With just a few weeks before voters take to the polls on November 7, a cutthroat state senate race in New Jersey’s 11th Legislative District is heating up — and getting ugly.
On one side is Republican Senator Jennifer Beck, a longtime incumbent who has sought to position herself as an independent thinker and grassroots champion for residents. On the other is former Monmouth County Democratic Chairman Vin Gopal, who is offering a change from what he calls the failed leadership of Beck’s tenure.
The contest is one of the most competitive in the state this election year, with Beck fighting hard to keep her seat against the well-funded Gopal. Democratic leaders have targeted the newcomer’s bid as an opportunity to pick up another legislative seat this cycle, and are expected to spend considerable money on getting him across the finish line first.
All that has created more animosity than usual between the candidates, who have sparred back and forth in recent weeks in ads, press conferences, and debates, the second one of which was held a week ago at Monmouth University. The two-hour long event saw Gopal and Beck trading barbs on everything from municipal consolidation to Gov. Chris Christie.
“It’s one of those really gloves-off kind of battles that we see in local races that come down to getting out your voters,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth Polling Institute. “So this is an old fashioned get-out-the-vote campaign.”
Part of the reason for the race’s competitiveness this year has to do, as it often does, with the 11th district’s voter demographics. Though the Monmouth County district has a history of Republican leadership going back decades, recent changes — including redistricting, which has added Democratic towns like Asbury Park — have made the party’s hold less certain. (Follow this link for an overview of District 11.)
According to voter rolls, Democrats outnumber Republicans 32 percent to 23 percent in the district, with the rest unaffiliated. But Democrats in the wealthy Monmouth County towns that make it up, such as Colts Neck and Neptune, often fall more to the center than the left on the political spectrum.
That combination of factors in recent years has helped turn the 11th into something of a swing district. Monmouth County as a whole went to Christie by a huge margin in 2013, but Hillary Clinton won it during last year’s presidential election. And in 2015, Democrats managed to flip its two Assembly seats, replacing GOP incumbents Caroline Casagrande and Marypat Angelini with Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey.
“We had a race two years ago where there was a big surprise, and we all expect a tight race for the senate this time around,” Murray said. “But it’s not clear that that’s predictive of Democrats taking over this district, so it could remain a swing district for some time.”
Gopal, who himself ran and lost for Assembly in the district in 2011, played an integral part in achieving the Assembly victories in his position as Democratic chair. But so did General Majority, the super PAC funded by South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross, which spent $234,118 on the side of the Democrats.
Camden County puppet
Beck has sought to make the Democrats’ funding — Gopal is also expected to receive support from Norcross and other special-interest groups this year — a major issue in the race, casting her opponent as a “puppet of the Camden County machine” and out of touch with voters. She said her financial disadvantage has forced her to focus her efforts on grassroots campaigning, and has been going door to door over the past several weeks to talk with voters.
“It’s tough when you’re being outspent 10 to one or seven to one or multiple millions to whatever,” Beck said, adding that her team is on track to reach 11,000 voters in person by Election Day. “But my belief is when people get a sense of who you are as a person, they tend not to believe the lies and negative ads that are being rolled in from Camden County.”
The president of a media relations and marketing firm, Beck was elected to the Assembly in 2005, after serving six years on Red Bank borough council. Two years later she ascended to the Senate, where she says she’s worked to build a reputation as an independent thinker, championing such issues as sensible gun control and school-funding reform. In 2011, Beck 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 also sits on a few committees, including the Joint Committee on Economic Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity and Budget and Appropriations.
“I’ve worked very hard, my residents know me, they know I’m independent minded,” Beck said. “I put my homeowners first, my kids first, and my seniors first, before any party.”
Beck said this year’s challenge is similar to the one she faced in 2007, when Democratic candidate Ellen Karcher, backed by outside groups, raised and spent over $5 million. Beck herself spent closer to $700,000 in that race, but was still able to beat back her opponent. Gopal, she said, is a product of the same machine, citing state campaign records that show Gopal receiving nearly $1 million from the Camden County Democrats since taking the chairmanship.
“It’s pretty much the same David and Goliath dynamic,” she said. “But few people know or have met Vin, and he has not made a very credible argument for why he should be in this district. People see right through it.”
Waste and abuse
But just as Beck has sought to tie Gopal to party machines, Gopal has also worked to link Beck to another controversial figure: Gov. Chris Christie. While Beck has stressed that she’s frequently exercised her independence from the front office, Gopal has painted a different picture of the senator, saying she’s voted with Christie “90 percent of the time.”
A resident of Long Branch, Gopal has been active for years in Monmouth County politics and business. He owns a marketing firm that runs two local magazines, and has sat on the Northern Monmouth Chamber of Commerce board of directors. He was tapped by Monmouth County Democrats to run for the 11th District Senate seat last year, and went uncontested in June’s primary.
Gopal, whose campaign platform includes some progressive issues but also fiscally conservative ones, said he was convinced to get into the race after seeing many problems facing the state go unaddressed.
