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NJ Candidates, Political PACs Break the Bank, Breaking Records for Spending

More than $75M fuels campaigns for state Legislature and governor, two ballot questions

So far, the 264 candidates seeking 120 seats in the New Jersey Legislature have raised $27.7 million toward next month’s election, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

But that’s only a small sample of the money being spent to win Senate and Assembly seats that come with a part-time salary of $49,000, not to mention the governor’s seat:

  • The six major leadership committees (Senate and Assembly leaders and statewide parties) for both the Democrats and Republicans have raised a combined $7.2 million.

  • Eight gubernatorial candidates have taken in almost $15.1 million, $12.9 million of that by Gov. Chris Christie alone.

  • So-called independent committees, at least some of which do not have to file any accounting of their fundraising activities, have spent an estimated $22.4 million to advocate for or against candidates, to take a stand on the two ballot questions or to get involved in statewide issues, which often indirectly supports or undermines candidates.

While there is some double-counting – for instance, some money raised by the party committees goes to candidates and individual candidates may transfer money to joint committees with their running mates – the total effect is more than $75 million in election-related fundraising and spending.

And these figures do not include money raised by county party committees.

“The stakes are huge this year,” said Jeff Brindle, ELEC executive director, noting that control of the legislative and executive branches is on the line. He noted that most of the $15.7 million money spent by legislative candidates through Oct. 7 has been in 10 districts targeted by one or both major parties. “The heavy spending we see already in these battleground districts makes that clear.”

So far, the race in the 14th District, which includes parts of Mercer and Middlesex counties, has been costliest, with $1.8 million spent. The Democratic incumbents, Sen. Linda Greenstein and Assemblymen Daniel Benson and Wayne DeAngelo, have outspent GOP rivals former Sen. Peter Inverso, Steven Cook and Raymond Haas by a 4-to-1 margin. Three independents have not yet filed any campaign-finances forms.

But the 3rd District is the richest, with Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly members John Burzichelli and Celeste Riley having raised $2.6 million of the nearly $2.88 million total.

Those figures do not include independent spending by groups, many of which do not have to disclose any information about their fundraising and spending practices because state law does not cover them. Using the forms that some have filed with state or federal authorities, news reports and press releases, ELEC estimates that 14 groups have spent almost $20.8 million on the legislative and gubernatorial elections and another $1.6 million on the proposed constitutional amendments – one would increase the minimum wage and the other would allow money from games of chance to fund veterans’ organizations.

For instance, the Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security, which supports Democratic candidates, has reported spending money in both the 3rd and 14th districts, as well as four other legislative districts where races are expected to be close next month – the 1st, 2nd, 7th and 38th – and on the ballot questions. That group, which won the right to not be bound by state contribution limits, has so far spent almost $2.6 million.

The largest spender is the Committee for Our Children’s Future, which is registered as a 501c4 “social welfare” organization that can raise and spend money without accountability. ELEC estimates the pro-Christie group, which has a Bernardsville address and whose contact person has worked for national GOP campaigns, has spent $7.8 million on the governor’s race, including several high-profile ads that have run on major New York and Philadelphia television stations.

“Even with the election still weeks away, independent spending in state campaigns already has hit an all-time high of $21 million not including ballot questions,’’ Brindle said. “That compares to the previous high of $14.1 million spent in 2009 mostly on the gubernatorial election.”

To provide some public accountability for independent spending, ELEC has recommended that the Legislature require all independent groups to fully disclose their campaign-finance activities.

Brindle predicted that, including the large amount of independent dollars involved this year, spending in “one or more legislative districts is likely to top the all-time record of $6.1 million set in 2003” in the 4th. Fundraising and spending totals are slightly higher than they were at this time two years ago, which was the last time all seats in both houses were on the ballot.

Democrats have outraised and outspent Republicans by more than 2-to-1 and, with $7.8 million in the bank, had almost twice as much cash on hand as of Oct. 7. Independent candidates trailed far behind, having raised less than $70,000.

However, the major parties’ financial spending habits are reversed at the state and gubernatorial levels. The Republican state committee and Senate and Assembly leaders’ PACs have raised about $700,000 more and spent $1 million more than the Democrats in the first three quarters of the year. The Democrats, though, had a slightly higher net worth – cash on hand adjusted for debt -- $1.46 million, compared to $1.43 million for the GOP.

At the top of the ticket, there is no comparison. Christie has raised $12.9 million, including the maximum $8.2 million in public financing, and spent $4.9 million, leaving him flush, with more than $8 million for the campaign home stretch. Democratic Sen. Barbara Buono, his challenger, had less than one-sixth as much cash on hand -- $1.2 million – having raised $2.1 million, including $1.3 million in public financing, and has spent a little less than $1 million.

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