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Dems Pick Up Key Seats in Legislature, GOP Takes Several Tight Races

At end of the day, Democrats still have the Legislature locked up — after withstanding some tough challenges and pulling out a few surprise victories

sweeney
Senate President Steve Sweeney fought off a surprisingly tough challenge from his Republican opponent, funded by NJEA money.

New Jersey voters went to the polls yesterday and turned their attention to all 120 seats in the Legislature, ending a busy election season that was rife with special interest spending, political attack ads and controversial mailers, as well as some energetic get-out-the-vote efforts.

Democrats now control the Legislature and the chief executive’s position after former ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy defeated Republican opponent Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in the state’s high-profile governor’s race. The party had previously held majorities in both the Senate, where Democrats had a 24-16 advantage over Republicans, and Assembly, where they had a 52-28 edge.

They expanded that control last night, picking up one seat in the upper house and, though the final votes have yet to be tallied, likely two in the lower.. An upset in the 11th District helped bump the party’s Senate majority up to 25, while victories in the 2nd and 16th districts gave them a boost in the Assembly. Republicans also secured seats in tightly contested races in both houses, though they were offset by losses.

The night, therefore, was seen as a win for Democrats, who will enter the next legislative session exercising broad jurisdiction over setting the state’s agenda and tackling some of its most serious problems. Follow this link to see a map of complete legislative results.

“It’s a good night for Democrats all the way around,” said Matthew Hale, professor of politics at Seton Hall University. “It shows that Democrats even at the local and legislative level have an energized group of people who are willing to get out.”

Legislative District 3

One of the biggest outcomes last night was the one in South Jersey’s 3rd district, where Senate President Steve Sweeney faced a surprisingly vigorous challenge from Republican opponent Fran Grenier, a Trump and Christie supporter in this generally blue district. The race early on became a focal point of this year’s legislative cycle, thanks to the New Jersey Education Association’s bankrolling of Grenier’s campaign.

Inflamed by special-interest spending on both sides, the contest last month officially became the most expensive legislative race in state history, with estimates nearing $20 million when all is said and done. As of early November, Garden State Forward, a political action committee funded entirely by the NJEA, spent a whopping $4.5 million, while New Jerseyans for a Better Tomorrow, a super PAC supporting Sweeney, spent $3.9 million.

But all that wasn’t enough to unseat Sweeney, who ended the night with 19,582 to Grenier’s 12,544 votes. The union leader and centrist Democrat leveraged deep labor ties in the district and support from special interest groups to ultimately win by the largest margin he ever has.

“It was a waste of money, and I’m disappointed,” Sweeney told NJTV after his victory in Gloucester County last night. “South Jersey teachers are doing great things for our kids, but the NJEA’s leadership needs to be reevaluated.”

Sweeney, who alienated the NJEA most recently after he opposed putting a question on the ballot that would have enacted a constitutional amendment requiring the state to quickly ramp up funding for the pension system along actuarial calculations, said last night that he never intended to “pick a fight” with the organization. He expressed frustration at the group’s targeting of him in the election, but insisted his door is open to working with them in the future.

“My opponent stood up and said I will not support the minimum wage, I’m against sick leave and pay equity,” he said. ”We can have disagreements as adults, but what happened here was a disappointment.”

The NJEA, for its part, celebrated Murphy’s win at the top of the ticket last night, arguing most of the legislative candidates they had endorsed were victorious. The 3rd District race, they suggested, helped energize the group’s members.

“While NJEA-endorsed candidate Fran Grenier fell short in his race against incumbent Senate President Steve Sweeney, his insurgent campaign electrified New Jersey politics and energized NJEA members, who remain determined to endorse and campaign for pro-public education candidates regardless of party affiliation,” they said in a statement. Grenier, however, vocally supported both President Donald Trump and Gov. Chris Christie, both of whom hold positions that are anathema to the NJEA.

Sweeney’s victory, while not entirely unexpected, ensures that Democrats will have the leadership to make good on some of Murphy’s campaign promises, which included progressive efforts like legalizing marijuana and an eventual $15 minimum wage. The party had struggled on moving the ball forward on those issues under Christie, who showed no hesitation in exercising his veto powers over his eight years in office.

Sweeney, who aborted his own bid for the party nomination for governor back in June, said he’s excited to work with the new governor.

“We worked on a lot of things, but not everything got done,” he said. “The good thing is a lot of the positions we believe in, he believes in. So I think you’re going to see some really positive steps that lift the middle class.”

But ultimately, according to Hale, Sweeney’s win may help avoid the problematic intra-party conflicts that might have ensued in his absence. Assemblyman Craig Coughlin, a Democrat from Middlesex County who struck a deal with South Jersey lawmakers, has been working to oust fellow Assembyman Vincent Prieto from his speakership position in the lower house for months now, and is expected to have the votes to do it. Since Sweeney weilds considerable influence in South Jersey circles, the Democrats' loss would have complicated that arrangement.

“I think tonight cemented the leadership of the party, and that’s not insignificant,” Hale said.

Legislative District 11

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Incumbent Republican Sen. Jennifer Beck conceding race in the 11th Legislative District.

There were also some surprising upsets last night, chief among them being former Monmouth Democratic Chairman Vin Gopal’s unexpected defeat of Republican incumbent Senator Jennifer Beck in the 11th legislative district. Beck and Gopal found themselves in one of the more contentious battles in the state this year, with both camps slinging mud through political ads and mailers. It was also an expensive one: at nearly $4.1 million spent through October 24, the 11th District races was the third-costliest in the state this year.

