NJ Primary Election: These races are making this year’s election unusually competitive

Here are the key contests in a primary season that features several tests for incumbents, as well as incumbents challenging each other
Credit: (valeriehuttle.com; NJ Spotlight News; NJ Spotlight News; courtesy, Seth Grossman)
Top row: Democratic Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson are vying to replace Sen. Loretta Weinberg in the 37th District. Bottom row: Former Assemblyman Vince Polistina (left) and Seth Grossman are looking to succeed retiring Republican Sen Chris Brown in the 2nd Legislative District.

Every seat in the New Jersey Legislature is up for grabs this year. But in next week’s primary election, voters will only have a choice of candidates for about one in 10 ballot spots.

No one filed to run for 14 primary slots, all but one of those Republican nominations, on the June 8 ballot.

Those no-shows aside, there are contested races for one or more ballot positions in 14 of the state’s 40 legislative districts. And that makes this year’s primary races among the most contentious in recent years.

“The modest improvement in the number of contested races can be attributed to the divisions in both parties,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “We are accustomed to the fissures between Trump and never-Trump Republicans in New Jersey, but the Democratic divisions are becoming more assertive, too.”

Democrats and Republicans will be nominating their candidates for Senate and Assembly seats on the November ballot, as well as for governor, county and local positions. Many will head to the polls for the first time in 19 months, while others will use mail-in ballots to vote from home.

READ: Casting a ballot returns to normal

WATCH: Former running mates face off in 20th District Democratic primary

District decisions

Whether a legislative slot is contested very much depends on the district.

“Like the grassroots groups that have sprung up within some of the state’s Congressional districts, this tends to be a localized rather than a statewide phenomenon,” Rasmussen said.

The biggest primary is in Bergen County’s 37th District, where the two Democratic Assembly members are battling for the right to be the party’s nominee to replace Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the current majority leader. Both Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Gordon Johnson are running with their own slates of Assembly candidates.

There are four other contested Senate races and challenges for Assembly seats in a dozen districts. A few of these are especially noteworthy.

Legislative District 2

Two Republicans who are no strangers to local politics are now vying in the primary for their party’s nomination to succeed Sen. Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) in the 2nd Legislative District, which currently has split party representation.

The district’s GOP Senate primary pits former Assemblyman Vince Polistina of Egg Harbor Township against former U.S. House of Representatives candidate Seth Grossman of Atlantic City. Polistina is running with the support of the Atlantic County Republicans, while Grossman is running under the ballot slogan “The Real Republican Fighting ‘Woke’ Democrats.”

On the Democratic side, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo of Northfield is running for his party’s Senate nomination unopposed.

Democratic Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo is running unopposed for his party’s Senate nomination.

There are also no contested primaries for the district’s two Assembly seats, with Republicans Don Guardian, a former Atlantic City mayor, and Claire Swift of Margate running unopposed. Two Democrats, incumbent Assemblyman John Armato of Northfield and Caren Fitzpatrick, a county commissioner in Atlantic County who is also from Northfield, are also both running unopposed.

The 2nd Legislative District covers Atlantic City and more than a dozen surrounding communities, including Absecon, Brigantine, Egg Harbor Township and Pleasantville.

This is the second time that Polistina has sought to represent the district in the Senate. In 2011, he won his party’s Senate nomination but then lost in the November election to then-incumbent Jim Whelan. A former Atlantic City mayor, Whelan died in 2017, and Brown won the district’s Senate seat several months later, beating another Democrat who was selected to replace Whelan temporarily.

Polistina has been critical of Gov. Phil Murphy’s handling of the response to the coronavirus pandemic and, more recently, he opposed the governor’s vetoing of legislation that sought to establish a new panel that would review the economic impact of all newly created administrative rules and executive orders. He’s also criticized Armato and Mazzeo’s handling of payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTS, that by law are made by Atlantic City casinos.

In 2018, Grossman ran for the U.S. House seat that’s currently held by Republican Jeff Van Drew before Van Drew decided to switch parties and become a Republican. While Grossman won the GOP primary that year, he ultimately lost the November election to Van Drew. He also drew widespread criticism after saying publicly that “the whole idea of diversity is a bunch of crap and un-American.”

This year, Grossman has taken to his campaign website to raise concerns about voter fraud and he also said in a posting seemingly related to his ballot slogan that “by falsely blaming whites for every problem in black communities, ‘woke’ Democrats keep blacks from recognizing and fixing the real problems in their communities.”

