New Jersey’s high-profile gubernatorial contest between former Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy and Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno is having a coattail effect on this year's down-ballot races. In some places, it’s creating pick-up opportunities in the Legislature for warring Republicans and Democrats.
Such is the case in central Jersey’s 16th legislative district, where a slate of Democratic candidates and one of Republicans are vying over two Assembly seats. One of those seats is being defended by an incumbent, Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D), for the first time since the Democrat took office two years ago. The other, though, is up for grabs following a decision by outgoing Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R) — who opted instead last year to mount an underdog bid for his party’s nomination for governor — to forgo re-election.
Republican candidates Donna Simon and Somerset County Freeholder Mark Caliguire have teamed up in hopes of succeeding Ciattarelli or ousting Zwicker, and have sought to make the race about local issues facing residents in the central Jersey district. Democrats, meanwhile, are working to harness the effects of a potential party victory in the gubernatorial race to turn the whole legislative ticket blue, running Roy Freiman alongside Zwicker for the open seat.
On the Senate side, an attempt by Democrat Laurie Poppe to dislodge Republican incumbent Senator Kip Bateman is also garnering attention, with an early poll showing the two almost tied among voters, though Republican leaders in the district haveof those results.
“The 16th is one of five districts in the state that is truly competitive,” Ciattarelli said of the race. “But it all comes down to turnout. If the turnout is high, I would expect the Republicans to be successful. If the turnout is low, then we might end up with a surprise like we had 2015.”
Though they haven’t risen to the level of some other races in the state this year, the contests in the 16th do rank among the more suspenseful. That’s partly due to Ciattarelli's departure, which has opened the door to fresh faces on both sides. But it’s also thanks to changing conditions in the district, which over the last several years has become increasingly competitive.
Covering parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset counties, the 16th had been historically safe territory for Republicans going back decades, with all three seats held by GOP representatives — including Bateman, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1994. But the party’s grasp loosened a little in 2011, when reapportionment brought Democratic towns like Princeton and South Brunswick into the fold.
Democrats now outnumber Republicans in the district with 33 percent of voters registered under the former and 25 percent under the latter, but the remaining unaffiliated tend to lean right. The registration shift helped deliver the district to President Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012, as well as Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump last year.
It also helped Democrats make inroads on the legislative level: in 2015, Zwicker surprised observers when he defeated Simon, then running for her second term in the Assembly, in a low-turnout election cycle that saw Democrats picking up four seats in the lower house across the state.
Democrats are hoping to use that momentum to notch another win in the district this time around, but it’s unclear whether it will be enough. A former executive at Prudential Financial, Democrat Freiman is less recognizable than Simon and Caliguire, both of whom previously have run for public office in the 16th. They’ll also be bracketed on the ballot with Bateman, who is very popular there.
Zwicker, whose rise in New Jersey politics began when he ran to succeed fellow scientist and former U.S. Rep. Rush Holt in 2013, is also well-known, giving him a leg-up in the contest.
“They’re decent candidates, but if we have to try this hard to make it competitive, then New Jersey has a problem with competitive races,” said Matthew Hale, professor of political science at Seton Hall University, who contended that the race isn’t as close nor the candidates as strong as they could be. “The more competitive a race is, the better the candidates are.”
“It’d look great for New Jersey if every race looked like Jenn Beck and Vin Gopal,” he added, referring to thebeing waged between the Republican and Democratic senate candidates in the 11th district.
Still, several other factors are in play that could further shape the race in the lead-up to election day — the most important being issues facing residents themselves. As in other places, in the 16th those include how to deal with increasingly high property taxes, funding for public-worker pensions and benefits, and school aid.
The position of both the Democratic and Republican candidates on those issues fall mostly along party lines, with Republicans Simon and Caliguire calling for greater fiscal responsibility in dealing with the state’s problems and Democrats Zwicker and Freiman vowing to fulfill its financial obligations. The Republicans’ website says the team will oppose “reckless tax hikes that crush the middle class and hurt our economy” and oppose making New Jersey a “sanctuary state for criminal and illegal immigrants,” while the Democrats’ promises to fully fund the state’s school-aid formula and “hold the line on property taxes.”
