Spending on NJ’s Elections Hit a Record Low This Year Except in Jersey City

Colleen O'Dea | December 4, 2019 | Elections 2019, Politics
Low-key legislative races had a relatively low price tag, but Jersey City’s contentious ballot question and school board elections drew big money
Assembly Republican leader Jon Bramnick, with running mate Nancy Munoz and Senate GOP leader Tom Kean on election night; Bramnick spent the most of any single candidate.

This year’s legislative elections in New Jersey were the least expensive in a decade. By contrast, Jersey City provided the most expensive local ballot question ever — on the regulation of short-term accommodation rentals — and the most expensive school board races, according to new analyses by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.

The relatively low price tag of about $25 million spent on legislative races was likely due to the low-key nature of most of the contests — with all 80 Assembly seats and one Senate spot topping the ballot — and the comparatively low spending by independent groups, said Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director.

“It followed one of the most controversial, expensive legislative races in history in 2017,” he said, referring to the battle over Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney’s 3rd District seat representing Salem County and parts of Gloucester and Cumberland, which cost $18.7 million. “Maybe campaign donors needed a break.”

While most of the races were not very contentious, more voters took notice than in 2015, the last time the Assembly was the highest office up for grabs. According to the New Jersey Division of Elections, more than 1.6 million people voted in last month’s general election, or 27% of those registered. While that may not seem like a lot, it represents an increase of more than 450,000 voters or about 39% over the number who cast ballots four years ago, when turnout totaled just 22%. Turnout ranged from a low of 17% in Essex County to a high of 43% in Cape May County.

Although fewer people voted in 2015, candidates and independent groups spent significantly more — $33.5 million, without adjusting for inflation. That year, former Gov. Chris Christie’s second midterm, Democrats picked up four Assembly seats.

Democrats outspent Republicans

This year, the Democrats had to defend more seats, as well as trying to capture others they had come close to winning in 2017. Despite spending three times what Republicans did, the Democrats lost three seats — two in the Assembly and the only Senate seat on the ballot — all of them in the southernmost 1st District. It was the first time the GOP has gained seats in a decade. The Democrats still hold considerable majorities in both houses, with 25 seats of 40 seats in the Senate and 52 of 80 in the Assembly.

With almost $3 million spent by both sides and independent groups, the 1st District race was the most expensive in the state, according to the ELEC data — which is still considered preliminary because not all candidates and independent groups may have submitted final reports that were due November 25. Incumbent Democrats Bob Andrzejczak, the senator, and Assemblymen Bruce Land and Matthew Milam spent a combined $1.2 million, while Republican victors Mike Testa (for Senate) and Antwan McClellan and Erik Simonsen (for Assembly) spent just half that. Independent groups kicked in another $1 million, with General Majority PAC, a pro-Democrat political action committee tied to South Jersey power boss George Norcross, responsible for more than $6 of every $10 of that spending.

Credit: Jean Stanfield/Facebook
GOP incumbent Ryan Peters and Jean Stanfield overcame a big spending disadvantage in the 8th District.

The other two most expensive seats were ones successfully defended by Republicans in the 21st District based in Union County and the 8th in Burlington County. Assembly Republican leader Jon Bramnick spent the most of any single candidate — more than $832,000 — to keep his 21st District seat in a race that saw total spending approach $2.8 million. In the 8th, Assemblyman Ryan Peters and newcomer Jean Stanfield kept their seats red despite a strong Democratic challenge and more General Majority PAC spending in favor of the Democrats. That race cost $2.1 million.

General Majority PAC was by far the biggest independent spender in legislative races, reporting almost $2.8 million spent, or close to half the total by groups not affiliated with a specific candidate. The NJ Coalition of Real Estate spent about $757,000, including close to $200,000 backing Bramnick and his district mate Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, while one of the New Jersey Education Association’s political committees, Garden State Forward, spent almost $575,000, some of which may have gone toward local races, according to ELEC.

Still, the total $5.9 million spent by independent groups was just about half what they spent four years ago and a quarter of the $23 million they paid out in 2017, when all Senate seats and the governor’s job were also on the ballot.

“I also think parties and independent groups may be looking ahead and saving their money for next year, when there will be a presidential election and campaigns to fill 12 New Jersey congressional seats,” Brindle said of the relative lack of spending in this year’s legislative races.

Costly Airbnb ballot question

While independent legislative spending was light, groups spent almost as much on Jersey City’s ballot question regarding the imposition of strict regulations on Airbnb and other short-term accommodation rentals. The total $5.5 million counted so far set a record for a local ballot question, five times more than the previous top municipal referendum in 2010; that was in Trenton, where voters rejected a proposal to sell the Trenton Water Works to a private firm and groups spent an inflation-adjusted $1.3 million on that question. Adjusting for inflation, the Airbnb question cost more than all but two statewide questions — the failed 2016 attempt to allow two casinos in north Jersey that cost $26.4 million and the 1976 question that originally allowed casino gambling in Atlantic City — according to ELEC’s analysis.

“When a local ballot election costs more than most previous statewide ballot questions, people notice,” said Brindle.

Jersey City rental referendumThe Jersey City question passed with more than two-thirds of voters’ support, despite heavy spending against regulation by Airbnb’s Keep Our Homes Committee. The online marketplace for lodging, mostly in private homes, viewed the city’s proposed rules to cap certain short-term rentals and impose other conditions, as a threat. The committee, which has not yet filed its final report, spent at least $4.1 million, including $2.2 million on digital and cable television ads and $455,000 on direct mailers to local residents. Three committees run by the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, which represents thousands of housekeepers, concierges and doormen in New York City and north Jersey, spent $1.2 million in support of the rules.

Jersey City was home to another record-breaking election: Five seats were up for grabs in its school board race, three full three-year terms and two special one-year terms. Five groups and one candidate raised more than $700,000 and spending is expected to exceed $600,000.

The LeFrak Organization, one of the city’s largest developers, spent at least $312,000 through a political committee called Fairer NJ. Two of the candidates it backed won seats. The other three winners had the support of the Jersey City Education Association, which has not filed any disclosure reports with ELEC. Both Garden State Forward and the NJEA PAC spent money in the race, at least a combined $48,000, according to ELEC.

Because some reports will not be available until mid-January, total spending in the race is not known and will likely be higher than the amounts reported so far. Previously, the most expensive school board race was in Elizabeth in 2014, where candidates and groups spent just shy of $500,000 when adjusted for inflation.