The race in a South Jersey legislative district that should be an easy win for Democrats could turn out to be the most expensive in state history, fueled in part by independent spending that could also break records this year.
An analysis by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission offiled 29 days before next month’s election estimates that as much as $9.5 million has already been spent in the 3rd District, which encompasses Salem County and parts of Cumberland and Gloucester. Almost half of that has been spent by Garden State Forward, a political committee created by the state’s largest teachers union, in an effort to unseat state Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester). Unhappy with Sweeney for years, the New Jersey Education Association is seeking revenge for his refusal to post a constitutional amendment to more quickly fully fund public-worker pensions.
NJEA spokesman Steve Baker wouldn’t say whether all the money GSF is spending is going to that district, but it’s a good bet that the majority is. The group spent about $641,000 during the primary, in which Sweeney had no opponent, and attributed it to the 3rd District. In its latest general election report, GSF reports nearly $4.5 million in spending, but does not break that down by specific district.
GSF leads all independent spenders, responsible for nearly half the $10.3 million these groups have spent so far toward this year’s legislative general election, in which all 120 seats in both houses are up for grabs. A committee backing Sweeney, New Jerseyans for a Better Tomorrow, has spent $2.6 million. Two other groups, Better Education for Kids and Stronger Foundations Inc. have spent a combined $320,000 in the 3rd.
While legislators and their opponents spent slightly more money statewide than independent committees through October 6 — $12.2 million — the high rate of spending by committees not officially affiliated with a candidate is troublesome because these groups are not subject to the same disclosure rules as candidates, nor do they have to adhere to the same contribution caps.
“We have been predicting since 2010 that independent groups would become a major force in New Jersey campaigns. This year’s campaign lends further credence to that prediction,’’ said Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director. “The growing influence of these groups makes it more important than ever for the Legislature to update state laws to reflect recent U.S. Supreme court rulings that permit full disclosure by independent groups. Both parties have bills pending that would bring this about. We hope there will be action on this critical legislation after the election.”
Including the primary, independent groups have spent $12.3 million in this year’s legislative elections. That represents the second-largest amount since the 2013 total of $16.1 million. The current total, with two more reporting cycles to go, already has eclipsed the $11.6 million spent in the 2015 legislative campaigns.
Legislative candidates so far raised $26.9 million through October 6, roughly a month before Election Day. They had spent $12.2 million, and had $14.7 million in the bank. Including independent expenditures, spending on the general election so far totals $22.5 million. Some of that money is double counted, however, as candidates with both individual and joint committees, raise money and report it in their individual accounts, then wind up transferring at least some funds to their joint committees, where it is counted again.
Because of the campaign against Sweeney, he has received the most in contributions, $1.5 million, and his $850,152 was the most cash on hand of any candidate going into the final month of the campaign. The joint committee he formed with Assemblymen John Burzichelli and Adam Taliaferro has spent the most — $718,966.
Much of the money in that race has been spent on ads. The NJEA’s Garden State Forward has been running ads since midsummer in the Philadelphia market. It is supporting Sweeney’s opponent, Republican Fran Grenier of Woodstown. On her own, Grenier has raised less than $60,000 and would not be considered a credible opponent to the 15-year incumbent Sweeney in a district that he won with 55 percent of the vote four years ago and where 35 percent of the registered voters are Democrats, while just 21 percent are Republicans. Sweeney and the committees backing him are spending heavily to counter the teachers’ ads.
According to ELEC, the 2003 Senate campaign in South Jersey’s 4th District brought in the most money to a legislative district. Costing $6.1 million at the time, inflation puts the total spent on that race at $8.2 million today. Preliminary numbers suggest that spending in this year’s 3rd district race will surpass that record if it already hasn’t.
While the 3rd District is an outlier this year, there’s plenty of money flowing elsewhere in the state. The 11th District, which two years ago became a swing district when two Democrats unseated Republican Assembly incumbents, has been the most costly so far when considering strictly by money spent by legislative candidates. The six Democrats and Republicans on the ballot in this Monmouth County district have already spent $1.8 million toward the general election, having raised $2.2 million. Combined, the candidates have $428,173 in the bank.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Jennifer Beck has a substantial cash-in-the-bank lead over her Democratic opponent, Vin Gopal. Gopal has outspent Beck by more than 2-to-1, but she had $229,645 on hand to Gopal’s $70,922.
Money held by the Assembly candidates is more evenly split, with Democratic freshmen Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling each having about $10,000 more on hand than Republican opponents Michael Whelan and Robert Acerra. The three Democrats also have a joint committee, which has already spent $661,602 and had about $33,000 left on October 6.
There is also some independent money being spent in that race. For instance, General Majority PAC reported spending $240,000 to oppose Acerra.
Not surprisingly, two other districts with split representation wound up having the third- and fourth-biggest legislative spenders.
In the 16th, where Democrat Andrew Zwicker pulled an upset two years ago to win an Assembly seat, all candidates so far have spent $1.3 million toward the general election. The Democrats raised significantly more than the Republicans, who hold the Senate and second Assembly seat in the Central Jersey district. But Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman and running mates Donna Simon, who Zwicker defeated in 2015, and Mark Caliguire have a more than 3-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage over Zwicker and fellow Democrats Roy Freiman for Assembly and Laurie Poppe for Senate.
Similarly, in Atlantic County’s 2nd District, the Democratic team has raised more money than the GOP, but it had $250,000 less going into the last month of the campaign. Assemblyman Chris Brown, a Republican running for the Senate seat, led all candidates with a war chest of $719,534 and he has the most money left to spend as well, $336,343. Sen. Colin Bell, the Democrat sworn into office last month to replace Jim Whelan after his unexpected death, had just $5,723 in the bank, though the joint committee formed by Bell, Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo and fellow Democrat John Armato had $117,615 on hand. Brown’s Assembly running mates, Vincent Sera and Brenda Taube, had about $75,000 in the bank between them. Two independents are also running in that district, but neither Heather Gordon nor Mico Lucide plans to spend more than $5,100.
Democrats currently control 24 of 40 seats in the Senate, and 52 of 80 seats in the Assembly. They have outraised and outspent Republicans statewide by more than a three-to-one margin, and have more than three times the cash reserves.
Incumbents have nearly five times more cash reserves than challengers, and have out-raised and outspent them by large margins.
Assembly candidates have raised slightly more than Senate candidates and spent nearly $850,000 more, while Senate candidates have more cash-on-hand.
All the finance data are preliminary and ELEC’s analysis is based on reports received by noon October 13, 2017.
Reports filed by legislative and gubernatorial candidates are available online on. A downloadable summary of data from legislative reports is available in both . Several, but not all, independent groups also file reports with ELEC. These reports can be . Some also disclose their activities in reports made public by the .