With less than a week before voters hit the polls this month, the most competitive — and expensive — legislative race in the state is showing no signs of slowing down, but is continuing instead to drive spending records to new heights and serve as the focal point of a busy election cycle.
According to the state’s election watchdog, the Election Law Enforcement Commission, the fight between Senate President Steve Sweeney and Republican challenger Fran Grenier in South Jersey’s 3rd District has become far and away the most costly legislative race in state history, with $16.6 million spent so far. That’s double what was spent on the previous high, when Democratic Senator Fred Madden and Republican George Geist attracted $6.1 million — $8.2 million in current dollars — on their battle in 2003. It’s also roughly what it costs to win a U.S. senate seat in New Jersey, since $16 million is nearly the amount U.S. Senator Cory Booker spent on his last re-election campaign against Republican Jeff Bell.
The majority of that money has been contributed not by the candidates themselves, however, but by special-interest groups looking to sway the race’s outcome. Super PACs and other independent-expenditure groups on both sides of the contest have dumped roughly $12.6 million into the district, funding everything from television ads to campaign literature in voters’ mailboxes. New Jerseyans for a Better Tomorrow, the PACs supporting Sweeney in the race, has spent $3,975,204 in the district so far, for example, while Garden State Forward, a group opposing him, has spent a whopping $4,525,234.
Those numbers also represent all-time highs, according to Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director, who called the level of independent spending this year “unprecedented” in the organization’s press release yesterday.
“These groups are smashing previous spending records by leaps and bounds,” Brindle said, stressing the unusual and concerning growth of involvement from PACs and similar organizations.
A Record-breaking cycle
According to Brindle, the level of involvement from these groups is one of the main takeaways from this year’s election cycle, which itself is one of the most expensive to date. Including the primary, there has already been $21.5 million in independent spending on the 2017 legislative elections, a total that represents a 33 percent increase over the previous high of
$16.1 million in 2016.
Driving that increase, he said, are campaign finance reforms going on at the national level that have changed the way candidates receive contributions and party organizations raise money, and which are having a trickle-down effect on state and local elections.
“If you’re talking about this particular year, the third district is a major districts in driving these numbers,” he said. “But you really have to go back to the reforms that were done in 2002 at the federal level.”
Brindle credits landmark federal campaign-finance laws, such as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 and Citizens United of 2010, with having limited the role that individual contributors and political parties play in elections, partly by allowing independent groups, such as political action committees and super PACs, to raise and spend unlimited sums of money on elections. Outside spending on national elections reached a record $660 million in 2016, or more than twice what was spent in 2012.
But critics of the increasing role of independent-spending groups argue that it makes money in politics harder to track, since, even though the organizations have to register with the Federal Election Commission on the federal level, they often operate in the shadows. Disclosure laws are less clear in New Jersey, where independent-spending groups can exert a huge influence on everything from gubernatorial races to local school-board elections.
New Jerseyans For A Better Tomorrow, for example, was founded in anticipation of Sweeney’s failed gubernatorial run last year and gets much of its funding from high-profile donors like George Norcross III, the South Jersey powerbroker and political benefactor of many state officials. Garden State Forward is funded entirely by the NJEA and is one of the most active groups in state politics.
New Jersey’s own pay-to-play laws have also helped encourage the growth of these groups, as they have incentivized public contractors to send their donations to PACs or other independent groups instead of to parties and candidates directly. An earlier report by ELEC this year showed fundraising by party-based committees is down for the 2017 election cycle when compared with 2013, the last time the governor’s seat and full Legislature were on the ballot.
“Anytime you do a reform, you can’t get money out of politics, you just redirect it elsewhere,” Brindle said. To address the issues, ELEC has called on lawmakers to pass legislation requiring greater disclosure from independent spending groups, such as bills A-3639 and A-3902, which would raise the size of contributions political parties can accept from the current $300 limit to $1,000 and exempt the political parties from pay-to-play-restrictions, among other things.
“I think it demonstrates more than anything else what we’ve been saying for years — that there has to be reforms for disclosures from these groups, but also that we have to strengthen the political parties,” Brindle said of this year’s cycle.
A costly contest
Of course, spending this cycle might not register as such a huge blip if it weren’t for the fight in the 3rd district. The $12 million independent-spending projection represents more than those groups spent on all 40 legislative districts in 2015, and about 65 percent of all independent spending in the state this year.
It’s a testament to the bitter nature of the contest, which has pitted one of the state’s most powerful public officials — Sweeney, a former ironworker and union leader himself, whose position ranks in terms of political clout ranks second only to the governor — against one of its most influential special-interest groups, the New Jersey Education Association. In June the teachers union threw in behind Grenier, a little-known Republican and Donald Trump supporter, at a candidate-screening event in which the newcomer was the only candidate present.
NJEA leadership has cited the endorsement at that screening as well as what they characterize as Sweeney’s failed leadership on issues like pensions and benefits as motivation for the endorsement. But the move has still flabbergasted Sweeney allies, political observers, and even the group’s own members, many of whom see it as betraying their interests. Democratic lawmakers have issued letters in solidarity with the incumbent, while even some of the state’s highest-profile Republicans — including Gov. Chris Christie and Lt Gov. Kim Guadagno, who’s gunning to succeed her boss this year — have publicly questioned the efficacy of the union’s strategy.
