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Election Preview: Tracking the Contests that Matter Most

Mark J. Magyar | November 7, 2011

Campaign spending records are being set in the two hottest races. The governor is starring in TV ads -- cable and network -- in key districts. So much for a 'status quo' election.

If you listen to Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic legislative leaders, you would almost assume it didn't matter if you went to the polls to vote tomorrow. Both sides are doing their best to play down expectations of gains by either party in the state legislative elections, and both insist that the election is not a referendum on Christie's policies. But that's just political spin.

Campaign spending records are being smashed in the two hottest races. Christie is starring in TV ads in key districts, urging voters to give him Republican legislators who will vote for his policies. And the results of both state legislative and county freeholder races will have implications for the 2013 gubernatorial election.

Democrats are defending a 24-16 majority in the state Senate and 47-33 edge in the Assembly. Because of the Legislative Redistricting Commission's decision to choose a status quo map proposed by Democrats that favors incumbents, no one is predicting that Democrats could lose control of either house.

But the two most vulnerable Senate seats are held by Democrats. And it is the Democratic Party that is trying to hold onto its freeholder majorities in Cumberland, Gloucester, Passaic, and Salem counties and avoid being wiped out altogether on the GOP-controlled Bergen and Monmouth freeholder boards.

Although Christie might disagree, a "status quo" election would actually be a relief to most Democratic leaders. Christie has a united GOP; the state's Democratic Party is sharply divided. South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) marshaled the necessary votes in June to help Christie pass his controversial pension and healthcare legislation that alienated the public employee unions. And over the past month, Democratic party bosses have seemed to spend more time worrying about whether Oliver would get a second term as speaker than shoring up vulnerable incumbents.

The Battle for Bergen

No Democrats are more vulnerable in tomorrow's election than the 38th District slate of Senator Robert Gordon, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, and Assemblyman Timothy Eustace. The Democrats' winning redistricting map bolstered Democratic incumbents in most districts, but the realignment actually made the 38th more competitive.

Republicans put together a formidable slate headed by GOP Freeholder Director John Driscoll, who leads the 5-2 freeholder majority in the state's most populous county -- a swing county that is a bellwether in gubernatorial elections.

The two campaigns have already raised more than $3.6 million in the 38th, -- a record for a single legislative district, and the final figure is expected to top $4 million -- not including campaign spending by outside political action committees. Not surprisingly, the 38th is one of three districts where Christie's TV ad is running on commercial television.

The race in the 38th heated up last week when Gordon's team began running a TV commercial accusing Driscoll and Bergen's Republican administration of planning to pump $400 million in county funds into the American Dream supermall that is to replace the half-finished Xanadu development at the Meadowlands sports complex in East Rutherford.

Gordon's charge not only brought popular Republican Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan into the race to defend Driscoll, but also infuriated Laborers Union President Ray Pocino and other building trades union leaders who were pleased that Christie, Sweeney and other state leaders had backed a refinancing plan that would create 9,000 construction -- and 15,000 permanent – jobs at the southern Bergen County site.

Gordon's campaign said Friday it would continue running the ad despite union opposition, believing that the charge would hurt Driscoll and the GOP. It's a high-stakes gambit, particularly with Bergen County Democrats trying to hold onto the last two seats they control on the freeholder board.

Second Most Competitive

As expected, the second most competitive district in the state is the 2nd District, where Senator Jim Whelan (D-2), a former Atlantic City mayor, is running against Assemblyman Vincent Polistina (R-2) in a district that was made slightly more Democratic-leaning during the redistricting process.

The Whelan camp was worried when current Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford, a Democrat and a Whelan rival, contemplated running as an independent for the Senate, which would have split the Democratic vote. Langford ultimately decided not to run, although it is unclear how hard he will work to turn out the vote for Whelan.

Whelan also was one of the South Jersey Democrats who voted for the controversial pension and healthcare bill, and a logical target for retaliation by teachers and other public employee unions – although, if any such effort is underway, it has been under the political radar so far. The Whelan race typifies the difficult choice faced by the public employee unions: Is it really in their best interest to give Christie another Republican vote in the Senate to punish Whelan -- particularly when Polistina and every other Republican in the legislature voted for the same pension and healthcare bill?

The Whelan-Polistina race has been characterized a series of smear ads on both sides running nonstop on network and cable TV, since this race – like the campaign in Bergen's 38th – is also expected to easily break the $3.3 million spending record set in 2007 when Whelan defeated Republican Sonny McCullough for the Senate.

The battle for the two 2nd District Assembly seats now held by Republicans is also fierce, with Assemblyman John Amodeo (R-2) and attorney Chris Brown facing Democratic Freeholder Alisa Cooper and attorney Damon Tyner.