Legislative District 13

In the Republican-dominated 13th Legislative District, three GOP candidates are fighting for their party’s nomination for two seats in the Assembly, and at least two of them are not pulling their punches.

Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, who has represented the northern swath of Monmouth County since 2018, lashed out at her opponent, Vicky Flynn, president of the Holmdel Board of Education, for raising taxes, in contrast to DiMaso’s claim that she helped cut taxes as a Monmouth County freeholder for five years until 2017.

“The difference between me and Flynn is that I have a record of cutting taxes, and she has a record of increasing taxes,” DiMaso said, in an interview.

DiMaso is attempting to keep her seat after losing the support of the county’s Republican committee, a move that led to her running under the banner of Monmouth County Conservative Republicans in a district where the Assembly seats have been held continuously by the GOP ever since 1985, and in the Senate since 1991.

Credit: (NJ Spotlight News)
Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso DiMaso is trying to to keep her seat after losing the support of the Monmouth County Republican committee.

Ideologically, there appears to be little difference between DiMaso’s new affiliation and the official Republican Party, whose ticket for the primary is now Flynn and Gerard Scharfenberger, a first-term Assemblyman whose voting record closely matches DiMaso’s.

Still, Scharfenberger was careful to toe the party line when asked whether he would urge his supporters to vote for DiMaso or Flynn.

“I’m respecting the choice of the county committee,” he said. “They are the local representatives, and they chose Vicky Flynn and me to run so that’s the line I’m supporting.”

Flynn dismissed DiMaso’s charge that, as school board president for the last four years, Flynn had presided over tax increases. Recent tax increases are the result of a $40 million bond issue for school improvements that voters approved in 2017 by a wide margin.

“The board doesn’t have that authority; it’s given to the voters,” she said. “This is a town that values education over everything else, and they voted overwhelmingly for the budget.”

Flynn, a lawyer who is married with three daughters, also dismissed criticism by DiMaso that she had not publicly shown support for the police after widespread anti-police sentiment in the wake of George Floyd’s death a year ago and the Black Lives Matter protests.

Flynn said she had drafted an agreement with retired police officers to provide security for the Holmdel school campus, and argued that she was “100%” supportive of policing.

“Her comment is very ill-informed because it demonstrates her lack of understanding of my support of law enforcement,” she said in response to DiMaso’s attack.

For DiMaso, losing the support of the local party remains a mystery. She said she had never heard directly from committee chair Shaun Golden about why she was not chosen for the primary, but that he had sent a letter to party members saying that she had missed too many votes in the Assembly, voted the “wrong way” on a couple of bills, and had not donated money to the county.

“He believes that I work against the party here,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth, I’m part of the party. Unfortunately, the candidates he chose were probably not the best candidates.”

DiMaso said she had missed only two of about 140 Assembly votes and had in fact donated $31,000 from campaign funds to the county.

Meanwhile, Scharfenberger, a professor of archaeology at Monmouth University, said that as the pandemic recedes, taxes will resume their position as the top issue for Republican voters, and one he said he will champion if he prevails in both the primary and in November’s general election.

“People are moving out of New Jersey because of the oppressive tax climate — residents and businesses, I hear it all the time. In the tax climate, it’s very difficult to operate a business,” he said.

State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, who was first elected to the 13th District seat in 2017, is running unopposed for the Republican nomination.

Legislative District 20

In New Jersey’s bluest legislative district, incumbent Sen. Joseph Cryan is facing a challenge from Assemblyman Jamel Holley, while Assemblywoman Annette Quijano and her running mate Reginald Atkins are hoping to hold off two newcomers in the contest for the Democratic nominations.

Holley, who has held one of the district’s two Assembly seats since 2016, said that if elected to the Senate seat for the 20th District, he will continue championing African American causes as he has done since he became the youngest councilman elected in Union County in his hometown of Roselle at the age of 24.

Credit: (NJ Spotlight News)
In the 20th District’s Democratic primary Assemblyman Jamel Holley (left) is challenging Sen. Joe Cryan.

Holley says a Senate seat would make him Union County’s first African American state senator, and allow him to more effectively represent the concerns of the Black community.

“The representation that we’ve received in the senate is zero, and it gives myself and the members of my community a seat at the table,” he said.

In a county that hasn’t elected a Republican to the state Senate for more than 50 years, a win in the Democratic primary would virtually assure the victor a seat in the Senate, and so Holley is ramping up his attacks on Cryan, accusing him of failing to represent the county’s concerns, and of refusing to debate Holley in public.

