Greatly Outfinanced, GOP Candidates Try to Retake 11th District from Dems

Chase Brush | November 1, 2019 | Elections 2019, Politics
In what used to be a reliable district for GOP, main issues for both sides include school funding reform and property tax relief
Top row: Democratic candidates Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling; bottom row: Republican candidates Mike Amoroso, left, and Matt Woolley

Four years after ousting their Republican opponents in a surprise midterm election contest, two Democratic incumbents in South Jersey’s 11th Legislative District are on the defensive themselves in this year’s Assembly race.

Republicans Matt Woolley and Mike Amoroso, a political staffer and school board official, respectively, hope to turn the tables back on Democrats Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling, second-term incumbents who are looking to secure a third term in Trenton. While the race isn’t as competitive as some experts say it could be, the Republicans think they have an opening because of relatively low voter interest in this year’s election season, which features all 80 assembly seats at the top of the ticket.

Specifically, they’re hoping that the 11th, encompassing 18 towns in Monmouth County, has retained some of the qualities that have made it competitive for both parties. Though Democrats now occupy all three legislative seats, including the Senate seat, the district has historically favored Republicans, who have dominated politics in Monmouth County going back decades.

At play are various issues affecting more than 200,000 residents in the Shore district, from school funding reform to property tax relief. The Republicans have also sought to highlight the amount of super PAC spending in the race, arguing that the Democrats — who say they’re focused on running a positive campaign on the issues — are beholden to special interests outside the district.

Yet to be seen is whether the GOP hopefuls can overcome the incumbents’ clear advantages, which include considerable personal war chests. According to the latest reports filed with the Election Law Enforcement Commission, Downey and Houghtaling had raised $454,056.58 through Oct. 4, while Woolley and Amoroso only raised $43,481.10.

“It’s not on my list of districts that I’m really paying close attention to,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, of the contest. “So if something happens, it would be a surprise.”

Not a swing district?

Recent election results have upended the GOP’s hold in the 11th. The first setback came in 2015, when Houghtaling and Downey unseated former GOP incumbents Caroline Casagrande and Mary Pat Angelini in a very tight race. That too was a midterm election cycle, and Democrats leveraged former Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s spiraling unpopularity to secure their largest Assembly majority in 30 years.

The second upset came in 2017, when former Monmouth County Democratic chairman Vin Gopal ousted longtime Republican incumbent Jennifer Beck from her Senate seat.

Experts say the change in allegiance is at least partly due to demographics. According to voter rolls, Democrats outnumber Republicans 32% to 23% in the district, with the rest unaffiliated. And while Democrats in wealthy towns like Colts Neck and Neptune often fall more to the center of the political spectrum, they’ve been offset in recent years by more left-leaning voters in places like Asbury Park, which was added to the district in 2011.

Murray said there are other factors at play, too. One is the weakening of the Republican Party in general in the post-Christie era, which has given Democrats an advantage in races across the state. Another is the introduction of vote-by-mail ballots to New Jersey elections, which has made it easier for both parties to get out the vote but which Democrats in particular have taken advantage of.

“They seem to have gotten a handle on how to do that in this district,” said Murray, referring to the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote efforts. “So unless those dynamics change, I would say the 11th is off the table as a swing district right now.”

‘Bread and butter’

And yet this election does present its own challenges for the Democrats, observers note. As in other races, Republicans are seeking to tie the Democrats to Gov. Phil Murphy and his progressive policies, the popularity of which remain questionable in a moderate-leaning district like the 11th.

More locally, though, they’re also seeking to tie the incumbents to the outside special interest group that they say has helped buoy their campaigns over the last three elections — General Majority PAC, one of the largest and most active 527 political action committees in the state.

“In the last two cycles, they’ve spent almost $1.2 million,” said Amoroso, referring to General Majority PAC’s expenditures in the 11th district. “This is basically the people that butter their bread. I think that’s something the voters of this district need to understand.”

The criticism is one of the few real flashpoints in a race where the two sides have otherwise steered clear of each other. The Republicans say the General Majority PAC has been funding “deceitful” mailers in the 11th as well as elsewhere, such as one that draws a link between them and President Donald Trump.

