Next Month’s Assembly Elections Feature Several Heated Battles

All 80 Assembly seats are up for grabs and one Senate seat, but voter turnout is expected to be low

Election Day 2019 is less than a month away, but in most parts of New Jersey, there is little or no evidence of the battle for control of the state Assembly.

Yet in seven legislative districts, the major parties are engaged in heated struggles, already running ads on cable television and sending mailers to registered voters touting their candidates or berating their opponents.

At stake is control of the lower house of the Legislature, where all 80 seats are up for grabs. Republicans want to put a check on Gov. Phil Murphy and the Democrats who control both the Senate and Assembly. That’s a tall order, though, because it would require the GOP to flip 15 seats. At most, they may have a chance of picking up eight. But they also need to defend six seats that Democrats in turn are trying to flip to their side.

“The Democrats have truly maximized the effectiveness of the current legislative districts map,” said Ben Dworkin, founding director of the Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University. “They have the Republicans playing defense in three previously solid Republican districts. They are able to make these races competitive because they have the resources to do it.”

He added that the Democratic Party has made huge gains in voter registration over the last decade. Between 2007 and last month, the number of registered Democrats in the state almost doubled, while the number of registered Republicans rose by about half and the number of voters who are unaffiliated with either party has remained virtually the same. At the same time, the Democratic Party has increased its registration advantage over the GOP from about 300,000 to close to 1 million.

“All those newly registered Democrats have to live somewhere,” Dworkin continued. “Where they are living is in Burlington County, eastern Morris County, Somerset and Union counties.”

Those are where the longtime red districts with vulnerable incumbents are located, and where some heavy campaigning has already begun.

On the offensive in the 8th District

In the 8th District, which covers parts of Burlington, Camden and Atlantic counties, Democrats Gina LaPlaca and Mark Natale have been on the offensive for weeks and recently launched their first ads on Facebook. They have been hammering at incumbent Assemblyman Ryan Peters and running mate Jean Stanfield, the former Burlington County sheriff, over their support from the National Rifle Association and support for Trump tax and proposed health insurance changes.

General Majority PAC, a SuperPAC with ties to South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross, has also been active, sending out multiple mailers blasting the Republicans over the issue of gun control.

But Peters and Stanfield have received the endorsement of the New Jersey Education PAC, two of 14 Republicans endorsed by the state’s largest teachers union. In all, the NJEA PAC has recommended 60 candidates. (NJEA endorsements are coveted because of the union’s large membership base and clout and because it often contributes to candidates or spends money in races where it has endorsed candidates.)

The union also endorsed GOP incumbents in two other districts where the union’s large membership base and clout could make the difference: the 21st and 25th districts.

The NJEA PAC’s endorsement of Assemblyman Anthony Bucco in the 25th District helps the Republican, but there are other issues complicating the race there. Bucco’s father, the district’s longtime senator, died last month at age 81. Assemblyman Bucco is the favorite to replace his father at an Oct. 15 convention of party committee members to decide who gets the seat. It’s technically too late to replace Bucco on the Assembly ballot, so his name will  remain on the ballot, even though he cannot hold both seats.

Going after Bucco in the 25th District

That has prompted the campaign of Democratic challengers Lisa Bhimani, an ob/gyn, and Darcy Draeger, a former Wall Street analyst who now operates a small farm, to criticize Bucco, saying his action is designed to circumvent the will of voters — if Bucco is elected to the Senate and then the Assembly, he would presumably resign the Assembly seat, leaving it up to another GOP convention to fill.

Matt Hale, a professor of political science at Seton Hall University, said it’s unclear how that will all play out.

“You never know if voters will see the Senator’s passing as an opportunity to move on to a Democrat or will give sympathy and respect to him by staying with Republicans,” he said. “I think it was competitive before and still is.”

There are other considerations that could help the Democrats in the 25th District. Bucco is the only incumbent on the ballot, as fellow Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll gave up his seat for an unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination for Morris County surrogate. Brian Bergen, a small business owner and previously unknown, is the other GOP Assembly candidate.

 NJ Spotlight’s elections page has all our coverage, including information on every race and a map to help readers find their districts.

Bhimani has some name recognition, having lost an effort to unseat the elder Bucco two years ago; she also received an NJEA endorsement. While Republicans continue to outnumber Democrats in the 25th — 34 % of those registered are Republicans, compared with 29% who are Democrats — many of the municipalities in this district are also in the 11th Congressional District that Democrats decisively flipped in last year’s midterms. In 2017, Bucco and Carroll won by fewer than 5 percentage points and the Democrats are hoping voters will continue to move leftward.

The Democrats are already running cable TV ads, ones that do not mention their party affiliation. The Republicans have attacked Draeger in mailers for getting a preferential farmland assessment for her property in Chester Township. But the Democrats’ campaign complained that the attack is false, as Draeger is running the farm as her primary job.