“I have asked him to debate me numerous times, and he won’t debate me,” Holley said in an interview. “This is one of two or three hotly contested primaries, and he doesn’t feel that the voters should hear us on all issues.”

Cryan dismissed Holley’s claims that he has failed to represent his constituents. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he prioritized testing, obtaining personal protective equipment and communicating with every level of government to make sure the district was fully supplied, he said.

The incumbent said he has declined to debate Holley in public because he doesn’t want to give his opponent a chance to express views on vaccination that Cryan says are a danger to public health. He accused Holley of failing to fully support COVID-19 vaccinations.

“The Assemblyman has spent the past 15 months endangering the health of our constituents with his messaging, and his irresponsible actions, and I have no intention of giving him a platform to spread that irresponsible behavior,” Cryan said. “He has taken the approach of not supporting public health, safe Covid practices, CDC guidelines or anything of the kind. Frankly, in my view, he has endangered the lives of the constituents he is supposed to serve.”

Holley denied any suggestion that he has argued against vaccination, but said he opposed a bill that would have mandated vaccinations for public school students.

“I am all about choice,” he said. “I believe that people have a right to choose what they inject into their bodies.”

In the Assembly race, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano is emphasizing her experience in her bid for the Democratic nomination that would almost certainly give her an eighth two-year term in the Legislature.

“The main issue now is helping the state recover from the coronavirus pandemic,” she said. “There are issues in housing, education, protecting workers and reopening businesses.”

She said landlords have so far filed more than 50,000 eviction cases for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic that can be acted on by the courts whenever Gov. Phil Murphy lifts the moratorium on evictions that has been in place since March 2020. To help protect tenants, Quijano introduced a bill that would prevent their identities being disclosed during eviction proceedings if those are the result of the pandemic.

Quijano is running with Rev. Reginald Atkins, a church minister and former city councilman in Roselle. She urged Democratic voters to opt for the experience of her long legislative record. She declined to comment on their opponents — Christian Veliz and Diane Murray-Clements.

Veliz, of Elizabeth, worked on the last U.S. Census effort and volunteers with the Archdiocese of Newark. Murray-Clements owns a small business in Union and hosts a podcast. They are running on the same ticket as Holley. Neither responded to requests for comment.

Legislative District 26

Party endorsements and dark money are playing roles in the Republican Assembly primary in the reliably red 26th District.

Four Republicans are vying for two nominations. Two of the four GOP primary candidates are the district’s incumbents: Assemblyman Jay Webber of Morris Plains and Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce of Parsippany. The other GOP candidates seeking the district’s Assembly seats are Christian Barranco of Jefferson and Thomas Mastrangelo of Montville, who serves as a county commissioner in Morris County.

The 26th district spans parts of Essex, Morris and Passaic counties, and the endorsements of the county Republican parties this year resulted in a mixed bag for the incumbents.

Webber did not get the endorsement of either the Essex or Passaic Republicans, who instead backed Barranco, along with DeCroce. Morris County, meanwhile, broke its long-standing tradition of not endorsing candidates this year and supported Webber and Barranco, and not DeCroce.

In the end, many political analysts believe that DeCroce could wind up taking a bigger hit because Morris holds more than twice as many Republicans as the other two counties in the district.

Credit: (NJ Spotlight News)
Republican Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce is in a battle to retain her seat in the 26th District.

Webber, a staunch conservative who was first elected in 2008, was among the loudest opponents of the nearly $4 billion in emergency debt that Murphy’s administration issued without voter approval last year in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Webber’s campaign website promises he will push to “open our lives, livelihoods, and State to freedom and prosperity by reining-in excessive government authority.”

DeCroce has served in the Assembly since 2012 and is also a former deputy commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs. She’s touted a series of recent endorsements, including by mayors and council members in several communities in the district. DeCroce also picked up an endorsement from former U.S. House member Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican who represented roughly the same area in Congress for more than two decades.

“She fights for all of us, and we need her there (in Trenton), again, because she is fearless,” Frelinghuysen said of DeCroce.

Although DeCroce and Webber have served together in the Assembly for a decade, Webber has taken the gloves off and is co-funding attack ads against his district mate. A recent one links DeCroce with the Black Lives Matter movement and urges voters to reject both the movement and DeCroce. On her website, DeCroce responded that Webber and Baranco, who also co-funded the mailer, “should be ashamed of themselves” and said she will always “stand with our entire law enforcement community.”

