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Senate, Assembly Primary Races on Track to Being Most Expensive in NJ History

Tweny-nine days before the primaries, Democrats and Republicans have raised $29.4 million, the highest total since at least 2011

sweeney
Senate President Stephen Sweeney

The gubernatorial primaries may be getting all the political attention right now, but the State House Senate and Assembly contests are on a pace to becoming the most expensive in state history.

An analysis by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission of money raised and spent by the 275 candidates seeking their parties’ nominations for the Legislature found that the Democratic and Republican candidates had raised $29.4 million and spent $16.3 million through May 5. The amount raised was the highest as of 29 days before a primary since at least 2001. It is not the most spent at this stage, however. About $400,000 more was spent by this point in 2011, when Senate and Assembly primaries took place in the year in which new district lines were drawn.

“If this trend holds up, it could be a big year,” said Jeffrey Brindle, ELEC’s executive director, adding that the current candidate totals do not include what is expected to be millions of dollars in spending by independent committees this fall.

Cash on hand

The campaigns had $13.3 million in cash on hand, more than in any of the prior eight state elections, although the numbers have likely changed since those figures were reported.

The June 6 election will decide who will represent the Democrats and Republicans on the November ballot for 40 Senate and 80 Assembly seats. Today is the deadline to register to vote in that election.

Although this is an unusually contentious year, with at least one ballot spot in one or both parties challenged in almost half of the districts, the largest pots of money are not necessarily in the most active districts. The candidates in eight districts have so far raised more than a million dollars, and the 3rd District in South Jersey is tops in all categories — for one reason: Stephen Sweeney is the state Senator in that district. He and his running mates have raised $2.4 million, spent $1.4 million and have $970,000 left in the bank. While there is a challenge for the Democratic Assembly spots, the two incumbents are expected to handily win over the single challenger who filed a form stating he would not spend more than $5,100 on his campaign.

Sweeney, the Senate president, had been expected to run for governor this year, but bowed out after it appeared Phil Murphy had the support of most county Democratic chairman. Sweeney has mounted a campaign — which he is expected to win — to repeat as Senate president. He was by far the biggest fundraiser so far this year, getting $2 million, and also had the most cash on hand of any candidate, $803,000.

Statewide, Democrats have raised about 2 ½ times more than Republicans — $20.9 million versus $8.5 million. They had triple the cash on hand, with Democrats holding on to $10.2 million and Republicans having just over $3 million. That doesn’t matter in the primaries, which are intra-party battles, but it is a reflection of the blue party’s dominance in both houses; the Democrats hold a 24-16 majority in the Senate, and a 52-38 majority in the Assembly.

Incumbent candidates hold a huge money advantage over challengers, having raised $9 of every $10. More than a quarter of the $2.7 million raised by challengers was given to two candidates who are current Assembly members seeking Senate seats: Democrat Troy Singleton in the 7th District in Burlington County and Republican Chris Brown in the 2nd in Atlantic County. History shows that well-funded incumbents have a big advantage in an election, as challengers have won no more than 5 percent of seats in the last two state elections.

The Republican who has raised the most money, Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., lags behind five Democrats. Kean took in $824,000. His 21st District, encompassing parts of Morris, Somerset, and Union counties, had the third highest fundraising total despite having no primary challenges. That’s due not only to Kean, but to the $660,000 raised by Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, the GOP leader of the lower house who represents the same district.

The district with the second highest fundraising total is the 36th, covering parts of Bergen and Passaic counties. This is another district with no primary challenges but the Democratic chairmen of both the Senate and Assembly budget committees: Sen. Paul Sarlo, the only lawmaker besides Sweeney who raised more than $1 million, and Assemblyman Gary Schaer, whose $729,000 in contributions made him the eighth-biggest fundraiser.

Only one of the districts with a hotly contested primary had campaign receipts of more than $1 million at the beginning of this month. That’s in central Jersey’s 17th District, where longtime Sen. Bob Smith and Assemblymen Joe Danielsen and Joseph Egan are facing a slate of candidates calling themselves the Central Jersey Progressive Democrats: William J. Irwin for Senate and Heather Fenyk and Ralph E. Johnson for Assembly. The incumbents have raised $1.2 million and have $822,000 left for the remainder of the campaign, while the challengers filed paperwork pledging to spend less than $14,000 for their slate.

Individual reports for candidates are available on ELEC’s website.

The candidates will have to make at least one more public disclosure before the election, filing 11-day pre-primary reports that will become public on June 1.

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