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New Jersey 2011: Post-Election Review

When it comes to off-year legislative elections in the Garden State, all politics are local.

In the game of Monday morning quarterbacking on the Wednesday after the election, New Jersey’s politically savvy of all stripes were pointing fingers, taking credit, and placing blame.

The map favored the Democrats.

Gov. Chris Christie didn’t do enough to help his party.

The Democrats (or Republicans) spent a ridiculous amount of money that did (or didn’t) buy them seats.

If only more people had voted.

What the off-year legislative election results -- the Democrats gained one seat in the Assembly -- really boil down to is the independence of New Jersey’s electorate and the truly local nature of these races.

“These are fairly personal, local races,” said Daniel J. Douglas, director of the Hughes Center for Public Policy of The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

He used Sen. Jim Whelan (D-2) as an example. Whelan won what had been billed as one of the two closest races in the Senate against one of the Republican Assemblymen in his district with a comfortable 54.5 percent of the vote.

“He was a champion lifeguard swimmer … He was fairly well-known, even before getting into the politics. He taught in the local schools for close to 40 years. Everybody, well almost everybody, likes him,” Douglas said. “He probably personally knew more than 10,000 of the people who voted for him.”

But the rest of Whelan’s ticket, and virtually every other Democrat in Atlantic County, crashed and burned, a fact Whelan said made his victory bittersweet and which Christie was quick to point out in answering reporters’ questions yesterday.

“We won everything else in Atlantic County,” said Christie, taking pleasure in pointing out Whelan had no coattails. “We won the county exec, we won the sheriff, we won the freeholders, and we won both assembly people.”

He’s not the only one unable to help his running mates. Republican Sen. Diane Allen cruised to re-election in Burlington County’s 7th District, yet her running mates got less than 48 percent of the votes cast. Voters returned Assemblyman Herb Conaway to Trenton, with fellow Democrat Troy Singleton.

“There don’t appear to be any coattails in the state,” said Douglas.

He included Christie in that statement, noting the governor’s approval ratings were around 60 percent and yet his ads or appearances did not help Vince Polistina in the 2nd, Jim Keenan and Christopher Halgas in the 7th or other Republicans anywhere else.

Derek Roseman, a spokesman for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, said that just two years ago, Christie won half the districts in the state and almost prevailed in several others.

“There’s no way the governor can claim this was anything but a loss, and a big loss at that,” he said.

Christie did, though, putting the blame squarely on the new district map, created by the Democrats and chosen last spring by the tie-breaking member of the New Jersey Apportionment Commission.

“The fact is that they won one seat last night that they really won in April,” said Christie. “They redistricted a Republican into a district with a 16-point Democratic registration advantage with the Senate president at the top of the ticket. So, no rage and shock they won that one.

“When you look at some of the other things that happened last night, things are great for our party,” the governor continued. “We now actually hold more county offices than the Democrats do across New Jersey.”

Republicans won control of two freeholder boards in South Jersey power boss George Norcross’ fiefdom.

All four Democratic seats on the Cumberland County Board of Freeholders were up for election, and while Democratic candidates won all three of the three-year seats, Republican Mary Gruccio won the one-year unexpired term that will give the GOP control for the next year, at least.

In Salem County, Republicans ended 10 years of Democratic rule when Dale Cross, a union electrical worker backed by organized labor, and Bob Vanderslice took two out of three seats to give the GOP a 4-3 majority.

But conservative political consultant Rick Shaftan said Christie has no one to blame for yesterday’s results but himself.

“They didn’t have a message,” he said of the GOP. “There was no reason to vote Republican.”

Shaftan questioned why Christie campaigned in Mississippi last Thursday but did not hold any major events in New Jersey to rally the faithful. On the other hand, the last-minute ads that featured Christie talking into the camera in support of Polistina and Republican contender John Driscoll of North Jersey’s 38th District, rather than appearing with the candidates, had the opposite effect.

“All those ads did was give the people who hate him [Christie], really hate the guy, a reason to go vote,” Shaftan said. “Those people were just pumped up to get out and vote.”

But polls indicate that observation may be too harsh.

Last August, the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll found that just over half of voters wanted the Democrats to keep control of the Legislature, compared with 38 percent who favored GOP control.

“When thinking about the legislature vs. the governor, voters prefer that Democrats remain able to balance Gov. Christie,” David Redlawsk, poll director and a professor of political science at Rutgers University, said on releasing the data.

The choices of voters in New Jersey are often hard to explain with generalizations.

Not only are there two districts where they split the ticket, but there are five others where they don’t seem to vote with their party at all.

In four districts, the 11th, 12th, 13th and 16th, the number of registered Democrats outnumber Republicans but the GOP continues to hold the seats. Meanwhile, in the 1st District, the opposite is true, with Democrats in power despite a Republican registration advantage.

The key not only to these, but to many other districts, are the ranks of the state’s unaffiliated voters. Numbering more than 2.4 million, the unaffiliateds make up more than 46 percent of all registered voters.

That’s one reason why both parties take their last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts seriously.

This year’s GOTV seemed to favor the Democrats -- perhaps, in part, because Election Day was warm and sunny, weather that encourages a walk to the polls in more urbanized, typically blue-leaning areas.

Pre-election polls showed a virtual dead heat in both the 2nd and 38th Districts. Whelan and Sen. Robert Gordon (D-38) both won by larger-than-expected margins after their campaigns did a better job of pulling out their vote.

“Money matters, but nothing beats boots on the ground,” said Charles Wowkanech, President of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, adding the labor movement had 11,000 volunteers knocking on 140,000 doors on Tuesday.

“In a race in which you know there’s going to be a small turnout, it’s the ground game that matters -- it’s the culmination of weeks of work making phone calls, knocking on doors, and turning out your vote.”

