NJ will elect 120 lawmakers in November — These are the 8 races to watch
Voters will be electing 120 state lawmakers and a new governor a week from Tuesday.
There are only a few competitive districts and no suspense about who will control the legislative branch come January.
Democrats hold 63 percent of the seats in the Legislature. They might gain a couple or lose a few, but Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin says “there simply aren’t enough competitive races” to change control of the Legislature.
“The safest bet right now in New Jersey politics is that the Democrats will maintain control in both the state Assembly as well as the state Senate,” Dworkin said.
Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison says even where senators retired, the same party will generally hold the seats – courtesy of the boundaries of the legislative map used since 2011, which will next be updated for the 2021 election.
“These are state legislative districts that are designed to protect incumbents.”
Only four of 40 districts have lawmakers from both parties, and it’s generally the split districts – the 2nd District in Atlantic County, the 11th District in Monmouth County and the 16th District across four counties in Central Jersey – that are seen as most likely to go either way.
The major political parties are also spending money to try to flip seats in Bergen County. Republicans hope to take the 38th District, while Democrats have spent money seeking to convert seats long held by the GOP in the 39th and 40th districts, the latter of which also spills into Essex, Morris and Passaic.
“People are watching them because there’s always a chance that lightning could strike,” Dworkin said.
By Election Day, nearly as much money might be spent on the state Senate campaign in South Jersey’s 3rd Legislative District than on New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, as the New Jersey Education Association looks to topple the Democratic president of the Senate in the costliest legislative race in state history.
Harrison thinks Steve Sweeney will defeat Republican Fran Grenier despite the NJEA’s more than $4.5 million onslaught, which has been matched by even more spending by Sweeney and his allies. She said that would reverberate in the Statehouse into 2018.
“With a Sweeney win, it certainly weakens the NJEA because they put all their eggs in the ‘knocking off Sweeney’ basket and used an incredible amount of resources,” Harrison said. “If he’s able to withstand this challenge, it signals to other legislators that the NJEA may not be the political muscle that they once were.”
“A lot of legislators are watching this race because it will be bellwether in terms of how they wind up treating the NJEA in the future,” she said.
Dworkin concurred on both counts.
“Steve Sweeney is likely to win, and I think he is not likely to forget what the NJEA did. And therefore the surest thing we are going to see is that the NJEA will face some legislation that they will find onerous if not downright hostile,” Dworkin said.
“But they seem ready to put up with those kinds of repercussions in the new legislative session in order to make the point they believe that Sweeney crossed them, that he double-crossed them, that he was not straight with them,” he said. “They believe it happened once too many times, and they want to send a message – both to him, even if he wins, and also to every other legislator that if you cross the teachers’ union, there is going to be a price to pay.”
RACES TO WATCH
2nd Legislative District
Sen. Jim Whelan decided not to seek re-election, then died in August. Democrats are running appointed Sen. Colin Bell, while Republicans nominated Assemblyman Chris Brown. The Assembly seats are currently split between the parties. The candidates are Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo and John Armato for the Democrats; Vince Sera and Brenda Taube for the Republicans; independent Heather Gordon; and Mico Lucide of the Green Party. As in most competitive districts, Democrats enjoy a campaign spending advantage: $848,000 to $453,000, as of reports through Oct. 13.
11th Legislative District
Sen. Jennifer Beck aims to hold off a challenge from Vin Gopal, the chairman of the Monmouth County Democrats, in what will likely be the state’s second most expensive race, after the 3rd District. Republicans also hope to regain two Assembly seats they lost two years ago, with nominees Robert Acerra and Michael Whelan taking on incumbent Democrats Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling. Democrats had spent far more money, as of a few weeks ago: $1.5 million to the GOP’s $269,000.
14th Legislative District
In what’s traditionally been a swing district that Democrats have held in recent elections, Republicans have organized support for Ileana Schirmer in her bid to replace Sen. Linda Greenstein. Democratic incumbents Wayne DeAngelo and Dan Benson face challenges from the GOP’s Kristian Stout and Steven Uccio. The Republicans had spent $100,000 as of a few weeks ago, to the Democrats’ $340,000.
16th Legislative District
There will be change in at least one Assembly seat, as Jack Ciattarelli instead made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for governor. The lone incumbent in the race is Democrat Andrew Zwicker, who is paired with Roy Freiman. For the GOP, former assemblywoman Donna Simon and Somerset County Freeholder Mark Caliguire are the candidates. In the Senate race, Republican Christopher "Kip" Bateman faces Democratic nominee Laurie Poppe. Democrats have spent more than $940,000 to the GOP’s $401,000.
38th Legislative District
Republicans once held this district and make another run at it each election. This cycle, their primary focus has been on Kelly Langschultz for Senate. She’s running with William Leonard and Christopher Wolf for Assembly. The Democratic incumbents are Sen. Bob Gordon and Assemblymen Tim Eustace and Joseph Lagana. There's also one independent candidate for Assembly, Dev Goswami. Democrats had a more than 2-to-1 spending advantage in the early going.
39th Legislative District
This district and the 40th District aren’t typically battlegrounds, but Assembly Democrats are spending in hopes of expanding the map – and elect enough allies for Speaker Vincent Prieto to fend off a leadership challenge from Assemblyman Craig Coughlin. As of early October, Democrats had spent $197,000 to the Republicans’ $338,000. The incumbents are Sen. Gerald Cardinale and Assembly members Robert Auth and Holly Schepisi. The Democrats are running Linda Schwager for Senate and Jannie Chung and Annie Hausmann for Assembly. Also in the Senate race: Libertarian James Tosone.
40th Legislative District
The Democratic challengers – Thomas Duch for Senate and Christine Ordway and Paul Vagianos for Assembly – had actually benefited from more spending through early October than the Republican incumbents, $156,000 to $86,000. The GOP senator is Kristin Corrado, a former Passaic County clerk appointed to finish the term of Kevin O’Toole, who’s now chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Republican Assembly candidates are appointed incumbent Kevin Rooney and Christopher DePhillips. Independent Anthony Pellechia is also running for Assembly.
The next full campaign-finance reports for legislative candidates are due to be released Thursday.