One Republican Assemblyman in South Jersey lost his bid for re-election on Tuesday in otherwise predictable primary elections. Voters nominated Democrats and Republicans who will square off in November for the right to represent the state’s 40 legislative districts in the Assembly, a state Senate seat in the southernmost 1st District and county and municipal offices.
Turnout appeared to be heavier than the last time the Assembly topped the ballot but was still light. The party nods in more than 60 percent of districts were uncontested. It was relatively quiet even in the 15 districts where one or both parties had contests. The 181 candidates for state seats spent little more than $6 million in total on their campaigns, which averages out to $33,000 apiece, though challengers spent far less, if anything.
The biggest news was in the 8th District that spans portions of Burlington, Atlantic, and Camden counties, where freshman Assemblyman Ryan Peters and former Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield will be the GOP standard-bearers in the fall. The team, which the Republican party supported, won with more than twice the votes of the other two contenders, including the other incumbent Republican.
It’s unusual for an incumbent to lose the support of his party but that’s just what happened to Assemblyman Joe Howarth, a Republican serving his second term. Running off the party line after Republicans suspected he was going to defect and become a Democrat, Howarth chose instead the label MAGA Republican and campaigned on a pro-Trump platform. He hoped that would be enough to overcome the loss of the party endorsement, but the party nod is very hard to beat in New Jersey. In this case, the Trump mantle didn’t deliver and Howarth was the only incumbent in New Jersey to lose.
The Burlington GOP, meanwhile, tried to “get out its own supporters and educate voters about Howarth’s Johnny-come-lately status” as a Trump backer, said Ben Dworkin, founding director of the Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University.
Another ‘weird’ twist
There was another “weird” twist in that race, said Matthew Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, with some labor unions backing Howarth “in hopes that he would be an easier target in November.”
Lumberton attorney Jason Huf polled a distant fourth.
The 8th District, which switched from red to split last January when Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego abandoned the GOP and became a Democrat, is likely to be the biggest battleground for the parties in the fall, Dworkin said. Republicans barely held the Assembly seats two years ago and are expected to spend big to try to keep those two seats. Democrats, who almost won with little effort in 2017, are likely to pump money from their larger coffers into the 8th to flip those seats.
Currently, Democrats hold 54 of the 80 Assembly seats, but if they take two more that would further strengthen the South Jersey delegation, over which Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and powerbroker George Norcross hold sway. Both men are currently engaged in a high-profile feud with Gov. Phil Murphy.
Gina LaPlaca and Mark Natale are the Democrats who will be trying to turn the 8th fully blue in November. The party-endorsed candidates easily won a three-person primary. Johnny Bravo, a chemical engineer from Marlton, finished third.
In the 25th District, based in Morris County, the retirement of Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll brought three challengers to join Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco on the Republican ballot. This has been a safely red district for more than four decades, but the incumbents got little more than 52 percent of the vote in 2017 and many of the municipalities in this district are also in the 11th Congressional District which Democrats decisively flipped in last year’s midterms. Brian Bergen, a veteran from Denville, will be joining Bucco, who easily outpolled all candidates, on the November ballot as they try to keep the district in Republican hands.
Significant for November?
The results in a couple of other closely contested races could be significant in November.
In the 21st District, where three Democrats were battling for the right to challenge Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz in November, the team of Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman were declared the winners by the Associated Press with 87 percent of votes counted. Gunderman got 39 percent and Mandelblatt 38 percent. Jill LaZare, seeking a district seat for the third time, received 22 percent and said that while she didn’t win, “I am very proud of the race we ran.”
“Tonight, we put Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz on notice that their terms are ending in November,” said Gunderman. “Now the real work begins. We are more than up for the challenge. Lisa and I have already knocked on hundreds of doors. Over the summer and fall we are going to knock on thousands more. Our opponents barely won in 2017, and with your help we’re going to finish the job in 2019.”
In the 16th District, where three Republicans vied for the right to challenge Democratic Assemblymen Andrew Zwicker and Roy Freiman, Mark Caliguire is taking a second shot at a seat — he lost in 2017 — and running with Christine Madrid. With nearly all votes counted, Caliguire polled 39 percent, Madrid 35 percent and Roger Locandro finished third with 26 percent.
Several other races throughout the state featured progressive Democrats battling organization candidates. For the most part, the upstarts are people who became active after the 2016 presidential election, but they are outnumbered and outgunned by lifelong Democrats. Dworkin was not expecting any to win, but he said if they were able to poll around 40 percent, party leaders would have to recognize them as a force.
Challengers fail to make inroads
In Camden, Middlesex and Union counties, the challengers did not poll anywhere near that well.
At best, the insurgent team of Carlos Rivas and Mark Lighten, running as Democrats United for Progress, got 35 percent of the vote in the 22nd District with all votes counted. Incumbent Assembly members Linda Carter and James Kennedy won there.
And in the 6th District in Camden, challengers Danie Moss-Velasco and Julian Jordan got just 23 percent of the vote, while the team of incumbent Assembly members Louis Greenwald and Pamela Lampitt won handily.
As for November, Dworkin said Democrats will continue to have a huge advantage in most locations, with Republicans playing more defense. That is, unless the feud between the governor and Democratic legislative leaders explodes into all-out war and splits the party.
“It’s a pretty good time to have a ‘D’ next to your name because people loathe the president,” he said. “Where that could change is if the Democrats’ infighting makes the state more than a little bit dysfunctional.”
These are the winners of the other contested primaries:
Get the full, updated results from NJTV News, our sister organization.