General Majority PAC, which is supported by South Jersey power broker George Norcross III, has come under fire in recent months for its financial dealings, including for accepting money from companies and executives that had been given tax breaks because of their relationship with the politically connected Camden Democrat.

Accentuating the positive

Democrats, on the other hand, contend they have nothing to do with General Majority or its activities, noting that such super PACs — though allowed to independently spend unlimited sums in a race — are barred from making contributions to campaigns or parties. Downey and Houghtaling both said they are committed to running a “positive” campaign centered on the issues and on their accomplishments.

Downey, an attorney and former Deputy State Attorney General who defeated Angelini by less than 300 votes in 2015, said her focus in Trenton has been on pay equity and funding for women’s health care, among other things. Her bill on pay equity — signed by Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver (as acting governor) earlier this year — now makes it illegal for employers in the state to screen applicants based on their prior wages, salary, commission, benefits, or other compensation.

“We actually have statistics that women have lost over $500,000  over their lifetime based on” gender discrimination, Downey said. “And that needs to stop, because besides the fact that it’s unfair, families need two different incomes in the household just to survive in the state of New Jersey.”

Houghtaling, for his part, said he has been working to make it easier for towns to reduce spending, as well as enact property tax relief and other affordability measures for residents in the district. A retired electrician and former mayor of Neptune, he and Downey have authored legislation that would raise the annual income cap on the state’s Senior Freeze program, allowing homeowners making up to nearly $90,000 to qualify.

In addition, both Downey and Houghtaling cited school funding as a top concern for the district. The pair were among 54 Assembly members to support Senate President Steve Sweeney’s school funding reform bill (S-2) last year, which redistributed nearly $9 billion of aid to districts across the state.

Houghtaling said he and Downey have continued to work to increase efficiency and decrease costs within the district’s schools, including by consolidating underpopulated schools.

“So we’re trying to be helpful in the towns that have lost funding, but we’re also enhancing a lot of the other things that cost our school system money,” Houghtaling said. “And that’s a direction we have to go in.”

Republican rebuttal

Republicans, however, said the S-2 bill has had a “disastrous effect” on schools in the 11th. The reforms have been especially controversial in Monmouth County, where a number of school districts — including Freehold Regional  and Ocean Township — are now suing the state over cuts in aid.

The Republicans’ position on school affordability also convinced the Asbury Park Press, in a somewhat surprising move, to endorse them in the race this month, writing that “for District 11 residents concerned about high property taxes and a school funding … Amoroso and Woolley offer the best hope for some relief.”

“The funding formula is a black box, a mystery box, and we all know that that has to be resolved,” said Amoroso. “Everyone I speak to just cannot understand how we could be collecting tax money, sending it to Trenton, and then none of it comes back for our own schools.”

Amoroso, a former electrical engineer who is president of the Freehold Township Board of Education, said he and Woolley would work to restore funding for schools as well as increase affordability in general across the district. If elected, Amoroso said he would lower the cost of higher education for students, partly by encouraging business and corporate sponsorships.

Amoroso also criticized Murphy’s recent comments that single-issue voters who only care about taxes probably wouldn’t pick New Jersey as a place to live; Amoroso called the remarks “callous” and argued that Democrats’ support for the governor’s policies prove that they’re out of touch with residents in the district.

“Phil Murphy is not in the Legislature, but 96% of the time, they’re voting with his agenda,” Amoroso said. “So when they’re going around saying they want to make New Jersey more affordable, I don’t understand how that’s been going, because taxes have been going up.”

A former chief of staff to Republican Assemblyman Sean Kean (R-Monmouth), Woolley said he would use income tax revenues to increase school funding in the district, which would allow for a stricter cap on property taxes. And he said he would address funding issues with NJ Transit, which many commuters in Monmouth County rely heavily on.

On the issue of a minimum wage, Woolley said he opposed the Legislature’s recent vote to increase it to $15 but also said he’d support a legislative package introduced by Republican Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex) last year that would increase the minimum wage to $13 an hour and double the earned income tax credit to 80%, effectively raising take-home pay for workers to $15.

“I’m 29 and I’d like to live here the rest of my life,” Woolley said. “But I can see that the path we’re on, that likely won’t be possible. People, regardless of socioeconomic status, age, are struggling to live in this state. And we are running because we want to change that trajectory.”

Follow this link to an overview of the 11th Legislative District.