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A Good Night for the Democrats

The Dems pick up one seat in the Assembly, while the Republicans lose all key races, despite Christie's campaigning.

Democratic Sen. Robert Gordon, District 38

Despite tough, nasty contests in a few races and more than $25 million spent, very little changed in the New Jersey legislature on election night. The Democrats gained one seat in the Assembly and still control both legislative houses. The Republicans lost all the key races that they targeted and where Gov. Chris Christie campaigned.

In the most hotly contested races, Democratic incumbents James Whelan in South Jersey’s 2nd District and Robert Gordon in North Jersey’s 38th won by relatively comfortable margins.

And Richard Codey, the incumbent Democratic senator in the 27th, prevailed. Some had predicted he would run into trouble given that redistricting had shifted several Morris County municipalities into his home territory.

The Democrats also picked up one Assembly seat in the 4th.

Two ballot questions, one statewide and one local, also won.

Credit: John Munson/The Star-Ledger
Democratic Sen. Richard Codey, District 27

About two-thirds of New Jersey voters approved the one question on the ballot: to allow sports betting in New Jersey should Congress give other states besides the four already approved the OK at a future date. And voters in Princeton and Princeton Township also approved a momentous merger question. It would be the first time in more than half a century that two New Jersey communities of any real size agreed to merge.

Democrats gloated over the gain of one Assembly seat.

“Chris Christie is all coat and no tail,” proclaimed John Wisniewski, chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee and an Assemblyman, to cheering crowds at the Bergen County Democrats’ celebration. "Chris Christie kept saying if he didn't lose any seats, this would be an historic election for Republicans. Well, there's one more Democrat going to Trenton."

Christie tried to set low expectations for the Republicans’ chances, saying governors almost always lose seats in midterm elections.

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said the circumstances this year were vastly different.

“It is a very disappointing night for Gov. Christie,” said Dworkin, adding the GOP should have gained as many as six seats. “He outraised the Democrats by millions of dollars. He put his high approval rating and his personal reputation on the line by going on network television in New York and Philadelphia. And in the end, he wasn't able to even keep the status quo in the legislature, much less win the several seats that Republicans might have expected given his efforts.”

When the state legislative seats top the ballot, turnout in New Jersey’s midterm elections is notoriously low. In 2007, the last time the Senate led the ballot, 32 percent of voters turned out statewide. Most counties reported voter turnout hovering between 20 and 30 percent -- Cape May had a high of 38 percent -- despite a beautifully warm, sunny day.

Although most voters don’t see these races as important, the stakes were high.

With a 24-16 majority in the Senate, the Democrats went into the night only three seats shy of a veto-proof majority in the upper house. They needed those 27 votes back in July when they sought to override Gov. Chris Christie’s line-item vetoes of more than a dozen spending items cut from the state budget. They didn’t think that would happen and, at least, defended all their seats.

However, if the Republicans could pick up five seats, a scenario most saw as unlikely, they would give Christie at least one house to help advance his agenda.

While the Democrats’ 47-33 advantage in the Assembly would be difficult to overcome, a GOP gain of any seats would chip away at the Democrats’ power there. Instead, the Democrats picked up a seat in the 4th District, as Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco was redistricted into the 3rd and lost his bid for a seat there.

Christie, leader of his party, is not expected to comment on the results until at least sometime on Wednesday.

The governor did make an effort for GOP candidates in the hottest races, both by raising money and by starring in TV ads in the New York and Philadelphia markets.

While the most recent analysis by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission showed campaign fundraising down compared with four years ago, the amount of money tossed around in this off-year was huge. The major parties had raised more than $36.3 million and spent $24.7 million through October 25. And staggering amounts were spent in some of the key races: $3.2 million in South Jersey’s 2nd District and $3.4 million in North Jersey’s 38th topped the list.

The biggest disadvantage for the GOP was the new legislative district map, which was the one Democrats proposed last spring to the New Jersey Apportionment Commission. Still, political observers were predicting in the weeks leading up to election day that the Democrats were on the ropes in several critical races: the 7th in Burlington and 14th in Mercer, in addition to the 2nd in Atlantic and 38th in Bergen counties.

