With two high-profile statewide elections this year – for governor and U.S. Senate – contests for state legislative races have mostly gone unnoticed.
But the complexion of the New Jersey Senate and Assembly is going to be important to the next governor and the fate of his or her agenda for the state.
Gov. Chris Christie has enjoyed a mostly cordial relationship with a generally cooperative Legislature despite its being controlled by the opposite party. Still, with Christie able to sway his own party members to vote his way on important issues virtually all the time, a Republican Legislature would likely be much friendlier to him, should he be re-elected. Likewise, Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, would rather see her party keep its majorities because most Democrats share most of the vision she has laid out to date.
So the question is whether the Democrats will be able to maintain their majorities – 48 votes in the Assembly and 24 in the Senate – with a popular GOP governor at the top of the ticket. The answer is likely to hinge on a half-dozen districts – 1, 2 and 3 in South Jersey, 14 and 18 in Central Jersey and 38 in North Jersey -- expected to be competitive this fall, according to Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
“While Christie will have coattails, they probably won’t be long enough to swing more than a couple of seats into the Republican column,” Murray said. Like two years ago, he said, the 38th in Bergen County and the Senate seat in the 2nd in Atlantic should be among the closest races, in addition to the Assembly contests in the 3rd in the southwestern end of the state.
Daniel Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College, noted that New Jersey voters do not blindly follow party lines in general elections, nor even cast ballots in every available contest.
“It is not clear what type of turnout there will be after the Wednesday special election for United States Senate, whether Christie has any coattails, or how closely he will run with legislative candidates,” Douglas said. “It is possible Christie gets the big win he wants, but voters split their tickets and/or not vote in the same numbers as they do for him.”
He noted that incumbents have an advantage in low-interest legislative races and pointed to the 2011 elections, in which incumbent Sens. Robert Gordon in the 38th and James Whelan in the 2nd, both Democrats, were both considered vulnerable but each won by comfortable margins of more than 6 points. Yet Christie himself was not on the ballot and his presence atop the ballot could make a difference this year.
So these are expected to be expensive races. The three big Republican committees – state and Senate and Assembly leaders’ political action committees – had outraised their Democratic counterparts by almost $500,000 and had $800,000 more in the bank at the midpoint of the year, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. On the other hand, Democratic county committees had taken in more money and had more cash on hand than GOP county committees during the same period. But there are other “independent” committees amassing large war chests – ELEC’s executive director estimates it could total as much as $40 million -- to try to influence the elections.
And the candidates themselves have been raising money. In the 38th District, Democratic incumbent Sen. Robert Gordon transferred almost $200,000 not spent in his primary campaign to his general fund, while GOP opponent Fernando Alonso had about $20,000 left over. If history is any indication, those amounts will rise substantially, though. Two years ago, Gordon and his Assembly running mates raised roughly $3 million – although some of that included transfers from individual accounts to a joint account and vice versa – while their Republican opponents had about $1.5 million.
Those races expected to be most competitive include:
District 1 at the southern tip of the state, which has more registered Republicans than Democrats but has been solidly blue since 2005. Democratic Sen. Jeff Van Drew, among the more conservative Democrats in the Legislature, has been in office since 2002 and won re-election comfortably, along with Assemblyman Nelson Albano, in 2011. Their running mate, Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Matthew Milam, who squeaked back into office two years ago by 51 votes.
Whelan continues to be the sole Democrat representing the district that includes Atlantic City, serving in one of only two districts in the state with split representation. The former mayor of Atlantic City is facing Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles, who had roughly the same amount of money left over after the primary as Whelan did.
Senate Republican Leader Thomas Kean Jr., R-Union, vowed to fight Senate President Stephen Sweeney in his home district of the 3rd, which encompasses Salem County and parts of Cumberland and Gloucester. The GOP’s Assembly leader has been campaigning in the district and one of the Assembly candidates is a Salem County freeholder. While Sweeney may not be vulnerable, the Republicans could pick up an Assembly seat with help from Christie’s coattails, as Murray predicts the governor “will win the district by a big margin.”
Gordon’s 38th District in Bergen has become a perennial battleground and Alonso polled almost 19,000 votes when running unsuccessfully for the Assembly two years ago. One of the two Assembly seats is open as incumbent Connie Terranova Wagner decided not to seek re-election. About 30 percent of registered voters in the districts were Democrats in 2011, while 21 percent were Republican. What promises to make the race in this district especially competitive is the fierce competition between the parties at the county level in Bergen, which has both a split freeholder board and a split in other countywide elected officials, and the fact that the district became somewhat more Republican as a result of legislative reapportionment in 2011.
While the Democrats hold a registration advantage over the GOP in the 14th District that includes parts of Mercer and Middlesex counties, as recently as three years ago the district had split representation. Former Republican Sen. Peter Inverso, who left office in 2008, is trying to wrest his former seat away from Sen. Linda Greenstein, the Democrat who first won it in a special election in 2010.
Finally, the 18th District, in squarely “blue” Middlesex County – with more than 4 of every 10 voters in registered as a Democrat in 2011, compared with fewer than 2 in 10 registered as Republicans -- is interesting in part because Buono’s gubernatorial run has left her seat open and Assemblyman Peter Barnes’ decision to try to replace Buono leaves Barnes’ Assembly seat vacant. But Barnes’ opponent has a shot because he only joined the Republican Party earlier this year. David Stahl, a former Democrat, is also the mayor of East Brunswick, the second largest community in the 18th.
The legislative and gubernatorial elections are Nov. 5, the first Tuesday of November, as is traditional. The special U.S. Senate election, which features Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker, conservative Republican activist Steve Lonegan and six independent candidates, is not only not in November, but it is not even going to be held on a Tuesday, scheduled by Christie for Wednesday, Oct. 16.
Information about the candidates on the November ballot -- legislative and gubernatorial elections -- as well as those running in the October 16 special U.S. Senate election. There are 270 candidates in total and several columns of information about each so you will need to scroll across and down to see all the information available.