Another battleground: 21st District

The demographics and voting trends in the neighboring 21st District make that another battleground, despite it being the home district of Assembly Republican leader Jon Bramnick. Bramnick and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz won re-election in the district that encompasses parts of Union, Somerset and Morris counties by little more than 4 percentage points two years ago, the second smallest margin of victory in the state that year. Voters in the district helped flip the 7th Congressional District seat to blue last year and backed Democrat Hilary Clinton for president in 2016.  Those results have encouraged Democratic candidates Lisa Mandelblatt, who chairs freshman Rep. Tom Malinowski’s Union County campaign efforts, and Stacey Gunderman, a sales professional.

While this has been a reliably red district, the 21st has more registered Democrats than Republicans —   31% versus 28%.

The first campaign finance reports of the general election are still more than a week from being released publicly, but it is expected to be an expensive race. Bramnick is the leader of the GOP Assembly campaign effort and Mandelblatt showed she can raise money when she flirted with a congressional run last year.

Bramnick has already posted several ads and recently released one with Munoz in which they complain about attack mailers by the Democrats. Mandlelblatt and Gunderman have their own video casting the incumbents as chickens for not agreeing to debate.

Further complicating this race are a pair of independents, Martin Marks and Harris Pappas. Running as conservatives, they complain that the Republicans voted to increase the gas tax, that Bramnick does not support the president and that he has “presided over an extraordinary loss of state-wide Republican seats in the Assembly.”

The independents are counting on winning conservative Republican votes and the Democrats are hoping that moderates are still angry over the 2016 election and will channel that into votes for them. If both of those things happen, Bramnick and Munoz could be in trouble.

Watching for wins by women

“The districts that I think are most interesting are where Democratic women are running,” Hale said. “The 8th, 25th and 21st all have this dynamic. Wins by women in these districts would show the outrage at Republicans for Trump is still powerful.”

Incumbents have a built-in advantage any election year — they have greater name recognition and typically raise more money. But that is especially true in a year like this one, when the Assembly tops the balloting. That’s because off-year elections tend to have low voter turnout.

“Turnout is going to be extremely low, probably in the low 20s,” Dworkin said. “It will be the partisans on both sides and the very consistent voters like senior citizens.”

Because of the expected small numbers of voters, Dworkin said anyone who can motivate and mobilize people to go to vote “can really magnify the impact on the election.”

Voter enthusiasm in the state has increased in the years following the 2016 presidential election and, while still light – 14% of all registered Democrats and Republicans cast ballots — turnout in last June’s primaries was higher than average. In 2015, the last time the Assembly topped the ballot, 22% of those registered voted.

There are a number of districts where Democrats need to be vigilant or they risk losing their seats.

Reason for Dems to be nervous in 11th and 16th districts?

Both Districts 11 and 16 were red until recently. The 11th, in Monmouth County, is fully blue and Democrats hold both Assembly seats in the 16th, based in Somerset and Hunterdon, while the senator is a Republican. Democrats won their Assembly seats in both districts two years ago, though by relatively small margins and the GOP would like to take them back.

Hale said this year’s results in the 11th and 16th districts could determine their bent going forward, although the redrawing of legislative district boundaries after next year’s census is likely to change their borders.

“Both of those used to be strong Republican, then swing districts and are now owned by popular Democrats,” he said. “If the Democrats win, you can say they might have flipped for good.” In the 11th, Democratic incumbents Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey are being challenged by Matthew Woolley and Michael Amoroso. In the 16th, the GOP’s Mark Caliguire and Christine Madrid are trying to unseat Assemblymen Andrew Zwicker and Roy Freiman.

The 2nd District in Atlantic County has long been a split district, although the specific seats controlled by Democrats or the GOP have shifted. It’s another place where Republicans are pushing hard to unseat the Democratic incumbents. It’s possible the recent resignation of the mayor of Atlantic City Frank Gilliam Jr. after pleading guilty to stealing from a youth basketball team and the city’s continuing struggles could be used by the challengers to help their case.

The southernmost 1st District has been fully in Democratic hands for several years after previously being split, but Republicans smell blood and are waging a heated battle for all three seats. That district’s Democrats tend to vote more conservatively than the rest of the party, but the GOP challengers are arguing they are too liberal. The Republicans also have made an issue out of state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s immigrant trust directive and order that counties not cooperate with federal immigration agents unless they have a legitimate warrant signed by a judge.

The only Senate seat on the ballot

Bob Andrzejczak moved up from the Assembly to the Senate to replace popular Democrat Jeff Van Drew, who won a seat in Congress last November, so that is the only Senate seat on the ballot. Challenging Andrzejczak is Republican Mike Testa. There is a full GOP slate opposing the Assembly incumbents, as well.

The public will get a better idea of both parties’ priorities when the first financial reports are released next Thursday by the state’s election watchdog, as well as how expensive these races may be.

There is also one public question on the November ballot. Voters are being asked to decide whether veterans can obtain a property-tax deduction even if they live in continuing-care retirement communities. It requires a constitutional amendment to allow an existing $250 veterans’ deduction to be expanded to include people age 60 and older living in such communities.

The election is November 5, but many voters may be voting earlier by mail.

NJ Spotlight’s elections page has all our coverage, including information on every race and a map to help readers find their districts.