Both sides have levied predictable political attacks, with Republicans slamming their opponents’ “extremist liberal agenda.” Democrats, meanwhile, have accused the Republicans of purposely skipping a planned League of Women Voters Candidate Forum debate this month.
“Andrew Zwicker — an out of touch liberal Princeton elitist who talks about how he’s better than us,” a recent ad from the Republican camp runs; it also for an end to low-income housing mandates and for a cut in property taxes.
Simon, who served on Readington’s township committee before winning a special election in 2012 to replace the late Assemblyman Peter Biondi, said voters deserve leadership that works for them, and that she and her Republican team will make it more affordable to live in the district. She also called Zwicker “extremely partisan.”
“New Jersey has had their challenges; however, Kip Bateman, Mark Caliguire and I are on the ticket,” she said. “We are the team with solutions that will not raise taxes. Every taxpayer deserves an easier way to live, work and retire in NJ. I am running because I am energetically committed to reducing state spending and finding real solutions for middle class families. We will represent everyone.”
Zwicker, for his part, has emphasized technical education and innovation as the way to greater economic growth. An educator at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, he’s sponsored legislation over the last year to fund such things as farmland preservation and exempt hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles from certain labeling requirements. He’s also attempted to characterize himself as an independent voice in Trenton, noting his opposition to a 23-cent gas tax hike to fund the state’s depleted Transportation Trust Fund last year.
Poppe, who’s worked as an attorney and social worker in her native town of Hillsborough, said she and her two running mates bring different perspectives to the table, but that “all agree that economic growth is key, reduction in spending is a priority, and that increasing taxes on all of us should be a last resort.”
“I think voters are frustrated with the lack of progress they’ve seen under Republican leadership and the harmful, out-of-touch policies they’ve seen pushed on a state and national level,” she said. “This is an extremely important election this year as we are only one of two states with an off-year election. Voters need to remember that state and local politics matter just as much as the national stage, and that the policies enacted in Trenton have a direct impact on all our lives.”
Ciattarelli agreed that this year’s race will come down to local issues, and said that his Republican colleagues have been working hard to leverage that. He called Zwicker’s victory two years ago, in which the Democrat won by a handful of votes in an election that saw abysmally low turnout from Republicans, an “anomaly,” and said a repeat of that contest is unlikely this time around.
“When you have turnout that is less than 20 percent, anything can happen,” the Republican said. “But these candidates have outworked the competition, and I think they’re on the right side of the issues.”
Ciattarelli, who lost his bid for his party’s nomination against Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno in June’s primary, said he also thinks the policy proposals of Democratic candidate Phil Murphy in the gubernatorial race — which include calls for a $15 minimum wage, full funding of the pension system, and other progressive efforts — may backfire on down-ballot candidates. In his own district, for example, he expects the prospect of a Murphy governorship to energize Republicans, who would rather not see their taxes go up and cost of living increase.
“Murphy’s policy proposals have put Democratic legislative candidates in peril,” he said. “It should not only invigorate Republicans, but also independents and soft Democrats.”
Simon echoed the sentiment, arguing Murphy is counting on “the ill-informed voter” to gain traction in the race.
“It is unconscionable that a candidate would brazenly propose an immediate $1.3 billion tax increase with an additional $74 billion spending spree while running on a platform that caters to protecting dangerous illegal immigrants and prioritizing free government programs to protect criminals and policies that will drive jobs out of New Jersey,” she said.
Hale added that money — specifically the lack of it for Democrats — could be another problem in the contest. Observers note that the New Jersey Education Association'sagainst Senate President Steve Sweeney — which has become the most expensive legislative race in state history — is sucking valuable resources from other contests, including the 16th.
“The NJEA has flushed so much money down the 3rd district toilet,” Hale said. “Had they not done that, Democrats would be doing so much better elsewhere. So if there are any upsets by Republicans this cycle, it’s probably because of the NJEA.”
Still, both sides, but especially the Democrats, have managed to scrape together significant sums of cash. Almost $1.3 million has been cumulatively spent on the general election so far, with the Democrats raising more than the Republicans, but the Republicans holding a more than 3-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage over the Democrats.