Two Democratic Assembly candidates in Monmouth County's 11th District are trying to capitalize on Gov. Chris Christie’s unpopularity and a substantial edge in party voter registration in an effort to unseat the Republican incumbents.
In the neighboring 13th District, GOP Assembly members face two Democrats and an independent, but that district's historic voting patterns leave the challengers with less prospect for victory.
A November 3 win by Democrats Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling over Republican Assembly members Mary Pat Angelini and Caroline Casagrande in the 11th, which encompasses 18 central Monmouth municipalities and includes Asbury Park, would be an upset.
Still, it is more plausible than a win in the 13th, given that Democrats in the 11th District outnumber Republicans by about 10,000 voters. The 11th has been solidly red for years, with unaffiliated voters swinging the balance for the GOP.
While Downey and Houghtaling are trying to exploit their party-registration advantage, Angelini and Casagrande are asserting independence from Christie and other Republicans.
Downey, 48, is an attorney in private practice and a former deputy state attorney general from Freehold. Houghtaling, 61, is an electrician and former Neptune mayor who sits on the township’s committee.
Angelini, of Ocean Township, and Casagrande, of Colts Neck, were seated in the Assembly in 2008. Casagrande won her first two terms in the 12th District, prior to redistricting.
Downey and Houghtaling said they have knocked on 5,000 doors since July in an effort to raise their profiles. Their introductory campaign mailer called for freezing property taxes for seniors, equal pay for women, and enacting “common sense gun control.”
Downey said, “A lot of the unaffiliated (voters) are thinking more toward voting for a Democrat."
Houghtaling said the ticket is trying to break through what he characterized as a “complacency” among Democrats in the district.
"We're trying to get Democrats to come out to vote," he said.
The Republican ticket is countering by emphasizing its ability to work with the opposing party.
“Democrats are a majority in the Legislature. If I want to get anything done, I’ve got to reach across the aisle,” said Angelini, 60, of Ocean Township.
Asked about accomplishments, Angelini, chief executive officer of Preferred Behavioral Health Group, alluded to her role as one of eight Assembly primary sponsors of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act and her efforts to combat substance abuse.
Casagrande said she was the first Republican in the Assembly to endorse a 2014 state constitutional amendment dedicating a portion of corporate business-tax revenues toward open-space preservation.
Christie opposed the ballot question, which gained voter approval last November.
"The environment is a huge issue in Monmouth County," said Casagrande, 38, an attorney from Colts Neck.
Christie’s elimination of $7.5 million in women’s health services starting in 2010, and his subsequent claim as a presidential candidate to have vetoed Planned Parenthood funding five times, has emerged as a flashpoint in the race.
The spark was a campaigner mailer, from Angelini and Casagrande, in which the Republicans claimed “to have fought Chris Christie and members of their own party” over restoring the funding.
Angelini and Casagrande were among six Republican Assembly members in 2011 introducing a budget resolution that would have reallocated the $7.5 million to organizations other than Planned Parenthood.
In response to the ad, the Democratic ticket cited 20 votes by Angelini and Casagrande, starting in 2010, against legislation that would have revived the original item.
Downey said, “It showed how they’re really not standing up for women at all.”
Prior to Christie’s veto, Planned Parenthood was among the health centers receiving the funding. It was used for checkups and birth control, but not abortions.
The budget resolution backed by Angelini and Casagrande would have directed $6.2 million toward federally qualified health centers and $1.3 million for cancer education and early detection.
Casagrande said it was aimed at aiding organizations, such as the Visiting Nurse Association, playing crucial healthcare roles.
“We try not to get caught up in the political rhetoric,” Casagrande said of the criticism from their opponents.
The Democratic voter edge in the 11th District is striking, especially given the district's senator, Jennifer Beck, is also a Republican. Of 135,874 registered voters as of September 1, there were 37,096 Democrats and 26,685 Republicans, with 71,951 unaffiliated.
Republicans have a slight advantage in the neighboring 13th District, which also is entirely contained in Monmouth County and also represented by Republicans. There were 35,459 Republicans, 34,688 Democrats and 82,532 unaffiliated, as of September 1.
In that district, incumbent Assembly members Amy Handlin and Declan O’Scanlon are facing two Democrats, Jeanne Cullinane and Thomas Herman, and independent Joshua Leinsdorf.
Handlin, in the Assembly since 2006, is an associate professor of marketing at Monmouth University and a Middletown Township resident . She was a Monmouth County freeholder for 15 years prior to winning her Assembly seat.
O’Scanlon, a member of the Assembly since 2008, is CEO of FSD Enterprises, a wireless telecom consulting and public relations firm. He was on the borough council in Little Silver, where he lives, from 1994 to 2007.
During their current terms, Handlin has drawn notice by questioning mismanagement and wasteful spending at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, while O’Scanlon helped bring to an end New Jersey’s red-light camera program.
On the Democratic side, Herman, a Hazlet resident, is an English teacher at Holmdel High School and a Hazlet school board member. Campaign fliers for both candidates, provided by the Monmouth County Democrats, did not include a profession for Cullinane.
Herman and Cullinane are both emphasizing protecting the pensions and benefits of public employees, boosting the middle class and aiding ongoing recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy.
Leinsdorf, of Atlantic Highlands, is running under the “Jobs, sidewalks, transit” slogan. According to his campaign website, he was elected to Community School Board No. 3 in Manhattan in 1970, three years before moving to New Jersey, and served nine years on the Princeton Regional School Board starting in 20008. He ran for governor as an independent in 2009 and received 1,021 votes.
The 13th appears more secure for Republicans than the 11th. In 2013, the GOP ticket received about twice as many votes as their Democratic opponents.
Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, said that in a local election with lower turnout, the perceived effectiveness of an incumbent can override a disadvantage in party affiliation. Asked about the 11th District, Hale said there is no downside in Angelini and Casagrande seeking to differentiate themselves from Christie, even among loyal Republicans.
“Governor Christie is clearly taking a right turn because he’s running for president. He’s not a New Jersey Republican anymore,” Hale said, referring to the party’s traditionally moderate bent.
Hale, echoing other prognostications, said he does not expect any seats in the Assembly to switch sides November 3. Democrats hold 48 seats to 32 for Republicans.
Houghtaling, though, shared Downey’s optimistic view on winning over unaffiliated voters.
"We have been reaching out to them and trying to educate them on our issues," he said.
Angelini said she would continue looking for opportunities to work with Democrats.
“There really are more areas on which we agree than disagree," she said.