A Night of the Incumbents in Most of NJ’s Hotly Contested Districts

Chase Brush | June 7, 2017 | Elections 2017
With nearly 280 candidates in the running for their party’s Senate and Assemby seats, almost half of this year’s primary contests could be considered battlegrounds

Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic) is a prime sponsor of the measure.
Though it certainly figured more prominently in statewide media coverage and political discussions, yesterday’s high-profile governor’s primary wasn’t the only race voters got to participate in yesterday. Members of New Jersey’s Democratic and Republican parties also cast their support for their chosen state Senate and Assembly candidates, bringing to a close one of the state’s most contested primary seasons of recent memory.

One of only two of its kind in the country this year, the race to win the nomination to succeed Gov. Chris Christie sucked up much of the oxygen over the past several weeks. But the legislative primaries were notable, too, if not for their potential impact on the future direction of the state than for just how crowded the field was compared with elections past.

A total of 278 candidates threw their names into the mix for state Senate and Assembly seats, resulting in contested primaries in 19 of New Jersey’s 40 districts. It was one of the largest fields the state has seen in a dozen years, with far more contested seats than when the Assembly was alone on the ballot two years ago.

And though turnout on a statewide scale in any primary is always small, the competitiveness of some races resulted in higher voter participation than expected, particularly among Democrats. The turnout for both parties is higher than it was in 2013, the last time the Senate and Assembly – along with the governor’s office – were up for re-election.

“What we know is that competition increases turnout,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rowan University. “When people know the answers about who’s going to win or don’t care about who’s going to win, the number drops. When it’s competitive, those are two of the biggest incentives to get people to show up.”

Intra-party conflicts

Many of the closest races this year took place in Republican districts, where intra-party conflicts and some incumbents’ voting records set the stage for fierce political battles between candidates. Arguably the most significant of those contests played out in LD40, where Passaic County Clerk Kristin Corrado, jockeying to replace retiring state Sen. Kevin O’Toole, beat Bergen County Republican Chairman Paul DiGaetano.

After a primary fraught with mud-slinging and court spats, Corrado — running on a team with former Wyckoff Mayor Christopher DePhillips and incumbent Assemblyman Kevin Rooney — took 62 percent to DiGaetano’s 30 percent of votes cast in the district, which includes parts of Passaic, Bergen, Morris, and Essex counties. Corrado’s preliminary total last night was a few hundred votes higher than her predecessors was in 2013, the last time O’Toole ran for re-election.

“We had a three way-primary, which is different. But we worked really hard, I had two great running-mates and we worked together for 14 months as a team, a lot of grassroots, a lot of knocking on doors, and I’m glad the way it turned out,” Corrado told NJ Spotlight, adding that high property taxes and a broken school-funding formula are issues she’s hoping to highlight going into the general election.

As with many other winners last night, Corrado is now heavily favored to win O’Toole’s seat in November, given the Republican slant of the 40th District. Democrat Thomas Duch, of Wyckoff, entered his party’s primary unopposed earlier this year, but is expected to stand little chance against Corrado, who will not only have the support of establishment organizations but also the district’s political makeup, with Democrats representing a quarter and Republicans nearly a third of the voting populace.

Demographics and gerrymandering

The same goes for nearly every other district in the state, where one side holds a near insurmountable advantage over the other thanks to factors like demographics and gerrymandering, a political tool that parties use to strengthen their hold on certain areas. Districts that played host to exciting contested primaries — including the 12th, 17th, 24th and 26th — will see decidedly dull general elections, after establishment-backed candidates and incumbents swept the board against their outsider challengers.

In central Jersey’s 12th District, encompassing parts of Burlington, Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean counties, Republican Sen. Sam Thompson fended off a challenge from arch-nemesis Art Haney, chair of the Old Bridge Republicans, taking 60 percent to Haney’s 40 percent of the vote. Likewise, in the 24th District, the state’s reddest and northernmost, incumbent Sen. Steve Oroho trounced Skyland Tea Party Chair William Hayden, accruing 74 percent to his opponent’s 26 percent of votes cast.

Even in the closest race of all — north Jersey’s 26th District, including parts of Morris, Passaic, and Essex counties– — the incumbents still came out on top. After coming under fire for supporting a controversial gas tax passed by the Legislature last year, Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce managed to narrowly fight off two separate challenges from Morris County Freeholders Hank Lyon and John Cesaro, earning 28 percent to Lyon’s 21 percent and Cesaro’s 19 percent of the vote.

The win all but all but ensures the Republican’s return to the Legislature in November, since the 26th, like the 24th and 12th, is a GOP stronghold.

Keeping rogue candidates at bay

But Republicans weren’t the only ones successful in keeping rogue candidates at bay. Establishment Democrats, too, defeated challengers in blue districts around the state, including in north Jersey’s 31st, where incumbent Assemblypeople Nicholas Chiaravalloti and Angela McKnight cruised to victory over Bayonne school board member Christopher Munoz and Kristen Zadroga Hart, a Jersey City teacher. Zadroga Hart, despite having the backing of the powerful New Jersey Education Association, received only 16 percent of the vote.

Then there was central Jersey’s 17th District, where an organized attack by members of the Central Jersey Progressive Democrats — including Senate candidate Bill Irwin and Assembly hopefuls Heather Fenyk, of New Brunswick, and Ralph E. Johnson, of Piscataway — failed to unseat the three incumbents. Founded in the wake of the 2016 presidential election with the goal to carry on the progressive message of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the group garnered a collective one-third of the vote total, but couldn’t muster enough to defeat Assemblymen Joe Danielsen and Joseph Egan and Sen. Bob Smith.

Smith and his district mates are also seen as safe heading into November, given the districts Democratic leanings.

“The reality in New Jersey is that there are actually very few competitive districts,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. “So there may be two or three, but the reality is that most are partisan gerrymandered in such a way that on the whole they tend not to be very competitive.”

Two-party contests

The only exceptions this year are the 2nd and 11th, two of only a handful of districts that send both Democrats and Republican representatives to Trenton, and thus often feature more competitive races than their one-party counterparts. The retirement of longtime Democratic Sen. Jim Whelan in south Jersey’s 2nd District has set up an expected nail-biter between Freeholder Colin Bell and Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown, both of whom ran in their respective primaries yesterday unopposed.

Brown’s departure from the Assembly to run for Senate triggered one of the other contested Democratic primaries this year, as six candidates battled for the open seat. Incumbent Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo and runningmate John Armato were ultimately declared the winners over James Carney of Northfield, Rizwan Malik of Atlantic City, Theresa D. Watts of Absecon, and Atlantic City Freeholder Ernest D. Coursey.

Additionally, Republican incumbent Sen. Jennifer Beck is expected to face a strong challenge from former Monmouth County Democratic Chairman Vin Gopal in the 11th district, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 31 to 22 percent, with a plurality of voters not affiliated with a major party.

Too early to call

Harrison said it’s a little early to predict how November’s election will play out in districts like the 11th and 2nd, given both state dynamics, such as the gubernatorial election, and national ones, like President Donald Trump.

“We’ll have to see how the continued resistance to Mr. Trump ensues because that may be an important factor — that New Jerseyean’s will be looking to voice their opinions about national politics,” she said. “But right now sitting here on primary day I think it’s a little early.”