The Democrats have picked up four seats in Tuesday's midterm election, including one squeaker in District 16 decided by a handful of votes. Several political observers tied the losses directly to Gov. Chris Christie and his lack of campaigning for Republicans or even spending time governing New Jersey.
While the Democrats were boasting of their gains, it would be hard to call the results any kind of a mandate, as initial figures put the turnout at a new low of about 21 percent.
As of midnight, with more than 99 percent of all the precincts reporting statewide, preliminary results had the Democrats regaining the seat they lost two years ago in South Jersey's 1st District, as well as winning both seats in Monmouth County's 11th District in an upset. And with 100 percent of the regular vote counted, physicist Andrew Zwicker was leading Republican Assemblywoman Donna Simon by 29 votes in Central Jersey's 16th District, although it's unclear whether the totals reported by the county clerks include mail-in and provisional ballots, which could easily change the outcome in such a close race.
"That means we are closer to a veto-proof majority," said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, a Democrat who easily won reelection to his seat in the 36th District that straddles Bergen and Passaic counties, "and that means we can clearly say to the governor and the Republican party that the voters of this state have clearly chosen a path they want to follow that is not the path that Gov. Christie has laid out and continues to lay out for New Jersey."
Sen. Robert Gordon, who was not on the ballot, agreed, telling NJTV, "I think what we are seeing in District 38 and really statewide is, I think, a referendum on Chris Christie. The public is very upset over the fact that he is disengaged and hasn't been involved in state government, allowing problems to fester … I think we are seeing a public rejection of Gov. Christie and the Republicans."
The 38th covers a section of Bergen and Passaic counties that is typical redder and is usually a battleground for the parties. Two years ago, when Christie was at the height of his popularity and the top of the ballot, Assemblyman Tim Eustace won reelection by just 56 votes. This year, he beat the nearest GOP challenger, Mark DiPisa, by more than 4,500 votes. There may have been other factors at play here, including the revelation that DiPisa's running mate Anthony Cappola had written a book filled with rants and racial and ethnic slurs. Also, the Democratic incumbents outspent their opponents by more than $1 million.
Money also may have influenced the results in the 1st District, where Republican Samuel Fiocchi lost the seat he had won in 2013 to Democratic challenger Bruce Land. The Democratic ticket outspent the Republicans in this district that includes Cape May and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland counties by more than 2-to-1, and the pro-Democratic super PAC General Majority PAC spent more than $1 million boosting the Democrats. Land, a Vietnam veteran, beat Fiocchi by about 2,400 votes. Democratic Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak led all candidates with 28 percent of all votes cast, followed by Land with almost 27 percent, Fiocchi's 23 percent and his running mate Jim Sauro's 22 percent.
Tim Gould, the campaign manager for the Republican candidates in the 1st District, said the contest was likely determined by the large money advantage enjoyed by the Democrats.
"We were outspent by close to 20-to-1," Gould said. "I think that's what it came down to."
Land acknowledged that the spending by General Majority helped the Democrats' cause, but attributed the win to old-fashioned campaigning in a district known for splitting ballots.
"Most people look at the person and not the party," said Land, a newcomer to politics. "I just went out there to talk to the people and find out what their needs were."
However, an even greater expenditure in the neighboring 2nd District, centered on Atlantic City, did not have the desired effect. That district will remain split, with incumbent Republican Chris Brown and Democrat Vincent Mazzeo winning. General Majority PAC spent at least $1.5 million -- all of the reports are not yet in -- in an effort to get Mazzeo and running mate Colin Bell elected, but Brown wound up the top vote getter, with 26.2 percent to Mazzeo's 25.6 percent, Bell's 24.7 percent and 23.5 percent for Brown's running mate Will Pauls.
Daniel J. Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University, whose poll last week predicted the close wins by Brown and Mazzeo, said that success by the candidates was dependent on “the campaigns getting their supporters out to vote on election day."
Bell said it was ultimately impossible for him to overcome Brown's greater name recognition.
The most recent financial statement filed by General Majority for the 11th District shows only $172,000 in spending through October 30, but Republicans cited an infusion of 11th hour spending, including a negative ad that ran during the World Series, apparently unseating four-term Assemblywomen Mary Pat Angelini and Caroline Casagrande.
"When you are combatting hundreds of thousands of dollars in super PAC money, it takes a village," Casagrande told supporters in Monmouth County when the results appeared to show the GOP loss. "Serving in the 11th District thus far has been the honor of my lifetime."
But Derek Roseman, a spokesman for the Assembly Democratic campaign effort, said the demographics of the district -- registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 27 to 20 -- and some anti-Christie sentiment influenced the result.
