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Democrats Stand Fast in Senate, Lose Two Seats in Lower Chamber

“The current legislative map favors the Democrats,” Dworkin said. “In all of these races, Democratic incumbents” were trying to overcome the massive Christie victory.

Still, there was a valid question: Would the popular Republican governor, who would be atop the ticket, be able to pull other Republicans along on his coattails, especially since Republican legislative leaders had vowed to fight in districts not usually considered battlegrounds?

There was cause for concern: In 1985, when popular Gov. Thomas H. Kean won re-election with 70 percent of the vote, the Republicans gained a net 14 seats in the Assembly to take control of the lower house with a 50-30 majority. Democrats lost some unthinkable elections in Essex, Hudson, and Bergen counties. Senators were not up for re-election that year. Those gains were temporary, since the GOP lost eight seats in 1987, although it still held control of the Assembly. In 1989, when Democrat Jim Florio was elected governor, the party retook control of the lower house.

Hope for a similar Christie landslide this year helped fuel spending -- $48.6 million for the primary and general elections spent by candidates and their committees and millions more spent by so-called independent groups seeking to influence the races.

The greatest amount raised and spent through October 25 was in the 3rd District in South Jersey. Hardly considered a close contest in most elections, this is Sweeney's home. Two years ago he was re-elected with about 56 percent of the vote, but Sen. Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. had vowed to challenge Sweeney on his home turf. His opponent, Niki Trunk, was a former Harrison Township committeewoman and former employee of the state comptroller’s office. Trunk had raised $354,000 in her individual account and $157,000 with her GOP Assembly running mates. But the Democratic incumbents had far more. In total, $3.6 million was raised and $3.1 million spent by the 3rd District candidates, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Like the last legislative election, the 2nd District, which covers part of Atlantic County, and the 38th, straddling Bergen and Passaic counties, were also hotly contested. Despite all the money, talk, and political ads, neither contest was especially close in 2011, but that was without Christie’s name on the ballot.

This year, Sen. James Whelan,(D-2nd) had a well-known challenger in Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles. And Fernando Alonso, up against Sen. Robert Gordon (D-38th) had greater name recognition, having run -- and lost -- for Assembly last year. The Democratic ticket there also had an opening, with Connie Wagner’s resignation from the Assembly and Paramus Councilman Joseph Lagana replacing her.

The latest figures from ELEC placed the 38th as second-most expensive -- $3 million raised, $2.8 million spent. The 2nd came in fourth place, with $2.6 million raised and $2.2 million spent.

Whelan, whose seat was considered in play, cruised to victory, while the Assembly contests in this split district were nail-biters. Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown led the field, but his fellow incumbent John Amodeo, also a Republican, was only 379 votes ahead of Northfield Mayor Vincent Mazzeo, with Longport Mayor Nick Russo trailing all.

"The clerk's website shows me as the winner, but it's a close race," Whelan said.

Like Whelan, Gordon won by a relatively comfortable margin. The race for the two Assembly seats was very close, with just 300 votes separating the top vote-getter, Democrat Joseph Lagana, seeking his first term in the Assembly, and its lowest, incumbent Eustace. The close results make a recount likely.

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