Money and Mail-In Ballots — Final Numbers Tell the Story of NJ’s Midterm Elections

November’s elections didn’t just give Democrats almost a clean sweep of the state’s congressional delegation. They broke records for spending and for the number of ballots cast by mail

New Jersey’s 2018 midterm elections were notable for more than turning nearly the entire state blue: A record number of voters cast their ballots by mail, and spending by candidates and outside committees was nearly three times higher than in the last midterms in 2014.

Candidates and committees spent more than $151 million on this year’s federal elections, according to an NJ Spotlight analysis of all data from the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets website for all campaign reports filed with the Federal Election Commission through Monday. All of the major party candidates and some independents have filed required reports showing campaign activity through November 26.

In 2014, which also included 12 House seats and one in the Senate, the total spending was close to $53 million.

A few factors contributed to the spending increase, which far outpaced inflation.

For one, anti-Trump sentiment in several traditionally Republican districts brought excitement and cash into areas largely ignored by Democrats in the past. Two open House seats, due to Republican retirements in the southernmost 2nd district and north Jersey’s 11th, added to the fervor. Primary battles in half the districts brought additional spending. The result was unheard of spending of more than $10 million in three districts — the 3rd, 7th and 11th — and Democrats outspending Republicans in every House race, including the only one the party lost, the 4th.

The most expensive race

The most expensive race turned out to be the closest, in the 3rd district spanning Burlington and Ocean counties. A total of nearly $23 million was spent there, with more than half of that by so-called outside interest groups. This race was the last one called in New Jersey, after the counting of provisional ballots, and in the end, Democrat Andy Kim bested incumbent Rep. Tom MacArthur by fewer than 4,000 of almost 307,000 ballots cast.

MacArthur’s campaign spent less this year — $4.7 million, including $1.4 million from the candidate himself — than the $5 million he personally spent in 2014 to win the open seat. The most pro-Trump incumbent running in New Jersey, MacArthur sought to overturn the federal Affordable Care Act — he helped draft the legislation; that effort and his support for last year’s federal tax revisions hurt his re-election bid.

Credit: Malinowski for Congress campaign
Democrat Tom Malinowski’s campaign outspent Republican incumbent Leonard Lance by more than 2-1 in the 7th district.
Almost $20 million was spent in another race considered too close to call throughout the campaign in the sprawling 7th district, which includes Union Townships in Hunterdon and Union counties. Republican Leonard Lance was considered vulnerable because the district had gone for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. Democrat Tom Malinowski rode the blue wave to a comfortable 5-point margin of victory. Malinowski’s campaign outspent Lance’s by more than 2-to-1, though Lance benefited more from the $10.6 million in outside spending. Still, Malinowski had the financial edge, and that — along with a majority of voters’ not buying Lance’s post-Trump moderation in some of his positions — proved unbeatable.

Democrat Mikie Sherrill, running in the 11th district, had the 16th largest war chest of any House candidate — almost $8.5 million — but may not have needed it. One of the most closely watched races in the state was predicted to be a close win for Sherrill, but she wound up trouncing Republican Jay Webber by almost 15 points. Between her campaign spending and that of outside groups, Sherrill spent more than six times what Webber spent. In total, the race cost $17.3 million.

Will Sherrill scare away competitors?

Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said it’s difficult to say whether Sherrill or any of the other candidates had raised too much money.

“Optimally, a challenger would not spend excessively, but of course what’s excessive is impossible to know before the votes are counted,” she said. “In any case, Mikie’s expensive, resounding victory has the effect of potentially scaring away competitors in 2020, who would view both the enormous sums she raised and her enormous margin of victory as a formidable obstacle to unseating her.”

Another major reason for the large increase in spending for the midterms was the candidacy of Republican and former pharmaceuticals executive Bob Hugin, who attempted in vain to unseat Democratic Senate incumbent Bob Menendez in one of the nastiest campaigns in state history.

Hugin spent $36 million of his own money and his total war chest of $39.2 million — to which individuals, businesses and other political committees contributed — was the fifth largest for a Senate race this year. Hugin’s deep pockets and those of a pro-Hugin political action committee with ties to former Gov. Chris Christie attracted a large $7.6 million outlay by the Senate Majority PAC and millions more from other outside groups.

In total, almost $71.5 million was spent on the race, with half of that Hugin’s personal funds and 27 percent in outside spending ($19.4 million). The race was the ninth most expensive in the country on the Senate side this year.

Cash wasn’t enough for Hugin

Credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez, Pool
Even spending $36 million of his own money didn’t achieve victory for Republican Senate candidate Bob Hugin.
Despite nearly $45 million spent by his campaign and by outside groups to benefit him and one political rating group calling it a toss-up two weeks before the balloting, Hugin lost the race by 11 percentage points, receiving almost 43 percent of the votes cast. Four years ago, Republican Jeff Bell spent less than $600,000 in an effort to oust the recently seated Sen. Cory Booker and Bell got 42 percent of the vote.

The expensive races in New Jersey are not surprising when put in a national context. OpenSecrets reported that the 2018 midterms broke several campaign finance records and were by far the most expensive midterms in history.

This year’s midterms also broke recent voting records in New Jersey, with 3.25 million people — 56 percent of all those registered — casting ballots.

Last Friday, the state Division of Elections broke down those numbers further, showing that 12.3 percent of all the votes cast — or more than 400,000 — were cast by mail, a new record for any election. It even exceeded the 356,000 vote-by-mail ballots in the 2016 presidential election, which had a larger overall turnout of 68 percent. In the 2014 midterms, more than 143,000 people voted by mail.

Vote-by-mail, advantage Democrats

Credit: Essex County Clerk's Office
Mail-in ballot
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said he had expected a record high number, at least in part due to the new state law that required county clerks to send a vote-by-mail ballot to everyone who voted by mail in the 2016 presidential election unless they opted out of getting one. Greater use of vote-by-mail ballots tends to favor Democrats, and that’s likely what happened this year, he said.

“The Democrats have been trying to push this for a while because they are more successful with this,” Murray said. “Republicans tend to be higher propensity voters. The target for Democrats is to get those low propensity voters to vote more regularly.”

More than seven in 10 people who requested a mail-in ballot returned it, a higher percentage than the overall turnout for the elections.