Despite Low-Key Run-Up to Primaries, There Are Still Contests to Keep Tabs On

Residents tend to stay home when the Assembly is at the top of the ticket, but that can limit their say when legislators are determining public policy

After a quiet primary season in most legislative districts, New Jersey voters are heading to the polls today to choose November’s Republican and Democratic combatants for all 80 state Assembly seats, one Senate spot, and a host of county and municipal positions.

Years when the Assembly tops the ticket tend to be calmer, and this year is no exception. While there are 16 contested primaries in 15 districts — the 8th has contests for both the Democratic and Republican nominations — the challengers raised little money and were largely laid back in most districts.

In total, the 181 candidates for legislative seats had raised $12.4 million and spent slightly less than half that through last Wednesday, according to an analysis by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. Incumbents had 11 times more cash to spend in the campaigns’ final days than challengers.

Little reason to turn out

Political pundits said it makes little sense, as a practical matter, for voters to go to the polls today.

“From a pure cost-benefit standpoint, there really isn’t any rational reason for the vast majority of New Jersey voters to show up on Tuesday,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Very few offices have even nominal opposition to the party-endorsed slate and only a handful of those races are truly competitive. This is going to persist as long as we retain the archaic party-line ballot for primaries.”

Under state rules, only those voters registered with one of the major parties, or unaffiliated voters who declare a party at the polls, can vote in the primary and they can only vote for candidates in their party. The Democratic and Republican party committees in most counties endorse candidates — giving them the party line — and the few who vote tend to be loyalists who vote along the party line. A recent report by ELEC found that 97 percent of incumbents win re-election on average each year.

There are, however, a few races of particular note.

One is the 8th District that spans portions of Burlington, Atlantic, and Camden counties. Republicans hold the two Assembly seats currently but they are not running together. The junior Assemblyman, Ryan Peters of Hainesport, is paired with former Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield of Westhampton and this ticket has the backing of the Burlington County GOP. Assemblyman Joe Howarth of Marlton, meanwhile, is running with Jason Huf, an attorney from Lumberton.

Worried about a possible switch

The GOP took its support away from Howarth earlier this year when it accused him of planning to switch parties. Dawn Marie Addiego, the district’s longtime senator, became a Democrat several months ago, and the party feared Howarth was going to follow suit. Howarth, in his second two-year term, denied that and is now running as a MAGA — Make America Great Again — pro-Trump Republican.

This race has gotten a little nasty, with Howarth criticizing Stanfield for allowing an undocumented immigrant to be released from the county jail despite a request from federal immigration authorities that he be detained. Stanfield said that she was not responsible for the jail; in Burlington, a warden appointed by the freeholders oversees it. Meanwhile, the Burlington County GOP has tried to tie Howarth to Democratic Sen. President Steve Sweeney, and a union formerly headed by Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1st) put out a flyer that read, “’Traitor Joe Howarth. Fake MAGA. Democrat Stooge.”

There’s a three-way race for two Democratic slots to face the Republican ticket in November. Lawyers Mark Natale and Gina LaPlaca received the backing of the Burlington Democratic party. Johnny Bravo is also running as a Democrat.

Burlington battleground

This split district is likely to be a battleground in November for several reasons. Its registration skews Democratic — 32 percent versus 28 percent Republican — and Burlington County, which is the largest part of the district, has been trending blue recently. Democrats won control of the Burlington freeholder board last November and the county helped Democrat Andy Kim unseat Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur in the 3rd Congressional District. And two years ago, Howarth and Peters won election by less than 1 percent over Democrats who did little campaigning.

There is a three-person race for two Democratic seats in the 21st District, which encompasses parts of Union, Morris, and Somerset counties. Jill LaZare of Summit is making her third try at a legislative seat. Lisa Mandelblatt of Westfield, who had filed to run for Congress last year but then bowed out, and Stacey Gunderman of New Providence, are running as a team for their first time. Mandelblatt and Gunderman were endorsed by the Democratic committee in Union County, which holds the lion’s share of registered voters.

While reliably red, the 21st is another district that has been trending blue. Democrats make up 31 percent of those registered, compared with 28 percent Republican, and outnumber the GOP by almost 4,000 registrants. Most of the 21st is also in the 7th Congressional District, where last year voters ousted GOP incumbent Leonard Lance in favor of Democrat Tom Malinowski. The Republican Assembly members representing the district currently are Jon Bramnick, the minority leader, and Nancy Munoz. They have no primary opposition.

Another interesting race is the Republican primary in the 25th District that covers 20 Morris County municipalities and Bernardsville in Somerset. Longtime Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, a Republican, is giving up his seat to run for county surrogate. That has left the other GOP incumbent, Anthony M. Bucco, and three newcomers vying for the two slots in the historically red district. The other candidates are John M. Barbarula, an attorney from Randolph; Brian Bergen, a Denville veteran; and Aura Kenny Dunn, a Mendham woman who was the district director for former 11th Congressional District Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen. Bucco is expected to win, but because the Morris GOP is one of the few parties that does not endorse candidates, the second spot is up for grabs.

Information on the other contested races and the candidates in all 40 districts is available on NJ Spotlight’s primary election page.

Polls are open through 8 p.m. Voters can check their registration and polling places on the NJ Voter Information Page. But if the recent past is any indication, only a fraction of those registered will vote. Four years ago, the last time the Assembly topped the balloting, fewer than 283,000 New Jerseyans voted in the primary. That represented roughly 9 percent of registered Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans.

Not on residents’ radar

“Legislative and local elections are typically not on citizens’ radar — and that’s especially true when it comes to primaries,” said Ashley Koning, assistant research professor and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling. “Our polling has shown that most New Jerseyans are unaware of when legislative elections take place and are unable to correctly identify what office is at the top of the ticket or who their current legislators are. The handful of registered voters who turn out in primary elections are typically the most partisan, the most politically interested, and the most politically engaged. And even then, these primary voters will heavily rely on partisan cues to determine their vote choice.”

The biggest problem with low-turnout primaries is that very few voters wind up choosing the next state representatives, because whichever candidates win the primary also win the general election in all but a handful of New Jersey districts. That’s because one party or the other dominates in almost every district, which makes it difficult for the party out of power to win.

“While legislative elections may not be on New Jerseyans’ radar, who gets elected and the makeup of the Assembly, in particular, has an impact on New Jersey politics,” Koning said. “There are a lot of important issues right now — from marijuana legalization to taxes, the economy, and government spending — that the state Legislature has a direct hand in … Who wins the primary in June and then the general in November will of course play an important part in New Jersey policy making.”

Follow real-time results of today’s primary battles once the polls close on the homepage of NJ Spotlight, in conjunction with our sister site, NJTV News.