Webber’s campaign website is his own, but it includes a link to lawn signs that tie his campaign to Barranco, who is a member of the electrical workers’ union and is a former Pompton Lakes council member. Barranco also serves as an executive board member of the Northern New Jersey Council of the Boy Scouts of America. On his Facebook campaign page, Barranco recently criticized Murphy’s continuation of the state’s indoor mask mandate.

Some dark money being spent in the district could wind up influencing the results of the race. The 26th is one of only two legislative races in the state where independent spending groups have reported expenditures. Earlier in May, three organizations pumped a combined $260,000 into the race on mailers and digital ads. The groups don’t have to report who they are supporting or opposing. But Garden State Forward, which spent $98,000, is the super PAC of the state’s largest teachers union, which has endorsed DeCroce, and Stronger Foundations Inc., a political committee of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 that has spent $139,000, opposed Webber’s failed 2018 congressional bid.

Mastrangelo’s background includes serving on Morris County’s Capital Budget and Facilities Review Committee, according to the website for Morris County government. Mastrangelo is also the liaison to the Park Commission, the Economic Development Corporation and the Morris County Improvement Authority. On his campaign website, he pledges to reform Trenton. He also criticized his opponents for launching personal attacks and said the candidates should run on their records and “not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

On the Democratic side, two candidates are running unopposed in their party’s Assembly primary. They are Melissa Brown Blaeuer and Pamela Fadden, both of Oak Ridge.

Also running unopposed in the district’s Senate primaries are incumbent Republican Sen. Joseph Pennacchio of Montville and Democrat Christine Clarke of Lake Hopatcong.

Other races with challengers

There is a four-way Republican Assembly primary In Ocean County’s 10th District, with incumbents Gregory McGuckin and John Catalano facing Geraldine Ambrosio and Brian Quinn, who are running under the banner Conservative Republicans.

Three Republicans are seeking two Assembly nominations in the 12th District, which covers parts of Burlington, Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean counties. Challenging incumbents Robert Clifton and Ronald Dancer is Ahmed Basuoni of Old Bridge, running under the banner For Love of America.

In the 16th District, encompassing parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset counties, there are contested primaries for the Republican Senate nomination and the Democratic Assembly spots. For the Senate nod, former one-term Congressman Michael Pappas is the GOP-endorsed candidate, running against Jeffrey Grant, whose ballot slogan is Make New Jersey Great Again. Democratic Assemblyman Roy Freiman of Hillsborough is seeking reelection and bracketed with former Montgomery Mayor Sadaf Jaffer, while Faris Zwirahn is also running, under the slogan A Government for Us, By Us.

A full slate of Democrats is challenging the party-endorsed candidates in Middlesex County’s 18th District. All the incumbents received the organization’s line: Sen. Patrick Diegnan Jr. and Assemblymen Sterley Stanley and Robert Karabinchak. The challengers, Mohin Patel for Senate and Lisa Salem and Maurice Alfaro Sr. for Assembly, are running under the banner Middlesex County Democratic Party.

There is a three-way race for the two GOP Assembly nominations in the 21st District, which includes parts of Morris, Somerset and Union counties. Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz of Summit is seeking reelection and is running with Michele Matsikoudis, a New Providence councilwoman. Jennifer Makar of Roselle Park is also running.

Sen. Steven Oroho of Franklin is facing Daniel Cruz of Andover in the Republican primary in the 24th District, which includes parts of Morris, Sussex and Warren counties. Oroho received county GOP endorsements and Cruz is running under the slogan Bringing Politics Back to the People.

Two candidates are seeking the Democratic Senate nomination in the 28th District, which covers part of Essex County. Incumbent Sen. Ronald Rice of Newark, the county endorsed candidate, is facing off against Quadir Selby, running under the banner New Jersey Democratic Party 2021.

In the Republican Assembly primary in the 30th District, which straddles Monmouth and Ocean counties, incumbents Sean Kean, an attorney, and Edward H. Thomson, an actuary, are facing a challenge from Alter Eliezer Richter, a Lakewood man who was an unsuccessful congressional primary challenger last year.

Two Saddle River Republicans, Jon Kurpis and John Azzariti, are challenging the incumbent Assembly members Robert Auth and DeAnne DeFuccio, chosen by GOP committee members earlier this year to fill an opening when Holly Schepisi moved up to the Senate, in the Republican primary in the red 39th District that covers parts of Bergen and Passaic counties.

READ: Women are on the ballot, but far fewer than male candidates

WATCH: 37th District contest: Former Democratic running mates face off in online forum

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