For the first time in a long time, New Jersey could be a political battleground in a November election.
In primary elections Tuesday, registered Democratic voters nominated candidates who are considered some of the party's strongest bets in years to win in Republican-leaning congressional districts. They include Jeff Van Drew, a pro-gun state senator from Cape May County, and Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot who lives in Montclair.
Meanwhile, Republicans believe they have a shot in the U.S. Senate race, as Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez drew a sizable protest vote.
In Trenton, Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and occupy the governor's mansion. But their edge is modest in Washington, where Democrats hold seven of the state's 12 House seats.
Democrats are hoping that President Trump's low approval ratings in New Jersey, including in Republican-held districts, will help them flip a few seats in their bid to take control of the House. Just 43 percent of residents living in those districts approve of Trump's job performance, according to an April Monmouth University poll, while 53 percent disapprove.
The same poll found that in the five GOP-held House districts, voters barely favored a generic Republican candidate over a Democrat.
"Could you see a 10-2 House reality? I think you can. But we've got to play the game. You've got to execute," Gov. Murphy, a Democrat, said Tuesday. "People's hair is on fire. Particularly, overwhelmingly, women, communities of color, immigrant communities. People are enraged. But we've got to make sure we bottle that. It has to have an end point. It has to have an election which has consequences."
At the top of the ballot in November will be Menendez — and a significant portion of Democratic primary voters appeared displeased with that. According to unofficial results, more than 100,000 Democrats voted for Lisa McCormick, a little-known weekly newspaper publisher who didn't report raising any money or run anything resembling a serious campaign.
With 75 percent of precincts reporting as of 10 p.m., Menendez had 62 percent of the vote. Menendez, whose corruption trial ended in a hung jury in November, will face Republican Bob Hugin, a former pharmaceutical executive, in the general election. Though he escaped prosecution, Menendez was "severely admonished" by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting free trips on a donor's private jet and other gifts, even as he advanced the donor's personal and financial interests.
Menendez, a two-term Democrat, said in a statement Tuesday that he was "standing up to the Trump war on New Jersey" and accused Hugin of "ripping off cancer patients" by raising drug prices. Hugin said he would be "an independent voice who always puts our state and our people first."
New Jersey hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972.
There are about 900,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in New Jersey, though a plurality of the electorate is unaffiliated with either party.
As with the Senate race, there was little drama in House primaries Tuesday night. Although there were some ideological clashes, New Jersey's unique primary system makes it almost impossible to win without establishment support. In most counties, the parties' endorsed candidates get the best ballot position.
"Our system means it's not going to be very competitive," Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University, said of the primary races.
In the Second District, Van Drew, the candidate favored by the state and national parties, defeated three rivals who questioned his progressive credentials: Tanzie Youngblood, a retired teacher; Will Cunningham, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker; and activist Nate Kleinman. Van Drew had raised $630,000 through May 15; none of his rivals had raised $100,000.
He will face Seth Grossman, the winner of a four-candidate GOP primary in a campaign to succeed retiring Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report says the race leans Democratic.
The South Jersey district stretches from the Shore to parts of Gloucester County.
In other South Jersey races, Rep. Donald Norcross won the First District Democratic primary and will run against Republican Paul Dilks in the general election. The Camden County-based district leans heavily Democratic.
Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur and his Democratic rival, Andy Kim, ran unopposed in the Third District, based in Burlington and Ocean Counties. MacArthur, a wealthy former insurance executive, is the only member of the state's delegation who voted in favor of Trump's tax overhaul and one of two who voted to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. (The health-care bill stalled in the Senate.)
By contrast, Kim, a former national security adviser in the Obama administration, has campaigned on protecting President Barack Obama's health care law.
In North Jersey's 11th District, Sherrill, the former Navy pilot, won a five-candidate primary. Five candidates were seeking the GOP nomination in the campaign to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, who has held the seat for more than 20 years.