The result moreover highlighted the 11th’s growing status as a swing district, standing as one of the few places where Democrats picked up a seat in the Legislature. Encompassing a large portion of Monmouth County, the district has been historically friendly to Republicans, though shifting voter demographics and redistricting have changed that over the past few decades.

Democrat Assembly members Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey, both of whom won re-election last night, exacted their own upsets two years ago when they narrowly defeated Republican incumbents Mary Pat Angelini and Caroline Casagrande.

“I am so excited that the people of the 11th district have put their faith in me,” Gopal told NJ Spotlight last night. “I look forward to working with Democrats, Republicans and independents to move this state forward.”

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Former Monmouth County Democratic Chairman Vin Gopal won an upset victory in the 11th.

Again, Hale said Gopal’s win was a testament to Democrats ability to mobilize their base, taking advantage both of Murphy’s coattails on the statewide level, but also the unpopularity of Christie, who’s ending his term with some of the lowest approval ratings of any governor in history. Democrats worked to tie Beck, though largely considered an independent voice in Trenton, to Christie’s toxic brand.

Gopal also benefited from national party involvement in the district: several high-profile Democrats came out to stump for Murphy over the past couple months, including former presidential candidate Al Gore.

“I would say that the fact that Gopal and Sweeney won so handily is evidence that the base turned out and that the party apparatus worked,” Hale said.

Beck, who was elected to the Senate in 2005 after serving six years on Red Bank borough council, leaves office with a strong legislative track record, having championed such issues as sensible gun control and school-funding reform. In 2011, she became the first Republican to join Democrats in overriding Christie, casting a vote against his veto of $7.5 million in women’s health funding, much of which went to Planned Parenthood clinics.

Beck ended the night with 27,013 votes to Gopal’s 31,036. Asked about the factors that held her back in the race, she pointed to her opponent’s strategy to bundle her up with Christie, as well as his obvious funding advantage.

"There have been so many occasions when I went to head to head with the governor, but that's the unfortunate part of having $4 million,” she said. “You can get a message out, whether true or not."

"I'm proud of the effort and the hard work we put in," she added. "It does not help to have a governor who is at 15 percent approval rating."

Legislative District 2

Democrats, though, weren’t the only party to flip a seat this season. Voters in South Jersey’s 2nd Legislative District will send a Republican over a Democrat to Trenton next year, electing Assemblyman Chris Brown in his quest against Atlantic County Freeholder Colin Bell to replace the late Senator Jim Whelan.

Bell was actually the incumbent in the race, having won the party's June primary following Whelan's death earlier this year and been sworn into the Senate last month. (The towering Atlantic County figure had previously announced his retirement).

“We worked hard to propose solutions to move Atlantic County forward. While we came up a little short I am so proud of my running mates for Mazzeo & Armato for Assembly for winning and fighting for our Democratic values,” Bell said in a Facebook post following Brown's win. “I will do everything I can in my remaining months in the Senate to carry on the legacy of Senator Jim Whelan and fight for the people of Atlantic County.”

After a hard-fought race that saw fierce arguments over how best to handle the district’s economic problems, at the center of which sits a struggling Atlantic City, Brown earned 24,170 to Bell’s 20,528 votes. The Republican’s support among private- and public-sector unions was seen as an important part of his success, as Brown had earlier on locked down endorsements from a litany of local building and trade groups.

But he also saw support from the usually Democratic-leaning NJEA, a factor that insiders say played a large role in delivering him the win. As part of the second most expensive race in the state, Brown’s campaign received significant funding from the group, tilting the odds in favor of the Republican, but also depriving the Democrat of valuable resources he might have otherwise received.

According to one Democratic insider, the NJEA pulled campaign support from vulnerable Democrats in several districts in the past few weeks of the race, including in the 16th district, where incumbent Senator Linda Greenstein won re-election with 56 percent of the vote, but also the 38th in north Jersey, where incumbent Bob Gordon won with a similar share.

Brown will join incumbent Democratic Assembly Vince Mazzeo in representing the 2nd, as well as Buena Vista Township Committeeman John Armato, who defeated Republicans Vince Sera and Brenda Taube for the seat.

Legislative District 16

In other districts, the competitive nature of the contests brought challengers within striking distance of their incumbent opponents. Republican Senator Kip Bateman eked out a victory over Democrat Laurie Poppe with just 51 percent of the vote in the 16th, another split district that covers parts of Hunterdon, Somerset, and Middlesex Counties.

Democrats made inroads in the 16th in 2015, when Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker ousted Republican incumbent Donna Simon in a surprisingly tight race. Simon had tried to return to her seat this year, but Democrats fended off the challenge, returning Zwicker to office and at the same time nabbing the seat vacated by outgoing Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, who opted earlier this year to run for his party’s nomination for governor over reelection in the district.

Zwicker will now be joined in the lower house by Roy Freiman, a former vice president at Prudential Financial.

“I think Phil Murphy did a good job of making this race about the failures of the Republican party, and all that’s wrong with the world being Christie and Trump’s fault,” Hale said of Democrats success in district’s like the 16th this year. “I’m not convinced that he’s captured the party himself, but his message that he’s stopping Republicans has resonated with people.”

Chase Brush is a freelance writer and editor based in the greater New York area. He is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and Rutgers University alumnus.

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