Forget Trump/Clinton — NJ’s most exciting ballot battle is over expanding casinos
Widespread interest in an election typically doesn't catch on until Labor Day, nine weeks before polls open.
Presidential elections also drive interest, and that’s expected to be the case again this year even though major-party White House nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump aren’t popular and the race in New Jersey — which hasn’t backed a Republican for president since 1988 – isn’t expected to be closely contested.
“There’s going to be a lot of participation, but I think at this point New Jersey remains solidly blue and will go for Hillary Clinton. It might not be by 18 points, the way Barack Obama won the state in the past two election cycles, but as of now she should win by 8 to 12 points, probably,” said Ben Dworkin, a political scientist at Rider University.
The Trump campaign had suggested it might compete in the New York region, but outside of a campaign stop in Connecticut the candidate hasn’t appeared in the area. Organizers from the Republican Hindu Coalition say Trump will address a rally and charity event in Holmdel on Sept. 24.
New Jersey doesn’t have a U.S. Senate election this year, and most of its 12 House seats – currently divided evenly between the two major parties – are expected to be retained by the incumbents.
Conservative congressman challenged
The one potential exception is in the 5th District, which extends from northwest New Jersey to northern Bergen County. Seven-term conservative Republican Rep. Scott Garrett has won his last two races with 55 percent of the vote but faces a well-funded Democratic nominee in Josh Gottheimer, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.
“He is running a pretty formidable challenge, in my view, and that is the one race in the state where there is actually the potential that an incumbent might lose re-election,” said Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison. “That’s a really rare occurrence, not just in New Jersey but nationally.”
Harrison said the race becomes more competitive because of the Clinton/Trump race, as the increased turnout for presidential elections generally means more Democratic voters in New Jersey. In addition, elections for all Bergen County’s constitutional offices – sheriff, clerk and surrogate, plus freeholder seats – are on the ballot, further encouraging local interest.
“It probably would not be a seat that would be up for grabs save for the fact that we will have that higher turnout spawned by the presidential election,” Harrison said.
Seton Hall University political scientist Matthew Hale called the 5th District election “the most important race and the most competitive race” in New Jersey this year.
Casino question will be 'nail-biter'
But given that only residents of the 5th Districts have a say there, it’s likely the highest-profile and biggest-bucks campaign in the state this year won’t be for an office, but rather to decide a public question.
One of the two statewide public questions asks voters whether to allow two casinos to be built in North Jersey. They’re currently limited to Atlantic City. Early polls suggest voters aren’t in favor of the expansion, but the margins are close and the campaign is expected to be hard-fought.
“The casino ballot initiative really is going to be a fight between the north and the south, and maybe Middlesex County and Monmouth County get to play the tiebreakers about how that’s going to go,” Hale said.
“This is going to be a multimillion dollar campaign on both sides of the issue, and I think that may well be the thing we’re all talking about in November,” Dworkin said.
“This is probably going to be the nail-biter on election night,” said Harrison.
To date, opponents of casino expansion have run more ads, but the proponents are expected to pick up their efforts in September.
“I actually thought that this would kind of be a runaway for the pro-casino or the pro-expansion interests, but there has been involvement particularly by a coalition of organized labor in New York City and southern casino interests … to combat the perception that new casinos are necessarily a good thing for the state,” Harrison said.
“I’m surprised that the airwaves really have been dominated by those anti-casino interests, and I think it’s a testimony as to how divided the state is on this,” she said.