PPPL physicist represents only flip for Democrats in 2021 contests
Republicans picked up 15 new state legislative seats this year across New Jersey and Virginia. Democrats? Just one. Senator-elect Andrew Zwicker, Ph.D.
The Democratic Party struggled through elections in the only two states that hold such contests in odd-numbered years, losing the Governor’s Mansion and House of Delegates in Virginia and escaping with surprisingly narrow majorities across New Jersey. In a difficult cycle for the Democratic Party, Zwicker represents uncommon success.
The head of Communications and Public Outreach at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), Zwicker represented Legislative District 16 (LD-16) as an Assemblyman for six years before pivoting to the Senate. Just a few weeks ago, he won election to the upper house, beating out former Congressman Michael Pappas to succeed veteran Republican Christopher “Kip” Bateman. Now the administrator of Bridgewater Township, Pappas is best known for his rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Kenneth Starr” during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings.
As the first Democrat to represent LD-16 in the Senate since the district was established in 1973, Zwicker is turning heads and leading many to wonder: How’d he do it?
Zwicker first entered the political fold in 2014, seeking to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives upon the retirement of Rep. Rush Holt. The two had a lot in common: Holt was a higher-up at the PPPL with a Ph.D. in physics who first earned his place in the House in 1998 by defeating Pappas.
Per The Atlantic, Holt “might [have been] the most interesting man in Washington,” during his time in Congress, making national news on several occasions for his academic background and “Jeopardy!” defeat of IBM’s Watson. It was Holt who hired Zwicker, his “protége,” at the PPPL — the two physicists have known each other for decades.
“When Rush Holt was in Congress and he had run the Physics Plasma Lab at Princeton, he actually had bumper stickers that said ‘My Congressman is a Rocket Scientist,’” explained David Wildstein, the Editor-in-Chief of The New Jersey Globe. “There’s sort of been this model out of that part of the state of hugely intelligent people running for office. And Zwicker has owned that.”
Unfortunately for Zwicker, huge intelligence and a doctoral thesis on “Soft X-Ray Spectroscopy of Magnetically Confined Fusion Plasmas Using Flat Multilayer Mirrors as Dispersive Elements” were not enough to lure voters. He lost the Democratic primary to now-Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman. But, in defeat, he made a name for himself with the local Democratic establishment.
“When he was running for Congress, I saw him at a [Princeton Community Democratic Organization] program with the other candidates and I was really kinda blown away,” said Liz Cohen, a member of the Princeton Community Democratic Organization’s Executive Committee. “I was really hoping I would see him around again, because I was very impressed.”
After finishing last in the primary with 7.4 percent of the vote, Zwicker bounced back. He launched a run for the State Assembly a few months later.
In 2015, Zwicker edged out newly-elected Assemblywoman Donna Simon by just 78 votes for one of LD-16’s two Assembly seats.
“Zwicker had the benefit of running against an incumbent who was not well known because she had just gotten there,” said Wildstein.
Similar to his Senate victory, Zwicker’s successful campaign for Assembly was historic: he was the first Democrat ever to represent LD-16 in either house of the New Jersey Legislature.
At home, Zwicker developed a reputation for being hyper-present, attending “nearly every rally I can think of,” according to Cohen. In the Assembly, Zwicker established himself as a savvy policy wonk, focusing on voting rights, good governance, and, above all else, science.
In 2018, Zwicker began chairing the State Assembly’s new Committee on Science, Innovation and Technology, providing a more formal structure for his unique policy passions.
“Zwicker was coming up with proposals on technology, environmental issues, climate change, he was coming up with ideas so quickly, from the way it’s been explained to me, that they basically created a committee so that he could have a forum in which to pursue those ideas,” said Wildstein.
Opponents, on the other hand, see Zwicker’s scientific focus as a political selling point, painting him as out of touch with “kitchen table” issues.
“It is every single goofy initiative that doesn’t have to do with issues people really care about,” said Dan Scharfenberger, the executive director of the Senate Republican Majority Campaign Committee. “The science thing is nice, but it doesn’t do a damn thing to lower somebody’s property taxes.”
Zwicker sees Scharfenberger’s message, one which came up repeatedly throughout the campaign, as disturbing, claiming that it paints education as a negative and stigmatizes academic solutions.
“This, somehow as a negative, my educational background … his premise is therefore I don’t understand what the kitchen table issues are,” Zwicker explained. “I find it very very troubling, because it’s in the end about an attack on critical thinking.”
Clearly, in LD-16 at least, voters seem to approve of Zwicker’s scholarly political brand. He defended his seat in 2017 and won by progressively larger margins in the 2019 and 2021 election cycles as the district continued to add Democratic voters.
Although Zwicker’s evolving political expertise and strong local reputation seem to play large roles in his increasingly decisive victories, the slow crawl of demographic change cannot be overlooked. When the district was first drawn in 2011, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 5,000 voters. In 10 years, that number quadrupled to 21,500.
When Republican Kip Bateman chose to retire, vacating his Senate seat, Zwicker was more than ready to step forward. Now, for the first time ever, LD-16 is represented entirely by Democrats in the State Legislature. Zwicker is joined by Assemblyman Roy Freiman and Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer, a postdoctoral research associate in South Asian Studies at the University.
Strangely, the trio had the rare opportunity to chase the state legislature in the “old” LD-16, the exact boundaries which had elected Zwicker to the State Assembly three times. New Jersey was scheduled for redistricting for this election cycle, but COVID-related delays in gathering Census data led Democrats to push it to 2023, keeping legislative boundaries for an unusual 12 years.
Politics have always seemed to pan out in Zwicker’s favor: delayed redistricting, Simon’s political weakness, the 78-vote margin, and Bateman’s retirement all aided the senator-elect in his political ascent. But he claims his success is more than luck alone. Others seem to agree.
Almost every organizer, political operative, and politician who spoke with The Daily Princetonian praised the disciplined, organized, and analytical nature of the campaign, one which the LD-16 Democrats effectively shared after the primary ended. They emphasized a get out the vote strategy which played heavily on New Jersey’s recent expansion of early in-person and mail-in voting, an uncommonly large base of volunteers, and a trio of exceptionally strong candidates.
“The numbers were for them, but Zwicker was a great candidate. And they ran an excellent campaign,” Wildstein said.
Pappas did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The two Republican candidates for State Assembly in LD-16 — Vincent Panico and Joseph Lukac — similarly did not respond.
As Democrats across the state and country seek to keep their memories short in the aftermath of a difficult 2021 performance, Zwicker’s campaign is a success story, even a learning opportunity.
But how did Andrew Zwicker flip a state senate seat and win by a seven-point margin? Was it luck? Organization? A fluke-y district with significantly more Democrats than Republicans that just happened to elect a GOP senator during the last cycle?
“You know, it can’t just be luck,” Zwicker said. “It can’t just be hard work. It can’t just be having a really good campaign. It has to be a mixture of all of that at the same time.”