NJ Decides 2020: Hot House races, a sleepy Senate contest and a question on legal weed

Most of the attention in November likely to be on voting by mail, not top-of-ticket candidates
Credit: (Andykimforcongress.com; AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite; MalinoskiforNJ.com)
Freshman members of Congress deemed to be in tough reelection battles, L to R: Reps. Andy Kim (D-3), Jeff Van Drew (R-2) and Tom Malinowski (D-7)

While it is safe to say former Vice President Joe Biden is likely to win New Jersey’s 14 electoral college votes for president and Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker has a virtual lock on reelection, how this blue state will decide its delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives in the Nov. 3 election is an open question.

Voters will also decide three statewide ballot questions, including whether New Jersey should legalize recreational marijuana use by adults. County, local and school board races will also be decided.

But this year’s election is going to be very different.

With mail-in ballots already received by voters in some counties, New Jerseyans have the opportunity to vote earlier than ever before — six weeks early for those who already have received a ballot and made up their minds.

If turnout equals that of 2016, about 4.2 million of the state’s 6.2 million registrants will vote. If the same proportion of voters choose to mail in their votes as in the July 7 primary, counties will be processing 3.7 million mail-in ballots. They could begin receiving these any day and they will be able, though not required, to start counting those 10 days before polls close at 8 p.m. on Nov. 3, in order to ensure all votes are tallied by a Nov. 23 deadline.

Prepare for a long wait for results

While it will likely still take days to count all the ballots, it is also likely that a winner will be declared in most New Jersey races on election night, even in some contests that are expected to be very close.

Three of the state’s four freshman in the House — Democrats Andy Kim and Tom Malinowski and Republican Jeff Van Drew — are expected to have the toughest fights ahead of them. Kim, in the 3rd District in South Jersey, and Malinowski, in central Jersey’s 7th, represent districts that traditionally had been red. Van Drew angered many of the Democrats who helped elect him to the long-red 2nd District in the south when he switched parties and joined the Republicans. Pundits do not consider the fourth freshman, Democrat Mikie Sherrill of north Jersey’s 11th District, vulnerable, saying she has been a moderate voice who has been able to fit in well with the centrist voters there.

“Conventional wisdom is that the first re-election campaign for a legislator is their most difficult,” said Benjamin Dworkin, founding director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University. “We had huge turnover in 2018 with four new members of Congress. Three of those races are going to be very competitive.”

All 12 of the state’s House seats are on the ballot, but most of the district lines were drawn to favor one party or the other and the majority of races are not expected to be close. The state currently has only two Republican representatives: Van Drew and Rep. Chris Smith in the 4th District along the Shore. Smith has spent 40 years in Congress and is the fourth-most senior representative in the nation.

Booker expected to glide back to DC

In many states, a U.S. Senate election draws most of the attention, but no one expects the former Newark mayor and one-time presidential hopeful Booker to lose.

“There is no real enthusiasm there,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. He said Republican challenger Rikin “Rik” Mehta is not likely to get much financial assistance from the state party. “If the Republican Party in New Jersey doesn’t care about the Senate race, why should anyone else care?”

Credit: (Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office).
File photo: Sept. 18, 2020, Sen. Cory Booker spoke in Newark at Gov. Phil Murphy’s signing of environmental protection legislation. Booker is in his seventh year in the U.S. Senate.

It has been 48 years since New Jersey voters have sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate, and registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans by more than a million. In 2018, Republican and former pharmaceuticals executive Bob Hugin spent more than $39 million, including $36 million of his own money, in an unsuccessful attempt to oust incumbent Bob Menendez, who had been considered vulnerable after his trial on political corruption charges ended in a hung jury in November 2017. Menendez won that race by 11 percentage points.

In addition to voter registration and name recognition, Booker has money on his side. Now finishing his seventh year in the Senate, Booker had almost $3.5 million in the bank as of June 30, according to the most recent report filed with the Federal Election Commission. Mehta, a biotech engineer, licensed pharmacist, attorney and adjunct law professor who lives in Morris County, had less than $18,000 following a hotly contested primary. Three independents are also on the ballot.

