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Election 2011: Where the Republicans Can Pick Up Assembly Seats

A district-by-district guide to some of the more compelling Democratic and Republican races to result from the redistricting process.

While political speculation has focused on the battle for control of the state Senate and the implications of that fight for Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s 2013 gubernatorial chances, Republicans have a better chance to gain seats in the Assembly.

By the close of yesterday's 4 p.m. deadline to file petitions to run in the June 7 party primaries, the GOP had fielded stronger Assembly slates than Senate candidates in two high-profile South Jersey districts. They are favored to gain at least one Assembly seat in a split Burlington County district, and stand as good a chance to pick up Assembly seats as Senate seats in the two most competitive districts - the Mercer-Middlesex 14th and Bergen’s 38th District.

The November legislative elections will be the first conducted under a new redistricting map that Rutgers University Professor Alan Rosenthal, the Legislative Redistricting Commission’s neutral tie-breaker, selected on Sunday, April 3, from the last two maps drawn up by the Democratic and Republican commission caucuses. Rosenthal chose the Democratic map because it was "more conservative, less disruptive" than the GOP proposal and promised "continuity of representation" by incumbent legislators who would be known to most of the voters in their districts.

"There is no chance Republicans can take control of either chamber of the legislature out of this map," insisted Patrick Murray, a Monmouth University political science professor and pollster who had unsuccessfully urged Rosenthal to put the creation of more competitive districts ahead of incumbent protection. "But there are more opportunities for Republicans to pick up a few seats here and there in the Assembly than in the Senate."

Democrats currently hold a 24-16 seat lead in the Senate, and the GOP would need to take four Senate seats to regain the tie they held until the 2003 election and five to recapture the control they lost in 2001.

In the 80-member Assembly, however, the Democratic lead is narrower, at 47-33, and Republicans would need only seven seats to force a tie and eight to take control. While political analysts have a hard time picking five Democratic Senate seats that could remotely be considered to be in play, Republicans can point to eight or more potentially winnable Assembly seats, although they will also need to defend at least three of their own.

Redistricting created an interesting mix of winners and losers. Veteran Republican Assemblyman Sam Thompson of Old Bridge found himself in a newly created safe Republican 12th District with no incumbent senator and is now headed for the Senate, while GOP Senator Sean Kean had to move down to the Assembly. Three Assembly members whose hometowns were moved in redistricting decided to move their residences, as permitted under New Jersey law. Democrat Reed Gusciora of Princeton moved to Trenton to stay in the 15h District. Republican Denise Coyle decided to move south to stay in the 16th. And Democrat Ralph Caputo moved from Belleville to Nutley, pushing Assemblyman Kevin Ryan out of a seat.

The following is a district-by-district breakdown of the more intriguing matchups and some of the more interesting reshuffling that came about as a result of the redistricting process:

First (Cape May-Cumberland): It is ironic that one of the few real primary contests pits David DeWeese, a former Wildwood municipal court judge, against Troy Verus, a Vineland police officer, for the GOP Senate nomination and the right to get trounced by popular Democratic Senator Jeff Van Drew. With Van Drew’s reelection regarded as a foregone conclusion, the Democratic map put in more Cumberland County municipalities to help incumbent Assemblymen Matt Milam and Nelson Albano. While the GOP is not mounting a serious Senate challenge in the 1st, it is putting a strong effort into winning back the two Democratic Assembly seats by running Cumberland County Freeholder Sam Fiocchi and Stone Harbor Mayor Suzanne Walters.

Second (Atlantic): Republican Assemblyman Vincent J. Polistina is taking on Democratic Senator Jim Whelan in one of the state’s most high-profile races. With the GOP having a better shot at winning the Assembly than the Senate, one Democratic strategist questioned why the Republican Party didn’t ask Polistina to drop his Senate challenge against Whelan. "If [Republican Assemblymen] Vince Polistina and John Amodeo run for reelection together, maybe voters decide to send back Whelan to the Senate and the Republicans to the Assembly. Having Polistina run for Senate jeopardizes at least one of those Assembly seats," the Democrat asserted. Freeholder Alisa Cooper, whose mother served in the Assembly, and Atlantic City lawyer Damon Tyner make up a strong Democratic Assembly ticket. Redistricting made the 2nd more Democratic by swapping Republican Galloway Township for Democratic Somers Point, Buena and Buena Vista.

Third (Gloucester-Salem-Cumberland): Will the Democrats’ decision to gerrymander GOP Assemblyman Dominic DiCicco out of the 4th District into the 3rd to protect Senator Fred Madden backfire? "I don’t think the Republicans can beat [Democratic Assemblyman] John Burzichelli," Murray said. "But this is a really interesting race with DiCicco running as an incumbent and Dr. Robert Villare running again in a potentially competitive race." Villare had the backing of conservative Steve Lonegan when he upset the establishment candidate in the 2009 GOP primary, and almost pulled an upset in the general election. Burzichelli is a five-term incumbent, but Assemblywoman Celeste Riley barely beat Villare by 1,300 votes in her first race two years ago. Senate President Stephen Sweeney should coast to reelection against Salem County attorney Mike Mulligan.

