the decennial redistricting process, he reportedly tried drawing an even bluer district for himself at the expense of his fellow Democrats. After his attempt was rebuffed, Norcross prepared to run the most aggressive campaign of his congressional career.

Now, while Norcross was acting on his concerns, there were downballot Democrats within NJ-01 who were actually at risk of losing — with an entire political machine’s survival on the line. These would be the Democrats of Gloucester County, a traditionally blue county that narrowly flipped to Trump in 2016, before Biden won it back. In 2020, Democrats barely kept full control of its county commission, coming within a point of losing a seat to the GOP. The following year, they lost every race, with Republicans flipping a couple commission seats as Governor Murphy got swamped countywide. With another two of the seven commission seats up in 2022, Republicans were now within striking distance of flipping the county government. This was the predicament South Jersey Democrats found themselves in going into the midterms.


For a little over a decade, the South Jersey Democrats dominated Jersey politics through their control of three levers: the state Senate presidency, the largest Democratic bloc in the legislature, and a vast network of money and political power-broking organized by their boss George Norcross (Donald’s brother). This granted them, among other powers, total control of the legislative agenda; every bill, budget or nominee was approved only with their blessing. However, the first two levers were lost in 2021, when the South Jersey coalition lost eight seats in the legislature, including that of Senate president Steve Sweeney. As a result, the machine’s power was largely relegated to the county level, concentrated in their four county commissions: Camden, Burlington, Gloucester, and Cumberland. Unfortunately for the South Jersey machine, the latter two were at deep risk of flipping in 2022 — a catastrophe that could jeopardize their final lever of power.

In New Jersey, county commission control is critical, granting jobs, contracts, offices, and policymaking powers to the governing party. These prizes attract candidates, operatives, and, most importantly, money to the county party, as the machine doles out patronage to contributors, and uses the funds to win elections and ensure they can deliver. Crucially, once a party loses control of a county commission, they tend to shrivel up and their losses snowball in a self-reinforcing loop of decline, as funds stop flowing in and the party cedes ever more ground to their opponents. Town by town and office by office, this was the future South Jersey Democrats were staring into.

To avoid this fate, their still-formidable machine went into overdrive, with George Norcross raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to retain control in both Gloucester and Cumberland counties. Still, shortly before the Dobbs decision dramatically altered the political environment, Norcross’ team found Democrats deeply underwater in the region. While the campaign team first recommended sticking to an economic message, it was clear by the fall that the issue environment had changed.

This is where Donald Norcross returns. By September, Norcross was running ads not only on Social Security and drug prices, but women’s rights as well. According to FEC data, he was shelling out cash all the way through campaign season, spending a colossal $3.5 million to counter his opponent’s paltry $15,000. Along the way, his campaign was activated, knocking doors, making calls, and turning out every Democrat they could find. With over 70% of Gloucester County’s population living in NJ-01, this meant the Norcross campaign was also actively persuading and turning out voters for their endangered downballot counterparts.


Unsurprisingly, Donald Norcross won by a lot. In fact, he outran Biden in nearly every town in NJ-01, winning reelection by a massive 27%. While his campaigning clearly worked, it was also clearly unnecessary for him to run so seriously in the first place. His fear of losing reelection was indeed unfounded.

But at the county level, something interesting had occurred. The Gloucester Democrats were celebrating: longtime county clerk Jim Hogan won reelection by 6%, and Democrats held both county commission seats by 3%, a margin larger than what they got in 2020. However, in neighboring Biden+6 Cumberland County in NJ-02 (Jeff Van Drew’s seat), the Democrats utterly failed, losing the commission race by a whopping 12% and ceding county control to the Republicans, despite the county being four points bluer than Gloucester in 2020. 

So what gives — why did a red tsunami wash over Cumberland, while Gloucester got bluer?

Well for one, the Republican apparatus in Cumberland is stronger, with state senator/Cumberland GOP chair Mike Testa and Rep. Van Drew running strong campaigns. In addition, Cumberland is a more rural county, with a lower turnout nonwhite Democratic base, while Gloucester is much whiter and more suburban.

However, looking at a few maps, it’s abundantly clear that the sheer force of Norcross’ campaign made the biggest difference. The following maps show the swing between the 2020 presidential election and the 2022 elections, with blue representing where Democrats outperformed Biden in 2022, and vice versa. On the House map, one can see Norcross outrunning Biden across NJ-01, while Van Drew did the same in NJ-02. More notably, the divide persisted even in the county-level races, with county Democrats running much better on the NJ-01 side of Gloucester.

Breaking down the numbers, Donald Norcross’ campaign was probably crucial to the Democratic commissioners’ victory. On the NJ-02 side of Gloucester, the commissioners underran Biden by just under 2%, enough to barely still win Biden+2 Gloucester had that been translated countywide. However, it’s likely that the Gloucester Democrats shared resources in-kind with the Norcross campaign (e.g. manpower, advertising, fundraisers, etc) that would’ve boosted them in the NJ-02 side of Gloucester, thus making the Norcross campaign decisive.

The key takeaway is that even though Norcross had zero need to run such a serious race, his efforts reaped clear benefits for the candidates downballot, who on their own could never have hoped to raise the millions he spent. This was an especially poignant lesson in 2022, as lackluster gubernatorial campaigns in solidly blue New York and California were blamed by observers for sinking battleground Democrats downballot, and thus costing Democrats the House. If Democrats had put the same effort into these states that Norcross put into his campaign, they would almost certainly control the House of Representatives right now.


Source: Dave’s Redistricting (DRA)

While the Gloucester Democrats may have saved themselves from armageddon in 2022, their fight is not over. Not only is their commission majority once again at stake in 2023 – they are also trying to reclaim their legislative clout by defending LD-04 and reclaiming LD-03, the former Senate president’s district.

Some have been puzzled about the South Jersey Democrats’ focus on Trump-won LD-03, over other Biden-won GOP districts down south. While the reasons undoubtedly include revenge for their 2021 losses and a belief it is the most winnable, they also potentially learned from Donald Norcross’ campaign. 85% of Gloucester County is located within LD-03 and LD-04, and a strong legislative performance could help the county Democrats retain their commissioners. After all, as shown in 2022, a strong campaign up top can reap massive rewards down the ticket. And the Gloucester County Democrats should know this better than anyone else.

Just another election data guy from New Jersey. Proudly competent at predicting the midterms. You can find me tracking special elections and other election-related data/nonsense on Twitter at @ECaliberSeven.