"This is a district that is trending more Democratic," Roseman said, adding that voters were convinced by the Democrats' assertions that the public would be better off with representatives who weren't going to simply vote with Christie. Still, the governor was not a major factor, he said. "We did not run against Chris Christie. Overall, these are elections that are won and lost by the candidates in the district who are running."
But the win in the 11th was also at least in part due to union support.
“Organized labor came out in full force for union brother Eric Houghtaling of IBEW 400,” said Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO. “We’re really proud of the all-out labor operation in the 11th District. Over the past 10 weeks, we knocked on 18,000 union members’ doors, made phone calls and sent fliers and emails, all on behalf of our union brother. As a result, Democrats have taken these 11th District Assembly seats for the first time in 20 years.”
Lou Stellato, Bergen County's Democratic chairman, said labor and a Christie backlash, helped his party have so much success in Bergen -- including in several Republican towns that went Democratic.
"With a low turnout like this, with all the help that we received from police and teachers and other labor unions, we got the feet out on the street that were able to draw our vote out," Stellato said from the Democrats' victory party in the Hasbrouck Heights Hilton.
Labor may also have had a hand in another big upset -- the win by Zwicker in the 16th. While most of those registered are unaffiliated, Democrats hold a 4 percent lead over Republicans among those who chose one of the major parties. Further, the Democrats have targeted this district and come close since redistricting redrew the lines in 2011 to include bluer areas. The 16th encompasses parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset counties.
Only the results reported by Hunterdon County clearly indicate that they include mail-in ballots, but not provisional ballots -- those cast by voters when there is a question about their registration or identification. Whether the other three counties' results include them was unknown as the results were released. A 29-vote margin might not hold up if there are a substantial number of mail-in and provisional ballots still to be counted.
This is another district in which the Democratic challengers outspent the Republican incumbents, though by little more than $100,000 as of the last official reporting date of October 23. The district was listed by the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission as the state's sixth most expensive at that time, when it had included about $250,000 in independent spending. Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli finished first with 16,488, followed by Zwicker's 16,176, Simon's 16,147, and 15,917 for Zwicker's running mate Maureen Vella.
A recount in the 16th is almost certain and possible in the 11th, as well.
Still, the Democrats were crowing about their success.
"Tonight's results are very promising, and I am proud that Democrats worked together to achieve success," said John Currie, the state committee chairman. "The fact that the Democratic Party will control more than 50 Assembly seats is unprecedented in recent times ... These Democratic victories also echo public polling showing that voters have had enough of Gov. Chris Christie's misguided policies, wasteful spending, and failed leadership."
Even if the Democrats win any recounts, they will be two votes short of a veto-proof majority in the next term. To override any Christie vetoes, they would need 54 and they appear to have won, at most, 52. So far, lawmakers have been able to override any of the governor's vetoes as a majority of Republicans have remained loyal to Christie. The first may happen in the lame-duck session that begins shortly, as Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), has vowed to call a vote on a Christie gun-bill veto. The Senate handed Christie its first successful override last month when three Republicans abandoned the governor's position on a measure to change the rules for those who spent time in a mental-health facility and want to buy a gun.
That Senate vote was the latest indication of Christie's loss of power in the state. As Christie spends less time in New Jersey and more time elsewhere campaigning for president, his poll numbers have plummeted to around 30 percent. He spent no time on the stump for the GOP Assembly candidates and there were some Republicans who did not want to be seen with him. Angelini and Casagrande had put out at least one mailer trying to distance themselves from the governor.
With this election out of the way, both parties are looking forward to 2017's statewide election, in which the entire Legislature and the governor's seat will be up for grabs. Phil Murphy, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany and one likely candidate for governor, stood on the stage with the winners at the Bergen victory party and looked as happy as the candidates.
Murphy, a Democrat with deep pockets, agreed that the results were a repudiation of Christie and more, saying, "I don't see how you can avoid that, but I think more broadly it's against policies that don't help the middle class."
Another message sent to both parties was in the participation, or lack thereof, in the process.
While the figure is likely to rise when all the votes, including mail-in and provisional ballots, are counted, Tuesday's turnout will probably still go down in history as a new record low. Little more than 2 in 10 voters bothered to cast ballots in this off-year election. The last time the Assembly led the ballot, in 1999, 31 percent of voters went to the polls. Four years ago, when the state Senate was the highest office up for election, just 27 percent of those registered voted.
There was one Senate seat on the ballot, a special election in the 5th District in Gloucester and Camden counties. Democratic Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, who was appointed earlier this year to replace Donald Norcross when he was elected to Congress, faced no opposition and won the right to keep her seat for the next two years.