Three Times a Charm

The 14th District was supposed to be the third very competitive Senate race for the Democrats, but this is also the third time in three years that popular Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-14) will be running for election in the public employee-dominated Mercer and Middlesex County district. She was the top votegetter in her Assembly race in 2009, won a Senate special election handily last year when Republican Senator Bill Baroni went to the Port Authority as deputy executive director, and is running again for the Senate this year.

The 14th is slightly less Democratic-leaning after redistricting, and Republicans ran Richard Kanka, whose daughter's murder by a released sex offender led to the creation of Megan's Law. But that was more than 15 years ago, and Kanka has run an uneven race.

Greenstein's running mates, Assemblymen Wayne DeAngelo and Dan Benson, both residents of Hamilton Township, the populous Trenton suburb that dominates the district, are both strong candidates, and Republican chances were hurt when David Fried, the GOP mayor of Robbinsville, dropped out of the race.

Christie's ad is not running on TV or cable in the 14th District, but that may be based as much on the understanding this his unpopularity with state workers and other public employees could hurt Kanka more than help him. Still, most political observers have moved this race from "competitive" to "leaning Democrat."

Split Ticket in Burlington

The 7th District is a mirror image of Atlantic County's 2nd District, but with Republican Diane Allen holding the Senate seat in this Burlington County district, while Democratic Assemblymen Herbert Conaway and Jack Conners held the two seats in the lower house.

Unlike Whelan, who faces a tough reelection fight, Allen, a popular former TV newscaster, is expected to cruise to reelection. Conners retired after his hometown was redistricted out of the 7th, but Conaway and Troy Singleton, a top aide to Assembly Speaker Oliver who replaced Conners on the ticket, face a tough battle against Republicans Chris Halgas and James Keenan. Conaway ran first and Singleton fourth in a recent poll, but polling is notoriously unreliable in a low turnout race, which tomorrow's election is expected to be.

With so few competitive races, Christie chose the 7th – along with the 38th and the 2nd – to go up on network TV, and Democratic spending alone will clearly top $1 million in the race.

Test Run for Codey?

Former Governor and Senate President Richard Codey (D-27) was rumored to be a target of the Democratic bosses in the redistricting process, so it was not surprising when he ended up with a more difficult district. Six Republican-controlled Morris County towns were added to what is still a solidly Democratic-leaning district dominated by the Essex County suburbs of South Orange and West Orange.

Codey took it as a challenge, and he and his running mates, Assemblyman John McKeon and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, have campaigned hard in Morris County.

Codey caught a break when conservative Tea Party candidate William Eames pulled an upset in the Republican primary. Eames and his running mates, Chatham Township Councilwoman Nicole Hagner and Livingston lawyer Lee Holtzman, have been chagrined by the parade of 19 current and former Republican mayors, council members and municipal officials from Morris County rushing to endorse Codey based on his record of bringing the football Jets and other companies to their towns during his tenure as governor.

Christie decided to run his ad on cable in the 27th District, but it's unclear whether he thinks there's an opportunity to steal an Assembly seat in the district or is just trying to hold down the winning plurality of Codey, who would be one of the Democratic frontrunners for the 2013 gubernatorial nomination if he chose to run.

Codey clearly is not worried. He started the campaign with a million-dollar warchest, and he recently sent an $85,000 check to the 38th District to help Gordon and his running mates in their highly competitive race. Obviously, he felt he had more money than he needed for his slate to pile up a comfortable win in the newly configured 27th District.

The Forgotten Incumbent

Assemblyman Dominic DeCicco, a Republican who won an Assembly seat in the 4th District two years ago, was set to challenge Senator Fred Madden (D-4) this year. But DeCicco was the biggest loser in redistricting when he was shifted into Senate President Sweeney's 3rd District.

Democrats are now set to reclaim the 4th District seat that DeCicco held, and DeCicco is considered a longshot to retain his seat on Sweeney's home turf -- although a recent poll showed him just three points down in his Assembly race.

Sweeney, a former Gloucester County freeholder director, is also focused on making sure that Democrats sweep their races and retain control of the Gloucester freeholder board. It would be an embarrassment for Sweeney if they fail to do so.

Mark J. Magyar teaches labor studies at Rutgers University and is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Spotlight. He covered the 2003 Rutgers-UMDNJ-NJIT merger proposal for New Jersey Reporter magazine. A veteran Statehouse reporter, he served as deputy policy chief in the Whitman administration and as director of policy for the independent Daggett for Governor campaign in 2009.

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