TRENTON — New Jersey Democrats have picked up a net five seats in the Assembly, nearly erasing the GOP pickup of two years ago and dashing the Republicans' hopes of winning a majority for the first time in two decades.

Democrats Heather Simmons and Dave Bailey defeated Republican incumbents Bethanne McCarthy Patrick and Thomas Tedesco in southern New Jersey's 3rd District. That coupled with wins in Jersey shore District 11 and a seemingly improbable win in the right-leaning Ocean County District 30 will give the Democrats at least 51 seats in the 80-member Assembly, up from 46.

The Democratic surge came in the sixth year of Gov. Phil Murphy's tenure, with two years left until he's term-limited, and as the party kept their 25-15 majority in the state Senate, Democrats will retain control of all levers of state government.

Democratic enthusiasm poured out of campaign headquarters Tuesday night as their victories became apparent. Perhaps the most emotion came from former Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney, whose friend and former running mate John Burzichelli defeated Republican state Sen. Ed Durr. Durr unseated Sweeney two years ago, a shock to the powerful legislative leader.

“It feels like a wrong has now been righted,” Sweeney said.

Democrats had a good night in Senate contests overall, defending fiercely contested races, although they'll keep their 25-15 majority because of a Republican defection to the Democratic Party that reverted to the GOP Tuesday.

Republicans find themselves examining how to go forward after legislative losses. A key question for them is how to build GOP enthusiasm for early voting. Mail ballots go out in September and in-person voting starts late October — both formats in which Democrats participate in greater numbers.

“We lost significant ground in legislative races. What can we do to get more New Jerseyans to recognize the importance of getting out to vote?” Republican state party chairman Bob Hugin said.

Two years ago, Murphy won reelection by a single-digit margin, and Republicans netted seven seats in the Legislature. They had hoped that running on the unpopularity of offshore wind turbines and claims that Democrats wanted schools to keep their children's sexual orientation confidential would rouse voters to the polls.

Such a GOP-leaning rush didn't materialize.

Republicans face significant structural deficits in New Jersey, namely that they're outnumbered by nearly a million more Democratic voters. Democrats also outspent Republicans $22 million to $8.5 million.

It is still unclear what Democrats will do with their expanded majority. They campaigned on protecting reproductive rights — though New Jersey already has statutory protections for abortion. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, using similar language to a pair of property tax rebate initiatives, hinted Democrats could pursue further programs.

“We will continue to stand up for every New Jerseyan, make our state more affordable, and do the hard work of all nine million residents in our state,” he said in a statement.

Murphy called the Democratic wins “validation" for their agenda.

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