Low voter interest — common in midterm elections — is having a dampening effect in most Assembly races around the state this year. But in a few cases, it could do the opposite, creating an opening for challengers and heightening the stakes for incumbents.
One such place is in central Jersey’s 16th Legislative District, where Democratic incumbents Andrew Zwicker and Roy Freiman are looking to fend off a challenge by Republicans Mark Caliguire and Christine Madrid. The latter have sought to use the quietness of the election season to their advantage, hoping to turn out voters frustrated with the agenda of Gov. Phil Murphy, now halfway through his first term.
Both sides are already campaigning hard, with the Republicans engaged in an energetic ground game and the Democrats up on the airwaves with their first ads of the season.
The outcome of the race may also have larger implications for the future of the district, one of a few in the state where Republicans and Democrats share representation.
“I think the 16th is really interesting because this only became a Democratic district five years ago,” said Matthew Hale, political science professor at Seton Hall University. “So this is the type of election that could really solidify the 16th and put it in the Democratic column for good.”
A district that warrants close attention
All 80 Assembly seats are up for grabs in the Nov. 5 elections but, said Hale, only in seven districts are voter rolls between parties close enough to warrant any real attention, underscoring Democrats’ increasing dominance in the state.
The 16th is one of those battlegrounds; though, as Hale noted, it may not be for long. Covering parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset counties, the wealthy suburban district has historically been a stronghold for Republicans, who have held the two Assembly seats and one state Senate seat going back decades. The party still holds the seat in the Senate with Sen. Kip Bateman, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1994.
But the district’s GOP-friendly demographics have changed in recent years, triggered in part by a reapportionment in 2011 that brought Democratic towns like Princeton and South Brunswick into the fold. Democrats now outnumber Republicans, with 33% of voters registered under the former and 25% under the latter, and the rest unaffiliated.
Experts say that shift opened the door for Democratic candidates like Zwicker, a physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory who entered Trenton in 2016 after defeating former Republican Assemblywoman Donna Simon. Marking the halfway point of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s second term, that too was a low-turnout election cycle, and Zwicker was elected with a razor-thin margin of 78 votes.
But he secured a more comfortable victory two years later, teaming up with Freiman to beat out Simon and Caliguire for a seat vacated by former Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, who left to run for his party’s gubernatorial nomination. In the upper house race, notably, Bateman nearly lost his seat to Democrat Laurie Poppe, winning by a single point.
Hale said the Democrats are likely looking to definitively prove their supremacy this year, pointing out that the party is already running two slick television ads. The Zwicker-Freiman team is also on track to far outraise the Republican opponents: According to the latest candidate and committee reports released by the Election Law Enforcement Commission, the Republicans reported raising $35,148 and spending $34,656 through October 4, while the Democrats raised $421,246 and spent $364,797.
“The fact that Zwicker and his partner are running fairly sizeable ad campaigns, that’s not something that normally happens,” Hale said. “And that’s just another indication of how Democrats are trying to run up the score in that district.”
Referendum on the governor?
Still, Republicans aren’t deterred by the registration disadvantage. They note that many of the district’s unaffiliated voters lean right, and that the R-versus-D disparity is unlikely to be as significant an issue during a midterm election year when the Assembly is alone atop the ticket. As with other GOP campaigns in the state, they’re also hoping to harness any backlash against Murphy, whose progressive policies, they argue, are alienating many voters in the 16th.
“We’re going to be outspent,” said Caliguire. “We’re at a disadvantage, no question about it. So that’s frustrating, but I think people recognize that we need to change direction and maybe have a healthier debate in Trenton.”
A former mayor of Montgomery and Somerset County freeholder, Caliguire pointed to several recent moves by Murphy that he said fall far outside many voters’ comfort zones. One was the Democrat’s recent vow to a sign a bill giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants if it were to reach his desk, a decision Murphy called a “no-brainer.”