Fourth (Camden): With DiCicco redistricted out, Democrats will be hoping that Gabriela Mosquera, Gloucester Township Mayor David Mayer’s chief of staff, can pick up the open Assembly seat in a more heavily Democratic district where Senator Madden and Assemblyman Paul Moriarty will be heavily favored.

Seventh (Burlington): Republican Senator Diane Allen is very popular and is expected to win easily against Democratic Mayor Gail Cook of Beverly. The 7th is a real opportunity for Assembly Republicans. Nine-term GOP Assemblyman Joseph Malone was shifted from the 30th to the 7th by redistricting. Malone and his running mate, Moorestown businessman Chris Halgas, will face off against Democratic Assemblyman Herbert Conaway and Troy Singleton, former Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts’ chief of staff, in what could be the best Assembly battle of the fall campaign. A big Allen win could provide the coattails the GOP needs here.

Eighth (Burlington): The biggest news to emerge this week was the candidacy of former Olympic champion Carl Lewis against Republican Senator Dawn Addiego. "Democrats might be thinking about how successful [former Philadelphia Eagles] Jon Runyon was in winning a congressional seat last year, but Runyon was running in a Republican district," Murray pointed out. "The 8th hasn’t changed much. This is an easy 20 percentage point win for a Republican typically. We don’t know what kind of a candidate Carl Lewis will be." Still, even if Lewis has a hard time getting out of the blocks, his race will force the GOP to think about whether they have to defend what should be a safe district.

11th (Monmouth): The 11th was supposed to be a new minority opportunity district, and it lived up to its name when Democrats put up Freehold attorney Ray Santiago for the Senate to run with Long Branch fundraiser Vin Gopal and Asbury Park restaurateur Marilyn Schlossbach. The GOP’s three women incumbents, Senator Jennifer Beck and Assemblywomen Caroline Casagrande and Mary Pat Angelini, are solid favorites to win reelection, though, as can be seen by the Democrats’ failure to persuade any of their battle-tested mayors and council members to make the race.

14th (Mercer-Monmouth): The most competitive district in the state pits Democratic Senator Linda Greenstein, fresh off a solid victory over Republican Senator Tom Goodwin last November, against Richard Kanka, whose daughter Megan was murdered 17 years ago by a convicted sex offender, leading to the passage of "Megan’s Law." Kanka is a union pipefitter, but the private and public sector unions already are lining up with Greenstein in this heavily union district. Democratic Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, a union electrician, and Dan Benson are running against Dave Fried, mayor of heavily Republican Robbinsville, and former Cranbury Mayor Wayne Wittman.

16th (Somerset-Middlesex-Mercer): Republican Assemblywoman Denise Coyle, whose hometown of Bernards Township was redistricted into the 21st, opts to move to stay with her district mates, Senator Christopher "Kip" Bateman and Assemblyman Peter Biondi, in a newly configured district that stretches all the way south to Princeton. The district is practically evenly divided in Democratic-Republican registration, but the relatively unknown Democratic slate of Hillsborough attorney Maureen Vella for Senate, and South Brunswick Councilman Joe Camarota and Marie Corfield of Flemington for Assembly shows that this race is still seen as an longshot by political insiders.

27th (Essex-Morris): Former Democratic Governor Richard Codey is running with Assemblymen John McKeon and Assemblywoman Mia Jasey in a newly configured district that now stretches from the West Essex suburbs into the heart of Republican Morris County. But Codey and his running mates are in no trouble: The district has a 45,000-25,000 Democratic edge, and Republicans spent all week trying to line up candidates willing to face those daunting odds. The final Republican slate features Essex Fells Councilman William Sullivan for Senate and Chatham Township Mayor Nicole Hagner and Lee Holtzman of Livingston for Assembly. "When the biggest name that emerges to face Dick Codey is an Essex Fells councilman, you know you’re asking a lot," Murray said.

30th (Ocean-Monmouth): Republicans avoided a nasty primary when Senator Sean Kean of Monmouth County decided to run for the Assembly instead of challenging Senator Robert Singer, whose Lakewood hometown makes up almost half the district. Victory for the GOP slate is a foregone conclusion.

35th (Passaic): With Senator John Girgenti opting to retire rather than move back to Paterson after his hometown of Hawthorne was shifted into the 35th District, Assemblywoman Nellie Pou is free to step up to become the second Hispanic woman elected to the Senate.

38th (Bergen): Next to the 14th District, this is probably the most competitive district in the state. Democratic Senator Bob Gordon, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner and Maywood Mayor Tim Eustace will face a tough campaign against Bergen County Freeholder Director John Driscoll, Hawthorne Mayor Richard Goldberg and attorney Fernando Alonzo of Oradell. Jeff Gardner, the Hawthorne Democrat who had planned to challenge Girgenti over his critical vote against the gay marriage law, tried for a Democratic Assembly nomination at the Bergen County convention, but lost to Wagner and Eustace, whom he then endorsed.

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