While the GOP was generally united, Democrats had to deal with several last-minute issues, including a North-South fight over Assembly leadership positions, union opposition to a Democratic ad in the 38th and a Republican effort to tighten the race and possibly steal a seat in the 27th -- in preparation for a potential gubernatorial fight against Sen. Richard Codey, a former governor himself, in two years.

Still, none of these appeared to make a difference.

From the day the redistricting map was unveiled, both parties knew that the 38th District would most likely be the biggest battleground race. Republican Freeholder Director John Driscoll headed the GOP slate against incumbent Senator Robert Gordon, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, and their Assembly running mate Timothy Eustace. Christie appeared in ads on network television in the district as part of a race that will easily top the $3.3 million campaign spending record set in 2007 in the 2nd District.

Still, with almost all of the votes counted, Gordon polled about 53 percent of the votes.

“There’s not much of a party in Drumthwacket tonight,” said Gordon in his victory speech, referring to the governor’s mansion and Christie’s pitches for Driscoll’s team. "This was a tremendous victory … For the past six months, the Republicans have attacked us relentlessly.”

Gordon, who did not vote for last June’s public worker pension and health benefit cuts and as a result had union backing in the election, referred to the bill.

“As my friends in labor know, it’s a win for everyone who believes in the sanctity of collective bargaining," said Gordon, conceding this was his “toughest election.” He was referring to his vote against the pension and healthcare bill that stripped public employees of the right to bargain over healthcare for the next four years.

In conceding at 9:49, Driscoll was brief and matter-of-fact: “It happens. We had a great ride.”

Gordon said he won his race on his field operation and get-out-the-vote effort.

"We couldn't have done it without them: Police, firefighters, teachers, environmental groups, the construction trades, public employees -- we had the middle class. We could not have won without them," Gordon said.

He also said the leaders of both houses pledged and delivered their support.

Instead of hurting him, Gordon said the questions he raised about the Bergen County Republicans considering spending $400 million in public financing to resuscitate the Xanadu project, now called American Dream, in the Meadowlands "resonated with voters, even in union households." He said he could work with the building trades unions to find a solution to restart construction without upfront tax dollars.

In the 2nd District, Republican Assemblyman Vincent Polistina was magnanimous in defeat for the Senate seat held by James Whelan. A Democrat who joined his party's leadership in supporting Christie's pension and benefits cuts for state workers, Whelan polled 54 percent of the vote in cruising past Polistina.

“Of course, you’re a little disappointed with the outcome,” said Polistina, who gave up his Assembly seat to mount the challenge. “We’ll see where we go from here. Nobody feel bad for me, I made my own decisions, no one made me do it.”

Still the 2nd remains a split district, as Whelan’s coattails were not long enough to bring his running mates into office. Republican Assemblyman John Amodeo and Chris Brown, who ran with him, prevailed in the lower house.

“This is a little bittersweet for me,” said Whelan, former Atlantic City mayor, in his acceptance speech.

"I've had a good partnership with Vince," said Amodeo, who credited his own working-class background for preparing him to represent "all the people," not just Republicans.

Whelan's long-time Democratic sparring partner, city Mayor Lorenzo Langford, flirted with an independent candidacy and even after he withdrew, he said he was voting for the Republican.

Also thought to hurt Whelan was his decision to reach across the aisle at the behest of state Sen. President Stephen Sweeney to support the public worker pension and benefit cuts. District Republicans also supported Christie's tactic, but they did not need to rely on labor voters.

Whelan had the satisfaction of dismissing the polls and Langford's impact.

He said that while pundits "kept calling it a toss-up, calling it close, but I always felt reasonably confident," he said. "My sense going in was that Mayor Langford wasn't going to be much of a factor.”

Still, the resort area, and particularly the city, was struggling even before the bursting housing bubble and its high-risk securities sparked a recession.

Casinos initially injected a shot of adrenalin into the local economy, but the industry has struggled nationally, even as gambling outlets have sprung up like mushrooms.