Gordon said “we couldn’t have won” without the small army of police, firefighters, teachers, building trades workers and environmental activists that made up his field operation. The strong effort not only helped Gordon and his Assembly running mates, but also enabled Democrats to elect two Bergen freeholders, the county clerk, the county surrogate and numerous mayors and council members, ending a two-year Republican tide in the county, said Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36).

Large-scale GOTV operations were also critical in helping the Democrats hold both Assembly seats in the 7th, as well as the larger-than-expected victory margins of Sen. Linda Greenstein and her running mates in the 14th District in Mercer and Middlesex counties, said state Democratic chairman and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19).

Labor’s role was a question mark after Democratic leaders convinced enough members from South Jersey and Essex County to join with Christie’s Republicans to pass a bill that not only increased pension and health benefit contributions for public employees, but also stripped them of the right to bargain over healthcare issues for four years.

While some unions vowed retribution last summer, “the public and private sector unions really came together in the final weeks because they understood the need to maintain a Democratic majority in order to prevent Gov. Christie from enacting an anti-union, anti-working family agenda,” Wowkanech said.

That didn’t mean the controversy over the bill didn’t have an impact, as the votes in the 1st District made clear. Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D-1), a union shop steward who was the only South Jersey Democrat to defy Norcross by voting against the pension and health benefits bill, outpolled Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-1), usually the ticket’s leading vote-getter. Albano won his Assembly seat comfortably, piling up a 3,543-vote margin over his closest opponent, while his running mate, Assemblyman Matt Milam (D-1) squeaked by with just 974 votes in the closest election in the state.

A strong GOTV effort also was important because the political landscape has essentially leveled the fundraising picture.

This year’s election marked the first state races since 1997 in which Democrats did not enjoy a major funding advantage because of massive contributions to county organizations and key races from multi-millionaire Jon Corzine, who began bankrolling the party in 1999 in anticipation of his run for the U.S. Senate the following year.

When the final campaign spending statistics are released later this month, they should show that Corzine’s absence, and Christie’s fund-raising prowess both nationally and within the state, put the GOP on an even playing field with Democrats.

Another reason GOTV is so important is because so few people actually get out and vote.

With statistics from all but two counties in, Tuesday’s turnout ranged from a low of 18.4 percent in Essex County to a high of 37.8 percent in Cape May County. On average, a little more than a quarter of voters cast ballot.

Legislators’ duties get lost in the minds of voters. Unless there is a pressing local issue, people tend to ignore political races below the level of governor or U.S. Senate. Douglas said the authors of New Jersey’s current constitution consciously decided to hold legislative elections in off years so that they would not get caught up in battles over federal issues. Low turnout is the consequence.

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said the state could take steps to try to boost turnout. For instance, declare a holiday every election day to encourage people to go to the polls. The most radical idea: Adopt Australia’s system of mandatory voting, with a small penalty assessed on those who don’t.

“Absolutely, there are ways to do it,” Dworkin said.

Larger numbers of voters of all political persuasions could give challengers a greater chance. Today, independent candidates like Rose Ann Salanitri have little hope of beating better-known and better-financed candidates with a major party backing them.

The incumbents in the safely Republican 24th raised more than $300,000 as of late October, according to reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, and ran television ads and sent out several mailers. Salanitri, who sought an Assembly seat in this northwestern-most district that includes all of her home county of Sussex, spent less than $1,000.

“There’s no way someone like myself can compete with that,” said Salanitri, running in her first election. “That’s the biggest disappointment of all. How can the average citizen compete with this?”

Still, Salanitri had a secret weapon that helped make her the most successful independent on Tuesday’s ballot – her 3,153 votes even outpolled five traditional Republican candidates in the Democrat-dominated 29th, 31st and 32nd districts. While she ran on the Constitution Party banner, Salanitri founded the Sussex County Tea Party Patriots and is president of the New Jersey Tea Party Caucus.

The Tea Party does not endorse candidates, but her leadership roles in it, as well as the effort to recall U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), helped her fare better than most other Tea Party members.

“I will be putting more time and energy into [the party],” Salanitri said. “Running has taught me quite a bit.”

The only Tea Party candidate to outpoll Salanitri was William Eames, running as the regular Republican Senate candidate in the 27th District against incumbent Sen. and former Gov. Richard Codey.

Eames got 38 percent of the votes cast in the district that includes portions of Democratic Essex and Republican Morris counties and about 2,200 fewer votes than the top-performing GOP Assembly candidate, Chatham Township Mayor Nicole Hagner.

On the one hand, Codey is well-known and popular, and went out of his way to campaign door to door and line up support from 19 GOP current and former local elected officials in the district. But political observers say he also did that so much better than Eames because the district’s Republicans are more moderate and some shied away supporting the Tea Party cause.

The showing by Codey, who has quarreled publicly with Norcross and Essex County Democratic party leaders, was something of a surprise given his new district was more Republican. The map that took away Essex County towns that had given Codey a 4,600-vote majority in 2007 replaced them with six Republican-leaning towns in Morris County that had given their GOP senators a 5,600-vote margin that same year.

Hagner and running mate Lee Holtzman had distanced themselves from Eames and run a largely independent campaign. Still, they lost to incumbent Assembly members John McKeon and Mila Jasey, who polled 56 percent and 54 percent of the vote, respectively.

Codey’s ticket may even have done the nearly impossible -- help Democrats get elected in heavily Republican Morris County. Democrats are celebrating a clean sweep of three municipal seats in East Hanover and the upset win by Democrat Bob Conley over heavily favored Republican incumbent Mayor Mary-Anna Holden of Madison. Both municipalities are new additions to the 27th District.

Mark J. Magyar and Beth Fitzgerald contributed to this story.

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