Last month’s legislative primary in New Jersey saw record fundraising by candidates statewide in a primary, and independent spending organizations kicked in essentially a new June election high on ads to boost candidates in a handful of districts.

Candidates took in more than $37.4 million, the most ever, according to an analysis by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) of post-election spending reports submitted through June 30.

When adjusting for inflation, however, that would be the third-highest total, behind $40.9 million in 2011 and $38.3 million in 2017. Still, the 2021 primary total is preliminary and likely to increase, as some candidates did not file their post-election reports by the June 28 deadline.

Candidates spent almost $26.8 million, the third-largest amount, leaving about $10.5 million in their campaign accounts. Primary winners can transfer their balances to their general election accounts for use toward the November contests.

“One advantage of being an incumbent is you usually have a much easier time raising campaign funds,” said Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director. “Since most incumbents have relatively safe seats and face little chance of defeat, they often end the primary with leftover funds that they can use for the general election. The incumbent advantage is clearly reflected in this year’s numbers. Incumbents have ten times more cash in reserve than challengers.”

Pivoting from the primary

At least some of the competitive districts in the November election will be different from those primary elections, where party infighting made races in the 20th, 26th and 37th districts the most hard-fought races in the state. The state’s “purple” districts, where the parties split control of the Senate and Assembly seats, move into the spotlight: the 2nd and 16th, which both also have a retiring Republican senator, and the 8th.

No doubt independent spending committees, which are not required to report their contributors and cannot work directly with campaigns, will be active in hotly contested general election battles. Nine organizations spent a total $2.03 million in the primary, mostly in only five districts: 2nd, 18th, 20th, 26th and 37th. While technically that is about $130,000 less than the amount all independent spending groups spent in 2017’s primary, ELEC is calling this year’s a new high for a primary because $1.43 million of the amount spent four years ago was in a primary where neither candidate had an opponent and that money was meant to influence the general election. That year the state’s largest teachers union launched an all-out, and ultimately unsuccessful, effort to unseat Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

Almost half this year’s total, or close to $904,000, was spent in the 26th District race in Morris, Essex and Passaic counties, where incumbent Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce lost her seat after failing to be endorsed by the Morris County GOP, making its first primary endorsements in recent years. Assemblyman Jay Webber and Christian Barranco won the Republican nods in the four-way primary. The New Jersey Coalition of Real Estate was the largest of five independent spenders in that district. DeCroce’s campaign outspent Webber’s, $191,000 to $131,000. Barranco’s 20-day post-election report was not available on the ELEC website.

Ties to Norcross

Overall, the real estate coalition spent close to $534,000 in three identified races and in other districts they did not specify on spending reports. The only group that laid out more money was American Democratic Majority, which has ties to South Jersey power boss George Norcross. American Democratic Majority spent all its $694,000 in the 37th District in Bergen County in support of Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, who won the Democratic Senate primary. Johnson beat fellow Assembly member Valerie Vainieri Huttle for the nomination and is heavily favored to win the Senate seat in this blue district and replace retiring Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg in the fall. Johnson was backed by the Bergen County Democratic Committee, the American Democratic Majority’s ads supporting him and bashing Vainieri Huttle and, with his running mates, outspent Vainieri Huttle’s team by more than $120,000. In all, more than $722,000 was spent in that race.

Sen. Joseph Cryan (D-Union) raised more than that on his own — $729,000 — in his successful effort to win the Senate nomination and all but certainly win reelection in November in a district where fewer than one in 10 registered voters is a Republican. Cryan defeated his Assemblyman Jamel Holley, also a Democrat. The realtors and two other groups spent a total of $113,444 on that race.

Democrats, who hold majorities in both legislative houses, outraised and outspent Republicans more than four-to-one. Senate candidates raised about $6.5 million and spent some $3.2 million more than Assembly candidates, even though there are more Assembly candidates. Each of the state’s 40 legislative districts has two Assembly members and one senator. All 120 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot in November.

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