Election Day Preview: Last-Minute Campaigning and Late Spending

With Assembly races topping the ballot, voter interest has been low. And with few competitive races, what will turnout be like?

A relatively quiet election season in much of New Jersey culminates tomorrow as voters head to the polls to elect one state senator, the entire state Assembly, 1,600 school board members and countless county and municipal officials.

Also on the ballot are one statewide question, more than two dozen school spending proposals and a number of local questions — including the contentious proposal in Jersey City to regulate short-term rental accommodation through such online websites as Airbnb.

Polls across the state will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., although a database NJTV News received from the Department of State indicates that more than 200,000 voters had already cast ballots by mail as of last Tuesday. Close to 600,000 people, almost 10% of all those registered, were sent a vote-by-mail ballot this year and they can submit these up to and including Election Day; as long as they are postmarked Tuesday, Nov. 5 and received in county offices within 48 hours, they will be counted.

With Assembly races topping the ballot in all but one South Jersey legislative district, voter turnout is expected to be low — just 22% of those registered, or close to 1.2 million people, cast ballots the last time the lower house was the biggest race in 2015. But since then, the surge of voter engagement that followed the 2016 presidential election has led to an increase in turnout. For instance, the roughly 490,000 people who voted in the June primary represented a 73% increase over the 2015 turnout, compared with an increase of just 9% in the total number of registered voters for the same period.

GOP’s anti-Murphy strategy

At the state level, what’s at stake is control of the Assembly, where all 80 seats are up for grabs. Republicans generally are running a campaign against Gov. Phil Murphy, contending he is too liberal and — depending on the district — attacking his pro-immigrant policies, school aid cuts to wealthy districts or new taxes on Airbnb short-term rentals, online sales and Uber rides. Democrats’ campaigns vary more based on the district but have been targeting Republicans’ votes against gun control measures and women’s health care.

GOP candidates also are seeking to put a check on the Democrats, who currently control both the Senate and Assembly. That’s a tall order, though, because it would require the GOP to flip 15 seats in the lower house. At most, they may have a chance of picking up eight in the four districts where Democratic incumbents may be vulnerable, although they themselves also need to defend six seats in races considered close.

There’s just one Senate seat in play in this election cycle; in the southernmost 1st District Democrat Bob Andrzejczak, who was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Jeff Van Drew when he was elected in last year’s congressional election, is running for the full term. Republicans have been spending heavily on that race to support attorney Mike Testa’s attempt at unseating Andrzejczak in a district where Republican voters outnumber Democrats. The state Republican Committee and Senate Republican Majority have funded about two-thirds of Testa’s $411,000 war chest, according to reports filed with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Democrat Bob Andrzejczak was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Jeff Van Drew.

But Andrzejczak and his Assembly running mates have outraised and outspent the Republicans on their own and gotten significant help from General Majority PAC (political action committee), a pro-Democrat committee tied to South Jersey power boss George Norcross — the insurance executive gave $600,000 to the PAC last week. The Democratic incumbents had spent close to $1.1 million through Oct. 25 and General Majority reported spending about $550,000 independently — without coordinating with the candidates — on those races in just the last two weeks.

All this spending has made the 1st District the most expensive in the state this year, ELEC reported. The candidates have spent more than $1.5 million, with independent groups spending another $1 million, much of that on ads and mailers.

“Battleground or swing districts historically tend to attract the largest amounts of money and this year is no exception,” said Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director. “These usually are districts where margins of victory are smallest and both parties see opportunities.”

The money tally

Overall, however, total spending this year is about $3 million behind the 2015 contests at this point. At close to $20 million, spending by candidates is up about 13% over four years ago. But independent groups are spending only about half of what they did in 2015, with ELEC calculating an estimated $5.4 million spent through Oct. 31. General Majority PAC was by far the biggest independent spender, responsible for almost half of the total and spending most of that in three South Jersey districts, the 1st, 2nd and 8th.

“Independent spending has nose-dived,” said Brindle. “Barring a surprise Pearl Harbor-style sneak attack … which seems less likely with each passing day, this will go down as the smallest spending by independent groups since 2011, when they first became a significant player in legislative elections.”

Still, money is important in elections and past results have shown that better financed candidates, particularly incumbents, tend to win. Little nonpartisan polling is done for Assembly races, but a Stockton University poll last month found the Democrats leading in the 1st.

The only other independent poll released shows a similar situation in the neighboring 2nd District, which includes Atlantic City, with the better-financed Democratic incumbents holding a slight lead over their GOP rivals. A Stockton poll released last week gave incumbents Vincent Mazzeo and John Armato small leads over opponents Phil Guenther and John Risley, although the 4-to-5-point leads are essentially within the poll’s margin of error. And this is one of the state’s rare split districts, with a Republican senator, who is not on the ballot, and Democratic Assemblymen so it is considered a battleground.

“A low-turnout election would typically favor incumbents who are generally better known and better funded,” said John Froonjian, interim executive director of Stockton’s William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy. “But the 2nd District is always competitive. Partisan party control of these Assembly seats has flipped between the major parties multiple times for several decades.”

