The deadline for filing to run in New Jersey’s June 8 primary elections is today. While the governor’s race will be the big political news later this year, an unusually high number of legislative openings means intraparty primary battles for Senate and Assembly seats, with the possibility of the biggest shake-up among legislative members in recent years.
While the governor’s race tops the ballot, there is not likely to be a serious challenge to either party’s frontrunners, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican Jack Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman.
There’s much more action among legislative races. Four seats in the Senate are open; a fifth vacancy that arose when longtime Republican Gerald Cardinale died earlier this year was filled last month by former Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi. Nine seats are open in the Assembly, including five vacancies caused by members who are seeking Senate seats. At least three more Assembly members are at serious risk of losing their seats after failing to win party backing.
That much turnover is usually reserved for a year in which the district boundaries are redrawn. While that should have happened this year, voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution to push that off until next year because New Jersey did not receive its 2020 U.S. Census counts by mid-February. Census officials say they may not be able to give states their population counts for redistricting purposes until September.
After the coronavirus pandemic upended last year’s elections, this year’s primary is set to return to June and will be conducted primarily in person, Murphy announced recently. That means not everyone will automatically receive a mail-in ballot. Anyone who is unsure whether they are signed up to automatically receive a mail-in ballot can request one.
Resuming normal balloting could leave some voters confused, given their most recent experiences voting were likely using paper ballots.
“I expect a fair amount of confusion any time we see a big change in how we vote, and for that reason, I hope state and county election officials will be planning the same level of public information as we saw prior to last year’s elections, which was quite thorough in many counties,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “Memories are short and last year’s presidential election is the frame of reference for many voters. It would be smart to invest in reminding voters of the full range of voting options they have.”
Voters also may be surprised by the number of new names they see on their ballot.
Four state senators are retiring: Democratic Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg of Bergen County and Republicans Christopher “Kip” Bateman of Somerset County, Chris Brown of Atlantic County and Tom Kean of Union County. In each case, at least one of the Assembly members in those districts is seeking to move up to the Senate.
“The turnover is most obvious in the Senate Republican caucus, where at least four of the 15 faces will be new next year,” including Schepisi, Rasmussen said. “The personal circumstances are different for each senator, but I can’t help thinking the prospect of staring down another term in the decidedly minority caucus just doesn’t seem like much fun.”
The Republicans are losing both of their legislative leaders: Kean is currently the Senate minority leader and Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union) is the Assembly GOP leader. Bramnick is not running for reelection to his seat but is instead seeking to replace Kean in the Senate.
Weinberg’s retirement means the Democrats will be looking for a new majority leader.
Candidates slow to file
With April 5 the deadline to file for the June ballot, most candidates had not submitted their paperwork by late last week so it was unclear how many districts will have contested races. So far, at least eight will give voters a choice among candidates.
Three of those are the result of challenges to incumbents who have lost the backing of their county party bosses or membership. It is a well-accepted fact that winning off the party line is difficult; two years ago, Republican incumbent Joe Howarth lost party backing in the 8th District and wound up polling only about half the votes of Jean Stanfield, whom the GOP endorsed instead and who went on to win the seat.
That might not be the case this year, however, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, because the candidates who have lost party backing have “name recognition and the potential to raise enough money to let them run competitively off the line.”
He said there is no universal reason for the unusual number of incumbents losing party backing this year, adding, “They have to do with the political dynamics in each district.”
For instance, Dworkin noted that in Hudson County’s 31st District, Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, who as the majority whip holds a leadership position in the lower house, is losing the Democratic Party nod because of a rule specific to that county that gives endorsement picks to mayors. Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis reportedly has pulled his support for Chiaravalloti without explanation. Instead, Davis is supporting William Sampson IV, a longshoreman. Chiaravalloti is seeking reelection anyway and has gotten the endorsement of five of state labor leaders. Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, also a Democrat, is seeking reelection, as well.
It’s a Republican who lost party support in Monmouth County’s 13th District.
Letter of no confidence
Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso of Holmdel did not win the county GOP’s endorsement at its recent convention after county chair Shaun Golden, who is also the Monmouth sheriff, wrote a letter charging that DiMaso “has not, although given four years to do so, supported our Republican values and candidates, and is not electable in a General Election.” Instead, Golden backed and the county committee voted to back Victoria Flynn, the president of the Holmdel Board of Education, to run with Assemblyman Gerard Scharfenberger.
The situation in the 26th District that spans parts of Essex, Morris and Passaic counties is muddier, with both incumbents losing GOP backing in at least one of the counties. Assemblyman Jay Webber, a conservative who lost a 2018 bid for the 11th Congressional District, did not get the endorsement of either Essex or Passaic Republicans, who instead backed Christian Barranco, a member of the electrical workers’ union, along with Assemblywoman BettyLou Decroce. Morris County, meanwhile, broke its long-standing tradition of not endorsing candidates this year and supported Webber and Barranco and not DeCroce. DeCroce could wind up being hurt more because Morris holds more than twice as many Republicans as the other two counties in the district.
In recent years, advocates have grown more vocal about the parties’ endorsements and the placement of these favored candidates along a preferential party ballot line in most counties. A lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court in New Jersey brought by current or former candidates and the progressive nonprofit New Jersey Working Families Alliance against six county clerks seeks to end the ballot design that brackets candidates around the party line. New Jersey is the only state where ballots are structured in this way, a 2020 study found.
Scrambling to fill Weinberg’s seat
Probably the highest-profile legislative race will be in Bergen County’s 37th District, where Weinberg’s retirement has the incumbent Assembly members Gordon Johnson and Valerie Vaineri Huttle vying for the Democratic Senate nomination. The parties typically try to avoid this kind of public battle by cutting deals for other positions but that isn’t the case here. Johnson, 71, a consultant and former sheriff, has the party backing. Huttle, 64, a funeral director and former freeholder, has the endorsement of a number of progressive groups. Both are giving up their seats to seek the Senate slot, and each is running with a full slate of Assembly hopefuls so that Democratic primary will be contested, as well.
“It’s gotten contentious very quickly, and that’s indicative of how evenly matched they are and the brief window between now and June 8,” Rasmussen said, describing Huttle and Johnson as “two strong, well-regarded former running mates.”
By comparison to that race, the parties’ gubernatorial primaries should be anticlimactic.
Murphy, who a new Stockton Poll said has a 58% approval rating, is trying to become the first Democrat in more than four decades to win a second term as governor. He faces token opposition from Roger Bacon of Phillipsburg, who is running under the slogan Make New Jersey Great Again and has called Murphy’s tenure “tyrannical.”
Ciattarelli, who lost a bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2017, has been in the race for 14 months and has received endorsements from dozens of current and former elected officials and GOP chairs across the state. Three other Republicans have announced plans to run: Phil Rizzo, pastor of a Baptist church in Hoboken; Hirsh Singh, a businessman who has become a perennial candidate; and Brad Levine, a former Somerset freeholder.
Dworkin noted the Republican gubernatorial contest at one point was supposed to be rough-and-tumble, with Bramnick and former state GOP chairman Doug Steinhardt expected to be on the ballot with Ciattarelli. Bramnick, a critic of former President Donald Trump, decided late last month not to run, saying he did not see support for his more moderate views. Steinhardt, who Dworkin said was “very Trumpian” and had “wrapped himself in the MAGA flag” was in the race for just a month before dropping out less than a week after the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
“The new year began with ardent political observers expecting to spend the first half of the year tied up watching the Republicans,” said Dworkin. “Then it just ended before anything happened.”