“Really, to me, it’s against progressive values,” state Senator and close Sweeney ally Loretta Weinberg told NJ Spotlight last month, arguing the top Democrat has capably led the upper house over the course of his tenure.
Neither Sweeney’s nor Grenier’s campaigns returned a request for comment on this story, but the NJEA has been adamant on its support for the Republican hopeful over the past few weeks. Steve Baker, the group’s communications director, said its leadership is simply standing behind the will of its members, many of whom felt slighted by Sweeney’s compromise on pensions and are looking to turn the page. The group has flooded Philadelphia television airwaves with attack ads against Sweeney, including one that claims the Democrat was “caught spending” $100,000 on dinners and cigars. They’ve also sent mailers to their own members in the district, including one which accuses him of breaking his promises and calls on recipients to take to Twitter with messages like “#ThankYouSteveSweeney for ignoring parents about PARCC.”
A PSEG nuclear supervisor and U.S. Navy veteran, Grenier served as a councilman for six years in his home borough of Woodstown in South Jersey and four years as Salem County’s Republican Party chairman. He ran unopposed in this year’s primary election, and has characterized himself as a Trump conservative, calling for 10-year term limits for all Assembly and Senate seats and promising to “drain the swamp” in Trenton.
“Unlike his opponent Sen. Steve Sweeney, Fran Grenier supports fully funding pensions, collective bargaining rights for Education Support Professionals, and legislative relief from Chapter 78. He is opposed to PARCC, and he respects educators. Fran is the change we deserve,” reads a biography on NJEA’s website.
Sweeney, for his part, has built a career as a pragmatic Democrat. As senate president, he negotiated compromises on big-ticket legislative items like pension reform, which saw public workers agreeing to put more toward their pension in exchange for a promise by the state to continue making full contributions to the system. On school funding, he recently put forth a proposal that would work to balance the state’s aid formula by cutting money from overfunded districts and passing it to underfunded ones.
He also last year opposed putting question on the ballot that would have enacted a constitutional amendment requiring the state to quickly ramp up funding for the pension fund along actuarial calculations — a move that further complicated relations with the NJEA, who sought to hold him to the promise.
“There is no magic, painless solution to fix the pension problem,” Sweeney wrote in an opinion piece on NJ Spotlight yesterday. “Contrary to what some people say, state governments — as sovereign entities — cannot go bankrupt, like Detroit did, to get out from pension obligations
The 3rd district, which represents parts of Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties, is mostly safely blue territory, with 36 percent of voters registered Democratic and 21 percent Republican. Still, it has broken rank in the past — Republicans point out that it is one of only two districts in the state with a sitting Democrat that went narrowly to Trump in last year’s presidential election.
Asked about whether its campaign against the Democrat is hurting its interests in other places — the NJEA has worked to bolster Democrats’ majority in the Legislature in the past, and political observers note that the focus on the 3rd District is making that goal harder, given that it’s sucking valuable resources from other Democratic candidates in the state — Baker said that’s a question for Sweeney’s own camp.
“Certainly if Democrats are concerned that George Norcross and Steve Sweeney are investing too much in defending him and neglecting their candidates in other parts of the state, that’s a discussion that Democratic candidates elsewhere should have with the leadership of their party,” he said.
“We know that our strength is in our members, and that’s what we are counting on in this race,” he added.
Still, if the goal is to make him sweat, the NJEA’s campaign is serving its purpose. Sweeney likely hasn’t faced a re-election challenge quite this fierce since taking office in 2002, after defeating eight-term Republican incumbent Raymond Zane by a slim 2 percent margin. According to ELEC, Sweeney’s own campaign has spent $1.4 million of its own money so far, while Grenier’s campaign has spent only $130,000.
Sweeney has also been leveraging his deep labor ties in the race: Stronger Foundations Inc., a political arm of Operating Engineers Local 825, spent $1,510,205 on digital buys on behalf of the union leader, while the Carpenters Fund for Growth and Progress spent $ 1,250,500, including $250,000 that it gave to General Majority, another super PAC with close ties to Norcross.
Though the numbers are preliminary — Brindle notes that the reporting reflects campaign finance activity through October 27, which is 11 days before the general election — ELEC estimates the 3rd District race could pass the $20 million dollar mark by the time it’s all over. Other costly races in the state this year include South Jersey’s 2nd district, where Democratic Colin Bell and Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown are jockeying for a senate seat and which has received a total of $4,641,327 in spending from candidates and independent groups; the 11th, where Democrat Vin Gopal and incumbent Senator Jennifer Beck are going toe to toe in a race that’s cost $4,055,062 total; and the 16th, where former Republican Assemblywoman Donna Simon and her running mates are facing incumbent Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker and company and running up a total of $2,447,933.
Legislative candidates across the state have raised $36.9 million, spent $22.8 million, and reported $14.1 million in cash reserves headed into the campaign’s final days. Overall spending to date in the general election, including independent committees, is $42.1 million.