Trying to oust Bramnick

The second most costly race this year is one that had been considered solidly red, despite a Democratic registration advantage, until 2017, when the GOP incumbents won by roughly 4 percentage points, the second smallest victory margin in the state that year. While the candidates in the 21st District, which includes Union County, have spent close to $1.4 million, independent groups have added another $764,000 to the total.

Credit: NJTV News
Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union)

There, Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, the GOP leader in the lower house, and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz are facing opposition on both the left — from well-funded Democrats Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman — and the right — independents Martin Marks and Harris Pappas, who are running as conservatives.

Because of the changing demographics and the chance that the conservative independents could take votes from the incumbents, some pundits say the 21st is the most likely district to flip.

Another district they are watching is the 8th centered in Burlington County, where Democrats came close to winning a seat two years ago and only one incumbent Republican is on the ballot. Mark Natale and Gina LaPlaca, both lawyers and political novices, have spent more than $600,000 on their own and General Majority PAC has paid for mailers boosting them and critical of incumbent Assemblyman Ryan Peters and former Burlington sheriff Jean Stanfield. The Republicans have spent about half as much and, having gotten the endorsement of the state’s largest teachers union, may be benefiting from some of the $550,000 spent by the New Jersey Education Association’s dark money organization, which reported to ELEC the amount expended but not where they spent it.

The 25th District, based in reliably red Morris County, is another battleground. The death of the district’s former senator — along with election deadlines — have meant that the Republican candidates are political newcomer Brian Bergen and someone to be determined later because the other person on the ballot, Anthony Bucco, has already been sworn into the state Senate to succeed his father, who died in September. Democrats Lisa Bhimani and Darcy Draeger have been running an aggressive campaign and hope to capitalize on the situation, arguing the GOP is asking voters to elect an unknown.

Governor’s weekend blitz

Murphy began campaigning for candidates and rallying the get-out-the-vote effort last Friday, though he spent most of his time over the last three days in safe north Jersey Democratic areas in Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Mercer, Middlesex and Passaic counties. The governor and his wife Tammy Murphy did, however, also make a half dozen combined appearances in Morris County, which had been reliably red for decades but where voters last year helped elect Mikie Sherrill, the first Democrat in more than 30 years, to the 11th Congressional District.

“Tuesday’s election is an opportunity for New Jersey Democrats to unite behind candidates who share our values and who will work to continue the tremendous progress we’ve made together,” Murphy said in a statement. “Over the past two years, we’ve seen Democrats win in parts of New Jersey that have rarely elected Democrats before, because voters recognize and embrace that our state is becoming stronger and fairer every day. I believe Tuesday’s results will be further confirmation of that fact.”

Murphy has not yet ventured deep into South Jersey, and he may not, given his presence may not help the candidates in the 1st and 2nd districts. Cape May County, in the 1st, has sued Murphy’s Attorney General Gurbir Grewal over his immigrant trust directive, which limits statewide law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration officials to situations in which there is a valid warrant for an individual signed by a judge. And last week’s Stockton poll found Murphy’s approval rating in the 2nd District to be just 31%, trailing President Donald Trump by 7 points.

In addition to the Assembly races, one public question is on the ballot statewide, which asks voters to give a small tax break to a few thousand veterans and their spouses at a cost of less than $1 million a year. If that is approved, veterans who served during a time of war or other emergency and live in a continuing care retirement community would get the same $250 annual property-tax deduction that veterans who own their own home receive. People living in one of the state’s 25 CCRCs, which provide housing options ranging from traditional units to assisted living and long-term care, do not pay property taxes individually, but do so through their monthly fees to the community.

A host of other seats are also on the local ballot. Depending on the county and municipality, there may be county freeholder, clerk and sheriff seats and openings for mayors and council members.

According to the New Jersey School Boards Association, 1,560 seats on boards of education statewide are on the ballot. There are also 26 school-related questions, all but one of which deals with spending. Eight school districts — North Arlington, Ramsey, Saddle Brook, Collingswood, Newfield, Metuchen, Netcong and North Warren Regional — are looking to spend more than the 2% tax levy cap allows. Ten others — Palisades Park, Verona, Flemington Raritan Regional, Rumson, Red Bank, Freehold Regional, Florham Park, Lavallette, Hackettstown and Oxford — are seeking approval for construction plans worth close to a total of $240 million.

Voters can check the sample ballot they should have received in the mail for all their local contests. NJ Spotlight’s Elections 2019 page has a wealth of information about the statewide races, including a map to help find your legislative district, summaries of the races in all 40 districts and ways to find out whether you are registered and where you should go to vote.

For those who can’t make it to the polls and did not receive a vote-by-mail ballot, early in-person voting, which is done by mail-in ballot, is available through 3 p.m. today, at county clerk’s offices across the state.

NJ Spotlight will be partnering with NJTV News to present up-to-the-minute results for the legislative races and statewide question as soon as they are available. Check NJ Spotlight’s home page tomorrow for a link. NJTV News will be providing results on a special live broadcast at 11 p.m. tomorrow night.