Given the amount of attention the state’s senate and congressional races have received over this election season, New Jersey voters could be forgiven for thinking that next week is all about those seats. The federal midterm races have dominated the public spotlight over the last several weeks, magnified by a national political climate that is one of the most divisive in recent memory.
But those aren’t the only contests that are on Tuesday’s ballot. Voters in several locales will also be asked to decide the fate of this year’s special legislative elections to fill vacancies in Trenton. A total of 10 races are taking place across seven districts, with one for a seat in the state Senate and the rest in the Assembly.
And while special legislative elections aren’t out of the ordinary in New Jersey, the large number this year might be. A combination of events — including early retirements, the election of Gov. Phil Murphy in last year’s gubernatorial election, and, in one case, a domestic-abuse arrest — have led to more open seats in the Legislature than usual.
Because all those seats were vacated by Democrats — and all the interim appointments in New Jersey are made by the county leadership of the political party that holds the seats — all the incumbents in the special races are Democrats as well. They’ll need to win next week’s elections in order to serve out the remainder of their predecessors’ terms.
You always have more of these elections after a new governor comes in, because the new governor will draw from the legislature for the new office,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, pointing out that a number of longtime legislators left their posts this year to take jobs in Murphy’s administration.
It’s easy to see why the down-ballot contests have received comparatively less attention than their more high-profile counterparts. Virtually every race is taking place in areas where the voter registration rolls heavily favor Democrats, all but guaranteeing that party’s candidates will come out on top.
Leaving so little opportunity for the challengers, the long odds are also having a chilling effect on campaign activity.
“In New Jersey politics, the election is oftentimes decided far before any ballot is printed,” said Matthew Hale, associate professor of political science at Seton Hall University. “And the registration advantages in these districts make it virtually impossible for the party out of power to win.”
In the 15th district, for example, two Assembly seats are up for grabs after both incumbents departed for jobs outside the Legislature. Former Assemblyman Reed Gusciora left earlier this year to be sworn in as mayor of Trenton, while former Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio was tapped by Murphy to serve as state treasurer. Two-term Trenton Councilwoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson was picked by party committee members to replace Maher Muoio in February, while Mercer County Freeholder Anthony Verrelli was chosen to succeed Gusciora in July.
Republican candidates have stepped up to challenge both of them. Tracy Sinatra, a project manager at a medical services company, is running against Reynolds-Jackson, and has spent much of her campaign calling for lower property taxes in the district. Justin Tibbetts, a member of the Trenton Ethics Board, is taking on Verrelli, saying he will be a “voice for the people” and brandishing endorsements from a number of Hunterdon County Republican leaders.
Looking to replace Maher Muoio
A third candidate for Maher Muoio’s seat, Edward Forchion — aka NJ Weedman — is running under the Repeal Bail Reform party banner. For Gusciora’s seat, Alex Bethea, a former Trenton councilman who ran against the Democrat in the city’s mayoral election last year, is listed as a candidate of the Integrity, Transparency, Accountability party.
“Quite frankly, the state legislature and governor have done nothing about affordable housing legislation, leaving it to the courts and builder’s remedies which are ruining towns by forcing huge, high density residences which only enrich the builders,” Sinatra told NJ Spotlight. “This is one of the few state races and we have the chance to send a message that we want something done now.”
But the race is hardly a nail-biter. Comprising 10 communities in Hunterdon and Mercer counties, the 15th Legislative District is mostly blue on paper, with 44 percent of voters registered Democrats, 14 percent registered Republicans, and the rest unaffiliated. The last time voters there sent a Republican to Trenton was in 1991.
On top of that, Verrelli and Reynolds-Jackson have the advantage of already holding the positions they’re after, complete with legislative offices and party resources.
“My mission is to protect the public,” Reynolds-Jackson said. “By that I mean protecting the environment, particularly clean air and clean water.”
Parties retain control
Similar assessments can be made for many of the other special elections this year. The 5th, 22nd, 34th, and 36th district races are all taking place in Democratic strongholds, between Democratic appointees and Republican newcomers, with little funding or campaign support. Few candidates on either side could be reached for comment on this story, despite repeated attempts.
In north Jersey’s 32nd district, where Secaucus small-business owner Pedro Mejia was appointed to fill the remainder of former Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto’s term, Republicans failed to field a candidate at all. The longtime Democratic leader left Trenton earlier this year to head the New Jersey Sports and Expositions Authority, allowing Mejia to become the Legislature’s first Dominican member.
“There will be absolutely no change in party control,” Murray said of the legislative races.
Perhaps the most competitive of this year’s special elections is in the 38th district, where all three legislative seats are in flux. State Sen. Joseph Lagana was lifted from his post in the Assembly to replace Robert Gordon, who resigned in April after accepting a cabinet position in the New Jersey Public Utilities Board. Former Assemblyman Tim Eustace also stepped down to become deputy director of the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission, leaving both seats in the lower house vacant.
In their stead, the Democratic county committee selected former Fair Lawn Mayor Lisa Swain and aide to U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, Chris Tully, for the respective seats. They’re facing off against Republicans Gail Horton, a retired teacher from Paramus, and Jayme Ouellette, a former mayor of Rochelle Park. Lagana is being challenged by Daisy Ortiz Berger, a former freeholder and council candidate from River Edge.
Republican optimism in face of long odds
“As the national news media is talking about a blue wave across the country, it is up to members of the Republican party to take control and win seats that can bring Republican values back to our district,” Ortiz Berger said in a statement announcing her candidacy.
The three women might have a better chance than other Republican challengers this year, given the district’s makeup. The 38th consists mostly of towns in Bergen County, which is heavily Republican in some parts. Democrats outnumber Republicans 34 percent to 22 percent, though a large portion of voters also remain unaffiliated,
Still, Democrats have ruled the district for the last 15 years.
“If elected, we’re going to continue to work to bring back state resources to our districts, like we just did with an increase of over $14 million for our public schools, and continue to make New Jersey more affordable by increasing things like the homestead rebate, which helps senior citizens stay in their homes,” said Tully.
The year’s special elections are also unique in that they coincide with the midterms, when New Jersey’s two Senate and 12 Congressional representatives are up for re-election. Some of those races are tighter than might be expected, notably in Sen. Bob Menendez’s contest with Republican Bob Hugin.
In general, though, Democrats stand to benefit from a potential grassroots surge, Hale said. That includes down-ballot candidates in these special elections, who could see an added boost on top of other advantages.
“Right now I would say that all of the congressional races are trending mildly Democratic,” Hale said. “I don’t see any polls that say there is going to be a big Republican surge.”
“The members of the caravan down in Honduras would have to say that they were all coming to the 38th district for it to flip,” he added. “And that’s not happening.”