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Candidates, PACs Have Poured Millions into This Year’s Assembly Contests

Total spent in contests for 80 seats statewide amounts to average of $115,000 per candidate

Spending on the races to win the 80 state Assembly seats on the ballot next Tuesday is averaging $115,000 per candidate for a part-time job that pays $49,000 a year.

That's just for spending on the general election. And the total is bound to rise, as the $20.6 million in spending reported by the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission on Thursday was as of October 23, with 11 more possible spending days until the election.

Only about 58 percent of that money, a little over $12 million, was spent by the 178 candidates themselves.

The other $8.5 million came from political action committees. That PAC spending is somewhat misleading, as it includes some double counting: almost $4 million that three PACs gave to a fourth, General Majority PAC, which led all spenders with nearly $3.9 million spent as of last Friday.

General Majority describes itself as a national super PAC working to elect Democrats to seats in state legislatures and in support of a higher minimum wage and affordable health care.

The total in independent spending is actually less than two years ago, when Gov. Chris Christie won re-election and state Senate seats were also up for grabs. But it represents a much greater percentage of total spending -- 42 percent, the largest ever for a statewide election, compared with 19 percent in 2013.

"Dollar-wise, independent spending was higher in 2013," said Jeff Brindle, ELEC's executive director. "But on a percentage basis, it is having a bigger impact on this year's elections."

Nowhere is that more true, at least on paper, than in the two southernmost Shore districts, the 1st and the 2nd.

So far, the race in the 2nd District, which includes Atlantic City and 16 other Atlantic County municipalities, has cost $3.6 million, with $1.5 million of that independent spending, through Oct. 23. This fall, General Majority PAC spent $1.4 million either in support of Democratic Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo and his running mate Colin Bell or against the Republican ticket of Assemblyman Chris Brown and Will Pauls. Of the candidates' own war chests, the Democrats have outspent the GOP ticket by $624,000, or nearly 2-to-1. Combining the candidates' spending and the PAC spending, at least $2.2 million more has been spent to put the Democrats in office.

The numbers are similar in the second-most-expensive race, in the 1st District, which encompasses Cape May and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland counties. Democrats Bob Andrzejczak, the incumbent, and Bruce Land have outspent Republicans Samuel Fiocchi, elected to the Assembly in 2013, and Jim Sauro by $430,000, or more than 2-to-1. General Majority has spent $1.2 million more, for a total Democratic monetary advantage of $1.6 million.

It's unclear whether that money will buy wins for the Democrats.

Little independent polling has been done for this year's Assembly races. The Stockton Poll did take the voters' pulse in both the 1st and 2nd districts and found the extra “blue” cash did not seem to be making much of a difference.

In the 1st District, while the mid-October poll found the Democratic ticket ahead by between 1 and 3 percentage points, that lead is well within the margin of error. Daniel Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University that conducts the poll, said, "In a low turnout election with the state Assembly at the top of the ballot, it could swing in either direction."

In the 2nd District, the early October poll found voters splitting the ticket and picking the incumbents as first and second choice. Again, though, the slim margins were within the margin of error and, conceivably, even the fourth-place finisher Pauls could wind up finishing second and winding up with a seat in Trenton.

The only other district with more than $1 million in total general election spending through Oct. 23 was the 38th in Bergen, another perennial battleground. There, Democratic incumbents Timothy Eustace and Joseph Lagana have outspent GOP challengers Mark DiPisa and Anthony Cappola by more than $1.3 million. A much greater percentage of the total spent -- about 80 percent -- is from the candidates' own accounts.

In total, the 10 most expensive districts account for $12.6 million in spending, about two-thirds by candidates and the rest by independent committees. Brindle noted that represents about 60 percent of the total spent.

"Elections in most of the 40 legislative districts are not highly competitive because redistricting gives one party or the other an edge in voter registration," he said. "In the 2013 election, 97 percent of Assembly members won. It is hard to defeat an incumbent. Swing districts represent the best chance."

The total amount spent by Assembly candidates at this point is less than what was spent in the last two elections -- 17 percent less than the $14 million spent in 2013, when the governor topped the ballot and some believed that Christie's popularity might have coattails, and 11 percent less than in 2011, when lawmakers were running in newly drawn districts.

An analysis by ELEC shows that Democrats have outraised and outspent Republicans more than 2-to-1 and had about $1.4 million in cash in the bank for the last two weeks of campaigning. And it's not surprising that it's hard to unseat an incumbent, as they had spent 12 times more money than challengers, regardless of party, as of Oct. 23.

When the amounts raised during the primary campaigns last spring are included, the total spent on the races balloons to $34 million, or more than $190,000 per seat.

Almost all of that money is being spent on seats in the New Jersey Legislature's lower house, which tops this year's election. Only in the 5th District in Southwest Jersey is there a state Senate seat on the ballot: Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, a Democrat, is unopposed to keep the seat she has held since last December when the party chose her to temporarily replace Donald Norcross, who won a seat in Congress. According to her ELEC filing, Cruz-Perez has spent about $60,000 in the general election cycle.

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