The major parties are concentrating on the tight House races, each of which was won in 2018 by a Democrat who flipped a formerly GOP district. That, alone, gives the Democratic Party hopes to hold on to two of the seats and take back the third after Van Drew’s switch to the GOP last December.

“There are a lot more Democrats, increasingly,” Dworkin said. “These Democrats have to live somewhere and they don’t all live in Hudson County and Essex County. They live in eastern Morris County. They live in Burlington County. And they have made what we used to call traditional suburban Republican districts competitive to the point where Democrats were able to win in 2018 and those demographic trends have continued and therefore, we are looking at these races.”

2nd District: Van Drew versus Kennedy

Amy Kennedy beat out a large field in the Democratic primary. Now she is counting on voter anger over Van Drew’s party switch and then his casting a vote against impeaching President Trump to propel her to victory.

The sprawling district covering all or part of eight South Jersey counties was long represented by moderate Republican Frank LoBiondo, who retired two years ago. Van Drew is a former state senator well-known as a conservative Democrat when he turned the district blue two years ago. Democratic registration spiked since before the primary and Democrats outnumber Republicans by some 20,000, but unaffiliated voters are the most numerous and the district chose Trump over Hillary Clinton by almost five percentage points in 2016. Two of the three House rating websites call this race a toss-up, while Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball gives Van Drew a slight edge.

“These races each have their own dynamics, but Trump’s performance is going to loom large in every one of them,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “In fact, it is likely to be the biggest single factor in each of these races. For example, in CD2, the glimpses we’ve seen of internal poll releases from the summer suggest Trump is running even with Biden, and if this turns out to be the case, it would mean he is running five points behind his 2016 result. Given the trend of nationalization in our congressional races, that would really level the playing field for Amy Kennedy.”

3rd District: Kim versus Richter

With regular machine voting in 2018, it took days before Kim’s defeat of incumbent Rep. Tom MacArthur, a two-term Republican, was official. Republican David Richter, head of an asset management firm, is keen to retake this seat, which spans GOP-dominated Ocean County and the more Democratic Burlington County. There is a Democratic registration edge, 30% versus 28%, but four in 10 voters are not affiliated with either party. Trump won here by six points in 2016. Two House raters say the district is leaning Democratic, while the Cook Political Report calls it a toss-up.

7th District: Malinowski versus Kean

The 7th District stretches through six counties from the Delaware River almost to the Hudson. The National Republican Congressional Committee and Congressional Leadership Fund have set up a website and are running television ads that criticize Malinowski for being too liberal and for his work while at Human Rights Watch. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, is running an ad that criticizes Kean for accepting campaign donations from health and insurance companies and for his voting record on health insurance issues.

Malinowski ousted Republican Leonard Lance by a comfortable margin two years ago and the district chose Clinton for president in 2016. GOP nominee Tom Kean, the Republican leader in the state Senate, has name recognition and is considered a moderate. All three of the House rating sites give the edge to Malinowski.

In any other year, the question of legalizing marijuana for recreational use by adults would garner lots of attention, but the COVID-19 pandemic and presidential race seem to have lessened interest in this question. Eleven other states already have set rules for pot usage and polls have shown a majority of New Jerseyans support legalization. Lawmakers who back this and Gov. Phil Murphy are looking to use taxes collected on cannabis to help balance the budget.

Forgotten ballot questions

“The ballot questions have kind of been forgotten in this election,” said Matt Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University. “In a normal presidential election year, ballot questions get drowned out. But with COVID-19, social justice issues, riots and now wildfires, the problem is compounded.”

Lawmakers also put a question on the ballot seeking to postpone by a year the redrawing of legislative district boundaries supposed to take place next spring — if, as is likely, the state does not get its 2020 U.S. Census population counts by February 15. Proponents say getting the data in June, as expected, would be too late to create districts to be used in next year’s legislative elections. Critics complain that change would delay by two years the drawing of lines that should better reflect the increased diversity and population shifts since 2010.

The final ballot question seeks to extend to veterans who served during peacetime either a $250 property-tax deduction or a full tax exemption to those who became totally disabled during their service. Currently, only veterans who served during a war are eligible for these deductions.