“As a business owner, I built my business to the point where we have 16 employees now, and I watch every dollar that comes in and out. So it’s very frustrating for me watching government, whether it’s Christie or Corzine or legislators for both parties, and seeing how they’ve really failed taxpayers. And I think that’s what we’ve seen over the last couple years — just an exorbitant amount of waste and abuse,” he said.
Gopal also ranks Beck among those officials. He pointed as evidence to her voting record, which he says has vacillated according to the whims of Christie. The Republican sponsored and voted for a bill last year that would have notified law enforcement anytime a person sought to expunge their mental-health record in order to buy a firearm, Gopal noted, but then refused to support an override of Christie’s veto of the legislation.
He said she’s also remained silent on a number of other issues, including an expensive special election to replace former U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg in 2013 and the equally costly, taxpayer-funded legal fees that Christie racked up defending himself in the Bridgegate scandal.
“We need new leadership for Monmouth County and I think I offer that,” Gopal said. “Jenn Beck has been in elected office now for 18 years and she’s failed to move the ball forward on any major issue in this state. And I think I can be more effective on the issues affecting Monmouth County.”
And at least as far as personal fundraising goes, Beck isn’t trailing too far behind yet. According to the latest filings with the Election Law Enforcement Commission, the Republican has raised $433,095 toward her reelection bid, with $229,644.85 cash on hand, while Gopal has raised $598,700, and had $70,992 cash on hand at the close of the period.
While the candidates diverge on many issues, — including legalizing marijuana, on which their positions fall along party lines — they do share some common ground. In a district where voters on both sides of the aisle tend toward the center in their political leanings, both Beck and Gopal said their messages come down to fiscal responsibility.
Both cite increasingly high property taxes as one of the greatest problems facing residents, though each has offered a different solution for dealing with them. Beck has insisted that officials must address exorbitant public-worker benefits, including unused sick and vacation time that many employees collect over the life of their careers.
“It’s now a $2 billion property-tax issue,” she said.
Gopal, for his part, has argued that lawmakers must remove hurdles keeping town and municipalities from consolidating and sharing services, an effort proponents say could save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars over the long run. Gopal said those savings could also help the state make good on its promise to fully fund a beleaguered pensions and benefits system.
Some of Gopal’s critics, though, such as Beck’s former district mate, Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-12), have argued those two goals — municipal consolidation and preserving worker benefits — are at odds, since the latter can pose a significant obstacle to the former.
The Democrat also criticized his opponent on her handling of certain social issues, for which he said he’d be a stronger champion. Though she ultimately supported the measure, he noted, Beck had initially voted against a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in 2012.
“I think my message of fiscal responsibility and watching out for taxpayers and being socially conscious is something that attracts a lot of Republicans and independents,” he said.
But Beck, who pointed to her decision to override Christie on the women’s healthcare bill, insisted she’s been committed to voting her conscience. She noted she sponsored legislation in 2013 that put a moratorium on fracking in New Jersey until the practice could be further studied, and defied Christie in 2010 when he tried to close Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands.
This year, she said she’s focused on opposing a proposal to allow drilling off the coast of Monmouth County, as well as working on further legislation to prevent politicians convicted of crime and corruption to collect taxpayer-funded pensions, citing a Ridgewood schools superintendent who was still able to retire with a $110,000 pension after the FBI found he had taken a bribe from an insurance broker, albeit off school property.
“This to me is a no-brainer. I think it’s unconscionable, and it’s certainly not partisan. I think everyone can agree that people who betray the public trust should not then go into their retirement with taxpayers funding their pensions,” she said.
Gopal, meanwhile, said he’d like to see the state’s school-funding formula fully financed and institute stronger background checks on those looking to buy firearms.
Gubernatorial race and Sweeney effect
Other external factors shaping the 11th district race, according to Murray, include this year’s gubernatorial race between former Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, as well as the re-election bid of another high-profile Democrat, Senate President Steve Sweeney in South Jersey’s 3rd district.
Both Gopal and Beck are supporting their respective parties’ nominee in that contest. Beck said Guadagno will “hold the line on fiscal issues,” and that she’s the only one with a credible plan to address property taxes. Gopal said he agrees with Murphy on most big issues, though he stressed that he wouldn’t be afraid to oppose the former Goldman Sachs executive when doesn’t.
“I don’t care whether his approval ratings are 90 percent or 10 percent,” he said.
Murray notes that Guadagno and Murphy are both from Monmouth County, which could affect turnout in down-ballot races more so than in other parts of the state. Murphy’s campaign has also attracted some high-powered figures to stump for him in the area, including former Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore.
As for Sweeney’s fight against Republican Fran Grenier — which, thanks to Grenier’s support from the powerful New Jersey Education Association, has quickly shaped up to be one of the most expensive legislative races in state history — that’s a different story. Murray said the race could suck valuable funding that might otherwise go to Gopal’s campaign, negatively affecting the Democrat’s chances.
“It’s not coming into this race and some other races where it was expected to be. Still it’s a tight race nonetheless.”