During the campaign, Whelan hammered at the need for Atlantic City casinos to repackage themselves, and for the city to reposition itself as a destination with attractions for families and other non-gambling tourists. Polistina cited the area's continuing great lure, the Atlantic Ocean, but he also suggested the city is unsafe, and needs to solve that problem before launching new tourism ventures.

In the end, Whelan said, his record of working with labor on a variety of issues, and familiarity with voters overrode outside factors.

"It wasn't about Christie, it wasn't about Obama," he said.

Another split district, the 7th in Burlington also had been hotly contested. While Republican Sen. Diane Allen was not expected to have any trouble, Democrats Herb Conaway, an Assemblyman, and his running mate Troy Singleton were running neck-and-neck against Christopher Halgas and James Kennan. Allen’s popularity was expected to help her running mates, but the Democrats launched an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort.

It was close – about 1,400 votes separated Singleton in second and Halgas in third -- but the Democrats prevailed.

Early on, Republicans were expected to launch a strong challenge in the 14th in Mercer and Middlesex counties. But more recently, political observers said Democratic incumbent Sen. Linda Greenstein would not have too much trouble beating Richard Kanka, who helped get Megan’s Law enacted. Assemblymen Daniel Benson and Wayne DeAngelo, Democrats, also were expected to beat Republicans Sheree McGowan and Wayne Wittman, as well as Steven Welzer, an independent.

Greenstein was victorious with 54 percent of the vote.

While the outcome of most of the races was a given, there were still some interesting – occasionally even entertaining – moments elsewhere in the state. For instance, the GOP pumped a lot of money into the 27th District, reportedly to try to hurt former Gov. and current Sen. Richard Codey, the Democrat, in preparation for a potential gubernatorial run in two years. Redistricting made the 27th more competitive with the inclusion of several Morris County municipalities, but Democrats still held a 21,000-vote advantage over the GOP.

Not to be deterred, Codey and his running mates Assembly members John McKeon and Mila Jasey ran ads early on. As of Oct. 25, Codey had the most cash on hand of any New Jersey candidate, more than $860,000.

Still, Codey’s GOP opponent was William Eames, a Tea Party candidate considered too extreme by some Republicans. The ticket’s Assembly candidates, Chatham Township Mayor Nicole Hagner and Livingston lawyer Lee Holtzman, were expected to finish closer to the Democrats.

In the end, there was no contest. Codey won by 9,000 votes and the Assembly candidates by 4,000.

"Being in a new district was a challenge for all of us,” Jasey said. “Over the next two years we are going to work very hard so these numbers are doubled.”

DiCicco, redistricted into South Jersey’s 3rd, the home of Sweeney, was reported to be running close in this Democratic dominant district, but in the end finished last of the four Assembly candidates.

The campaign in the 1st District at the southern tip of the state was almost as nasty as those in the targeted districts. But despite having a 7,000 voter registration margin, the Republican challengers failed to unseat Democratic Sen. Jeff Van Drew and Assemblymen Nelson Albano and Matthew Milam. One of the more entertaining races was in the 8th District in South Jersey. Republicans successfully fought to get Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis off the Senate ballot there, but they did not try to push Robert Edward Forchion Jr., aka NJWeedman, from the Assembly ballot even though he has not lived in New Jersey for two years. Forchion’s one issue: to legalize marijuana. He polled 3 percent of the vote.

Perhaps the most bizarre news came out of the 6th District, where GOP Senate hopeful Phil Mitsch ran into trouble over sex tip tweets. Some of the tweets by the former real estate agent included such advice as a woman should be a “whore in the bedroom” became public, drawing outrage and losing him the backing of the Camden County Republican chairman.

Passage of the one statewide ballot question was not surprising, given the measure had no opposition and had the backing of Christie and the Atlantic City casinos and the state’s racetracks, where betting could occur.

But the consolidation vote by the Princetons was surprising, since in the past the borough had always voted merging down. Some 61 percent of borough voters approved, while 85 percent of those in the township voted yes. Regionalization is seen by many as one of the major ways to reduce property taxes. This will be the first significant municipal consolidation in NJ since the 1950's.

Colleen O'Dea, Mark J. Magyar & Joe Tyrrell contributed to this story.

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