Riding high on optimism but can Democrats really deliver at the midterms?
Energised candidates and campaigners pushing to seize control of the House, but in the Senate there may be more opportunities for defeat than victory
In a side-room at TGI Fridays off US Highway 22, the chicken wings are free, but the beer is not. The talk is optimistic, but the recent memories of vivid disappointment are right there under the surface.
Above the bar, subtitled television pundits are previewing a tense night of winner-takes-all October baseball.
And in the booths by the window, Democrats have come to meet the candidate they hope is part of a rising wave set to overwhelm Donald Trump and the Republicans in the midterm elections in November.
Im still traumatised by 2016; we all are, said social worker Christine Ribaudo, one of the first to arrive at the event to meet Tom Malinowski, the Democratic candidate trying to unseat Republican Leonard Lance, who has represented New Jerseys seventh congressional district for 10 years. Im taking nothing for granted this time.
For months it had seemed that the political energy across the US was all with the outraged Democrats. First, there were strong special election results leaving a trail of clues in traditional Republican heartlands like Kansas, Alabama and western Pennsylvania. Then there was the emergence of a new wave of highly motivated leftwing candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York winning primary contests to force out older, male and often more centrist Democrats.
After two years of protest and activism, Democrats out for revenge began to dream of neutering Trump by taking back both the House and the Senate from Republican control in the 6 November elections. Each fresh Trump stumble seemed to drive the presidents hardcore supporters further underground and raise Democratic hopes.
But the ugly battle over the supreme court confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh has changed the mood, given an energy boost to Republicans and left Democrats wondering if they might be heading for another soul-crushing result.
For Democrats, the comeback has to start in places like this TGI Fridays in Springfield, New Jersey, a district that goes from rural farmland in the west, via Trumps expensive Bedminster golf club in the middle, to the built-up east, where commuters have a daily battle to reach New York City.
Exciting, isnt it? said Ribaudo. It feels like we are in a very energized district.
The district has sent a Republican to Congress for 37 years, but it is one of 25 Republican-held House seats across the United States where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race. The calculation sounds simple: win 23 of them and the Democrats would have gained enough ground to take back control of the House. With control of the House, they would gain the power to block, investigate and even attempt to impeach Trump.
Public confidence in polling has been sorely undermined since 2016, when virtually every pundit and poll failed to foresee a Trump victory. But in lieu of hard facts, every new poll that indicates a strengthened Republican lead in traditional strongholds like Tennessee and Texas heightens the impression that they have momentum.
Add to the mix that Trump is back in full cry night after night telling his rallies about the danger posed to America by Democrats who he claims have become an angry leftwing mob.
Trump is exuding triumphalism after Kavanaughs confirmation and has racked up a few more political wins: a rewritten trade deal with Canada and Mexico, unemployment at a historic low of 3.9% and an economy growing at 4%.
So, is the great Democratic surge about to collapse?
Its not a naturally occurring weather event. We have to make it happen, said Malinowski, the Democratic candidate in New Jersey 7, who once served in Barack Obamas state department. Its not something any responsible candidate in a swing district can count on. We have to do it ourselves, one congressional district at a time.
Cautious and careful in his answers, the Polish-born former Washington director for Human Rights Watch thinks his race is first and foremost about economic issues. Trumps tax reforms will hit this district of middle-class homeowners who face new limits on reclaiming their high local and state taxes.
No sane person with recent American political history in mind would be too confident. But it feels like a very close race and I think that also will inspire people to turn out. Most Americans live in a congressional district where they know whos gonna win, he said. This is one of the few where the outcome is in doubt and therefore our votes count for more. There is a scenario where this district tips the balance in Washington. I think that will inspire people to come out.