Another move was the administration’s recent directive to county sheriffs requiring them to comply with state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s “sanctuary” policy regarding the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and the detention of undocumented immigrants. That has drawn the ire of many other Republicans — as well as some Democrats — in the state.
“He’s an ideologue, and he’s probably left of a good portion of the caucus in both the Assembly and the Senate. And his actions and his words show that,” Caliguire said. “So if this is Phil Murphy’s midterm, I think this should be, and I think will be, a referendum on his leadership as governor.” Caliguire also noted that there is no mention of the governor in the Democrats’ first two campaign ads.
Instead, Caliguire said the Republican campaign is working to focus on issues that are relevant to voters on both sides of the aisle. Those include the state’s economy, which he said is one of the slowest-growing in the country, as well as school aid, which Republicans in suburban districts like the 16th accuse Murphy of unfairly distributing.
GOP candidates critical of Democratic monopoly
He also criticized Democrats’ monopoly on power in Trenton, which he said has crippled the Legislature’s ability to tackle the state’s most challenging problems.
Madrid, who served as director of the Division of Temporary Disability and Family Leave Insurance under Christie and like Caliguire is also a former mayor of Montgomery, cited those issues as top priorities for the campaign to NJTV News as well.
“I’m running for State Assembly in the 16th Legislative District because New Jersey needs common-sense Republicans to serve as a check against the increasingly radical policies being pushed by Governor Murphy and Trenton Democrats,” Madrid said. “As the mother of two young children, I am deeply concerned about the direction of our state under Governor Murphy.” (Madrid did not respond to attempts to reach her for this story.)
In turn, however, the Democrats criticized their opponents for staking so much of their campaign on Murphy, accusing them of a lack of vision. Zwicker, who gained political prominence in 2014 when he ran to succeed fellow scientist and former U.S. Rep. Rush Holt in the 12th district, said the race should be about the issues, not talking points.
Zwicker: ‘You can’t just be against something’
“Our opponents seem to be running a campaign against the governor, which I would argue is a losing strategy,” Zwicker said. “You can’t just be against something, you have to be for something.”
Freiman also characterized Republicans’ anti-Murphy focus as a weakness, calling the approach “sad.” A former Prudential executive and first-term legislator, Freiman considers himself still a newcomer to politics and has sought to position himself as a bridge builder in Trenton, where he said he laments the lack of cooperation between parties.
To that end, Freiman said that upon taking office last year he started a bipartisan group called the “218 Club,” which brings together Democratic and Republican freshman legislators before each voting session to talk about upcoming legislation. The Democrat said the initiative, which was named after the 218th legislative session, has led to a number of fruitful collaborations.
“It’s disappointing when people say that a race is about a referendum, or it’s about Rs versus Ds,” Freiman said. “Because then you’re just creating an us-them approach. And I got involved in politics because that divide was just growing and growing.”
Both incumbents also stressed the collaborative nature of their own relationship. Freiman said he’s been working to foster a healthier business environment in the state, including for hospitals and pharmaceutical companies in the 16th. One bill recently passed in the Assembly would expand access to elective angioplasty, a common and potentially lifesaving procedure that is permitted only at certain facilities.
“If you want affordability in New Jersey, you have to have a thriving economy, and a thriving business environment,” Freiman said. “Those things go hand in hand.”
Zwicker, meanwhile, said his focus is on promoting the “innovation economy,” tackling climate change, and improving voter rights. He serves as chair of the Assembly’s Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, and recently authored a “dark money” bill that would force politically active nonprofits or 501(c)(4) groups to disclose their high-dollar contributors in elections. That bill was signed into law by Murphy last June, but is now on hold after a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional earlier this month.
Freiman and Zwicker have also co-sponsored dozens of bills together, including recent legislation that would lower the voting age in primary elections to 17 for those turning 18 by the general election in the same year.
“One of my top priorities, at least legislatively, is how can we increase turnout regardless of political party,” Zwicker said. “This, plus protecting clean water and air, plus growing jobs, I’d say those are critically important issues.”
Follow this link to an overview of the 16th District.