In their quest to gain control of the state Senate, New Jersey Republicans are hoping Gov. Chris Christie's coattails are long enough to carry them to victory in an unexpected district, the overwhelmingly Democratic 18th, where state Sen. Barbara Buono's gubernatorial bid has put her seat in play.
The state GOP thinks it has a shot with former Democrat and Mayor of East Brunswick David Stahl. There's also an independent on the ballot, which could further split the difference.
The Democrats are backing Assemblyman Peter Barnes, an attorney who has served in the lower house since 2007.
The 18th is 40 percent Democratic vs. 14th percent Republican.
Thanks to the ripple effect, Barnes’s decision to run for the Senate has created an Assembly vacancy. His running mate, Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr., is paired with fellow Democrat Nancy Pinkin, a councilwoman in East Brunswick. Opposing them are Republicans Robert Bengivenga, a councilman in South Plainfield, and Lisa Goldhamer, who unsuccessfully ran for Edison Township Council in 2011. There is also one independent, Sheila Angalet of Edison, on the Assembly ballot. Angalet has been a Committeewoman in Edison's 23rd District since 2007.
The district encompasses seven municipalities in Middlesex County: East Brunswick, Edison, Helmetta, Highland Park, Metuchen, South Plainfield, and South River. East Brunswick, Stahl's bailiwick, is the second-largest town in the district. And until earlier this year, Stahl was a Democrat himself.
"There is some chance for the Republicans. They are running a strong candidate for Senate," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "The district has also showed strong support for Christie in the past, so Christie is likely to have coattails. It's a very competitive race." The Republican ticket is also spending money, though not as much as the Democrats, according to the most recent campaign reports. Both sides have been advertising on cable TV.
According to the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission, Barnes has received $240,144 in contributions thus far and spent $211,336, while Stahl has raised $184,219 and spent $166,511. Together the GOP slate, Stahl and the Assembly candidates, have raised $332,262 and spent $238,283 as a joint committee. Goldhamer and Bengivenga have raised additional amounts for their individual campaigns. The Democratic party, filing as a joint committee, has raised $541,474 and spent $428,298, not including individual contributions to each candidate. Independent Sheila Angalet has received $20,150 in contributions.
According to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, all candidates in the 18th have raised about $1.6 million for the general election thus far.
Money has been the source of some controversy. In June, Democrat Pinkin, who has raised $151,688 for her campaign to date, was accused of violating state election laws by Republicans Bengivenga and Goldhamer. Pinkin had accepted a $20,000 contribution from her husband, which is greater than the $2,600 limit on an individual contribution, and later refunded the excess amount and filed an amended campaign finance return.
The money, the popularity of Gov. Chris Christie, and the presence of Stahl in the race have made this one interesting.
"The district normally elects Democrats but the hope is that a Democrat turned Republican a few months ago could help sway voters,” Murray said, “but Democrats have been hitting hard and it should prove effective in retaining the seats.”