Candidates in NJ Legislative Primaries Not Looking to Burn Through a Lot of Cash

With only one Senate seat up for grabs and no hotly contested races, there are no reasons for the big money to get pumped into an election

money to burn
Campaign fundraising in New Jersey’s legislative primaries is at its lowest level in a decade, but not too far off the pace of a typical year when Assembly seats are at the top of the ballot.

The 181 candidates seeking the Democratic and Republican nominations for Assembly in all 40 legislative districts and one special Senate election in the 1st District have raised a little more than $11 million and spent close to half that, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission’s analysis of their most recent campaign reports. As of 29 days before the election, that meant the candidates had $5.6 million to spend toward their June 4 primary efforts.

That’s the smallest war chest amassed since 2009, when Assembly candidates took in $10.3 million, although it’s only slightly less than the $11.5 million raised by this point in 2015, the last time the Assembly ran without the Senate. Because candidates have spent less money so far this year than four years ago, they entered the last month of the race with slightly more cash on hand to spend.

Special-interest groups sitting out race

“It’s still early in the election year,” said Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director. “So far, we’ve seen no involvement with the legislative primary by independent special-interest groups. In 2015, they spent more than $900,000 just in the primary. In 2017, when both houses were running, they spent $2.2 million. This year, there appear to be no hotly contested primary races. So there is little incentive for independent groups to participate.”

This year’s primary field is slightly smaller than two years ago and the races have been relatively quiet. Fourteen of the 40 districts have a contested primary on either the Democratic or Republican side. Both parties have contests in the 8th District, which includes much of Burlington County and parts of Atlantic and Camden. Each legislative district has one senator and two assembly members.

Incumbents have a huge money lead over challengers, having brought in 95 cents of every $1 raised through May 3. That helps put the odds in their favor. It is difficult to knock off an incumbent; ELEC reports that 97 percent of incumbents have won re-election since 2001.

“Except in years with major anti-incumbent backlash, such as after the big tax hikes of 1990, incumbents typically start with an enormous upper hand over challengers,” Brindle said.

“More people know the names of incumbents. Incumbents have more money. They usually have party support. Plus, they already are in a position to advocate for supporters.”

Challenger with deep pockets

The best-funded candidate who is not an incumbent is Michael Testa Jr. A Republican hoping to knock out Bob Andrzejczak, recently chosen by Democratic committee members to fill the 1st District Senate seat previously held by Jeff Van Drew, Testa had raised about $79,000 through May 3. He has no primary opponent. Andrzejczak, who also has no challenger, is a former Assemblyman and has reported raising no funds on his own. A joint committee with the district’s two Assembly members have raised $23,000 so far.

The biggest fundraiser so far has been Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, a Republican representing the 21st District that includes parts of Union, Morris, and Somerset counties. Bramnick, who had raised $552,000 as of his last report, does not have a primary opponent but could have a tough general election battle as his district has more registered Democrats than Republicans and has been getting bluer in recent years.

One of Bramnick’s likely election opponents in the fall is Lisa Mandelblatt, a Westfield attorney who had toyed with running for Congress last year. Mandelblatt is running in a three-woman Democratic primary. She has raised the most money so far, $58,000 on her own and close to $16,000 with running mate Stacey Gunderman. Gunderman has received some $4,400 on her own so far. Jill LaZare, the third Democrat on the ballot, has raised almost $10,000.

Despite Bramnick’s fundraising success, Republicans trail Democrats badly in the primary money race, having received just a quarter of all the funds raised through May 3.

The Democrats who had the largest war chests as of their most recent reports both have primary challengers and are in districts considered safely blue.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer of the 36th District that straddles Passaic and Bergen counties had raised $513,000 and had $355,000 in the bank. Vice chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, Schaer and fellow Assemblyman Clinton Calabrese are facing a token challenge from Edward Tolga Gonca, who had taken in just $800. Calabrese had the ninth largest bank balance — $165,000.

Close behind Schaer is Assemblyman Joseph Egan, the chair of the Assembly Labor Committee from the 17th District, which includes parts of Middlesex and Somerset counties. Egan had $317,000 in the bank, having raised $379,000 and spent $62,000. He and Assemblyman Joe Danielsen are facing a challenge from Ron Rivers, a progressive Democrat from North Brunswick. Danielsen had $75,000 and Rivers had $16,000 on hand.

This year’s primary is June 4. A wealth of information and resources is available on NJ Spotlight’s Primary 2019 page.