This year’s state legislative primaries should be quieter than 2017’s, even though there will be Democratic or Republican contests in more than 40 percent of Assembly districts — and in one case both nominations for the lower house will be up for grabs.
The deadline to file for the June 4 primary was Monday at 4 p.m. State Assembly races top the ballot this year in all but one district, where an unexpired Senate term will be contested. Off years such as this — without the governor on the ballot — tend to draw fewer candidates. As of 7:15 p.m., the state Division of Elections reported that 181 candidates from both major parties had filed for the Assembly slots. That’s nine fewer than two years ago.
This is a relatively stable year for lawmakers, with only four of 80 Assembly members deciding not to seek reelection. Two years ago, seven Assembly members gave up their seats to seek higher office or retire, which helped draw the larger field. This year, there are 17 districts where more candidates from one party or the other filed petitions to run for their party’s two nominations. All but three of the contests are among Democrats.
Campaigning for open seats
Two of this year’s contested primaries are for an open seat.
In the 5th District, where Democratic Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones is retiring after 22 years, there is a three-way Democratic primary. Assemblyman William W. Spearman of Camden is running with William F. Moen Jr., a Camden County freeholder. Theodore William Johnson Jr., a Woodbury councilman, also filed to run.
There also is a battle in the 25th District in Morris County, where Republican Michael Patrick Carroll chose not to run for a 13th two-year term. The Republican primary field has four candidates vying for two open slots. In addition to incumbent Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco, the GOP candidates are Aura Kenny Dunn, an unsuccessful Morris County freeholder candidate in 2018 and former staffer of now retired U.S. Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen from Mendham; Brian Bergen, a Denville councilman; and John M. Barbarula, a lawyer from Randolph.
These primary elections are important since their outcomes usually determine who will win in November in all but a handful of districts, because one party or the other dominates in most of the 40 districts. Each district has one Senator and two Assembly members. But even primaries with large fields of candidates often wind up being relatively undramatic because the candidates who get the backing of the county political parties typically win in a walk. That’s because very few people vote in these primaries — about 15 percent of registered Democrats and Republicans — and they tend to be the parties’ most faithful who follow the party line.
“In general, primary seasons in off-year elections are about as exciting as watching hair grow,” said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University. “The candidates with the county/party lines have a significant advantage over those off the line.”
Typically, though not always, it’s the incumbents who get party backing.
The races in the 8th
In the 8th District based in Burlington County, for instance, Assemblyman Joe Howarth lost the backing of the Republican Party after county GOP leaders thought he was planning to jump ship after that district’s Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego left the Republican Party to become a Democrat last January. Howarth denied he would do the same but still lost the party’s endorsement and so is running under the slogan of “MAGA Republicans,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. The GOP instead is backing Howarth’s fellow Assemblyman Ryan Peters and Jean Stanfield, the current Burlington County sheriff who plans to retire next month.
The Democratic ballot in the 8th District also features a contest, with the party-endorsed team of Gina LaPlaca of Lumberton and Mark Natale of Marlton facing John “Johnny” Bravo of Evesham. LaPlaca was unsuccessful in a bid to win an unexpired freeholder term last January.
Hale said this year’s primaries could be interesting if the national political winds blow into New Jersey districts.
“What might make this year interesting is if these main street, middle-of-the-road candidates get challenged by fringes on either side,” he said. “Traditional Republicans might get challenged by a Trump loyalist. Traditional Democrats might get challenged by so-called democratic socialists. Primary voters are historically more liberal and more conservative than the general population, so while unlikely, it is possible one of these insurgent campaigns on either side could catch fire.”
Other contested races
These are the other contested primary races:
Surveying the field
The Democratic Party fielded 98 candidates, at least two in every district. The Republican Party, which has fewer registered voters, is running 83 candidates. In three districts, the 7th in Burlington County, the 15th, and the 22nd, just one Republican filed, according to the Division of Elections’ report.
The sole open Senate slot is in the southernmost 1st District for the seat held by Jeff Van Drew before his election to Congress last fall. Just one Democrat, Bob Andrzejcak, who was appointed to fill the seat, and one Republican, Mike Testa of Vineland, filed petitions.
The primary winners in each party will face off with any independent candidates who file in June to run in the November election.
It should be a little easier for voters to contact candidates this year since, for the first time, they all had to include an email address when filing their petitions. The result of a law enacted last year, the email requirement is intended to make candidates more accessible. The Division of Elections published those email addresses separately.