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GOP Assembly Leader Wants to Debate Democratic Counterparts

But one strategist for rivals dismisses challenge as a gimmick, while pollster says it could backfire on Republicans at the polls

Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union).

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick thinks there’s an opportunity this year for Republicans to end a Democratic stranglehold on the Legislature’s lower house that’s lasted for more than a decade.

But Democrats remain confident as well, seeing little reason to believe the party of an unpopular incumbent governor will pick up seats in an off-year election.

And there’s also the state’s political map looming in the background. The boundaries of the state’s legislative districts has been put together in a way that helps the incumbents in both parties and leads to little turnover.

This year, all 80 seats in the Assembly are up for election, and for the first time since 1999 there are no statewide elections or Senate contests, leaving the Assembly candidates to lead the ballots in all 40 legislative districts.

Bramnick (R-Union) told NJ Spotlight in an interview that he wants to put the Democrats’ longtime incumbency under the microscope this year and ask voters what they’ve received in return for more than a decade of loyalty.

“You have to let them know who’s been in charge since 2002,” Bramnick said.

Still, even with Democrats dominating the Assembly and Senate, their power has been checked by Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican ally of Bramnick’s who took office in early 2010. His party would need to pick up nine seats to win back the majority in the Assembly.

To draw out the differences between the two parties, Bramnick has proposed a series of monthly policy debates with Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) or other Democratic leaders. He offered up issues like the public-employee pension system and school funding as topics that they could delve into.

“They will not fix this state,” Bramnick said of the Democratic leadership. “They will not take on the difficult issues.”

“What I’m concerned with is solving problems,” he said. So far, however, the Democrats haven’t taken the bait, and they have little reason to.

Because of the way the state’s legislative districts have been drawn up, only a handful of districts are actually battlegrounds, said Patrick Murray, the director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute. Though several contests may end up being relatively competitive this year, there’s a good chance only two split districts deep in South Jersey – the 1st and 2nd districts – will turn out to be true tight races.

The electoral map was redrawn last in 2011, with a tiebreaking member of the Legislative Redistricting Commission choosing a design proposed by Democrats. That dealt a big blow to Gov. Chris Christie and the state GOP, since it remains in place for the entire decade.

The boost that the current map provides Democrats was just demonstrated in 2013, when Christie, then a popular incumbent, convincingly won reelection against Democrat Barbara Buono at the top of the ticket. Yet Democrats still came away with the same Senate and Assembly majorities that they held going into the election, even though all 120 legislative seats were also on the ballot that year.

Murray suggested that whatever amount of money Bramnick is considering investing in winning GOP control of the Assembly this year, spending it on Mega Millions lottery tickets would “probably be a wiser investment.” “The map is the map,” Murray said.

The last time the Assembly races were at the top of the ballot in New Jersey, voter turnout ended up being just 31 percent, according to records according to the state Department of State.

And last week’s party primary elections drew only about 9 percent of the state’s overall registered Democrats and Republicans.

Michael Muller, a veteran Assembly Democratic campaign strategist, said voters who participate in low-turnout elections like this year’s tend to pay close attention to the issues and the candidates. They read newspaper editorials and are not often swayed by misleading television commercials, he added.

“It’s local issues and candidates that they can relate to” that carry the day, Muller said. Republicans in the past have tried to make Assembly elections about statewide issues – they targeted “Jon Corzine Democrats” in 2013 -- but that usually backfires with voters, Muller said.

“They’re going to make decisions on a very individualized basis,” he added. Muller also questioned Bramnick’s strategy of seeking debates against Prieto and other Democratic leaders, calling it “grandstanding” and “a gimmick” likely linked to Bramnick eyeing a run for governor in 2017, when Christie will be in the last months of his second and final term in office.

Muller said candidates in individual districts are likely to debate this year, so it would be more appropriate for Bramnick to focus on interacting with his Democratic opponents in Union County.

“Jon Bramnick definitely needs a civics lesson,” Muller said.

And Murray cautioned that Bramnick, if he does have gubernatorial aspirations, could be the one who ultimately has something to lose if Democrats do decide to join him for a series of debates.

Bramnick is a regular defender and ally of Christie, but the governor has seen his poll numbers in New Jersey plummet in recent months as he’s turned his attention to exploring a run for president in 2016. The debates could bring out examples of Bramnick’s close association with Christie, including the times Assembly Republicans have changed votes to ensure Christie would not suffer the embarrassment of a veto override, Murray said.

“The smart money is riding on the idea that voters will have a significant amount of Christie fatigue by 2017,” Murray said. “Anyone too closely associated with Christie is really hobbled.”

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