Looking at the 2015 General Election, most pundits expected a dull race, ignored by voters with just a few pockets of action in isolated spots across the state. However, when the votes were counted, this year proved that there is no such thing as dull elections in New Jersey.
With the Assembly at the top of the ticket for the first time since 1999 and turnout predicted to be low, voters shocked the political establishment across New Jersey by knocking off at least three incumbent legislators and sending one district into a potential recount. This not only increased the Democratic majority in the General Assembly to 51, but it appears to have weakened the Republican opposition going into Gov. Christie’s final two years in office.
Early analysis will likely show a few factors led to Democrat wins. First, as the majority party in the state, the Democrats had the benefit of having more substantial resources than their opponents both in fundraising and organization. Money is not the only measure of success in campaigns, but it is a significant one and the GOP was simply outgunned financially in several key areas.
Second, the map of the legislative districts designed in 2012 has severely hampered competitiveness. The map essentially locks the GOP into regions (Northwest NJ, the Shore and Central Jersey) and leaves the remainder of the state in all but Democratic control. With few real races at hand, Democrats had the freedom to play offense in places the GOP needed to defend.
Finally, there will be much debate in the coming weeks about whether the GOP losses were a result of “Christie fatigue.” The governor’s approval numbers, even amongst Republicans, has fallen since his re-election and his Presidential aspirations have potentially left New Jersey residents feeling underserved. In fact, the governor was not an active participant in the GOP Assembly strategy, and it is possible with statewide political attention focused on his activity nationally, the State GOP could not build its own message focused on the Assembly.
Whatever the reasons, the results tell the story. The Democrats will enter 2016 with their largest majority in the Assembly since 1979, the governor will enter his last two years in office with fewer Republican legislators than when he came into office in 2010, and the State Legislature that sworn into office in January 2016 will come loaded to bear with priorities to challenge the governor head-to-head like never before.
Further analysis reveals:
PBA Get Out The Vote Success
The NJ State PBA was a major winner on Election Day 2015.
The PBA leadership made a commitment that 2015 would be a first step in reestablishing itself as a political force, and the results of the election demonstrated just that.
Every PBA-endorsed candidate won, including in tightly-contested Districts 1, 2 and 38. That success was built on a foundation of grass-roots activism that saw hundreds of PBA members volunteering in phone banks and in the streets from Cape May to Bergen County.
The impact of those volunteers can’t be understated. Members making calls and knocking on doors was witnessed first-hand by legislative leaders, including Assembly Speaker Prieto, and candidates from both parties. That effort will go a long way in building relationships that can impact the issues that matter most to PBA members.
Second, and most importantly, the results of the races where the PBA invested its time prove that every vote does matter. Districts like 1, 2 and 38 that saw Republican- and Democratic-PBA-endorsed candidates lose, or barely win, in 2013 were elected in 2015, some handily. When all is said and done, the numbers will reveal that the thousands of phone calls from PBA volunteers made the difference in these hot races.
General Assembly district analysis
In one of only two districts split between a Republican and a Democrat going into the election, the Democrats running under the “Van Drew Team” banner retook the Assembly seat lost in 2013. Unlike two years ago, the margin of victory was larger for the Dems this time as Incumbent Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak and his running mate, former Corrections Officer, Bruce Land defeated Incumbent GOP Assemblyman Sam Fiocchi and Cumberland County Freeholder Jim Sauro by more than 2,000 votes. The 1st District started the election season as one of three “targeted districts” by both parties, but the strong win here gives the Democrats a comfort level for the future in a region of the state that is reliably Republican in federal and state-wide elections.
Despite the ugly campaign ads, the assaults on which candidate had betrayed Atlantic City Casinos and intense PAC spending, voters in the Atlantic County-based 2nd District returned the incumbent Assemblymen, Republican Chris Brown and Democrat Vince Mazzeo. In 2013, the margin between the winning and losing candidates amounted to roughly a three-vote- per- town swing with a few dozen votes separating the winners and losers. This year’s margin was close, just under 1,000 votes from top to bottom, but it will remain a district split between one GOP and one Dem Assembly member. And it also ensures it will be a hot race again in 2017.
In perhaps the biggest upset of the election, the Republicans lost two seats in the normally reliable GOP 11th District centered in Monmouth County. While the Democrats had talked up the notion they could flip the district since the summer, the extremely close result shocked most observers and ensures the 11th will be Target No. 1 in 2017.
Incumbent Republican Assemblywomen Caroline Casagrade and Mary Pat Angelini lost their seats to Democratic challengers Eric Haughtaling and Joann Downey in a tight battle. To some degree, the race became a referendum on Casagrande and Angelini’s closeness to the governor on several issues but other, more tangible factors likely played a role in the upset. With the 38th District losing its “targeted” label (as noted below), the Democrats had enough resources to move around and the motivation to make the 11th a competitive district. As with several other key districts, outside independent Democratic PAC spending also played a critical role as the challengers were able to get a financial jump on the GOP early, thereby allowing it TV ad time that forced the GOP incumbents to play defense.
History shows that these Democratic incursions into the traditionally GOP Monmouth County happen once every decade or so, the last time when Democrats swept the old 12th District, which is mostly the current 11th District. The Democrats at that time lost their seats after two terms. With a win of just less than 400 votes, the GOP will be looking for history to repeat in 2017. However, the Democrats aren’t likely to accept this as a fluke and will be reinforcing their new incumbents and the County Dem organization well in advance of 2017. The GOP must retake 11 if it is be competitive into the end of the decade.
In another nail-biter, Republican Incumbents Assemblyman Jack Ciatterelli and Assemblywoman Donna Simon could be headed toward a recount following a shocking surge from Democratic challengers Andrew Zwicker and Maureen Vella. Simon had been a late Dem target in 2013 but survived an onslaught of independent PAC spending at the time. Few statewide Democrats and analysts had the 16th on the target list for 2015. But in a district where the incumbent Republicans were profoundly impacted by the redistricting of their base in 2012, there appears to be little doubt the Democrats will focus more attention on the 16th now that they appear to have solidified themselves in other districts.
Simon and Zwicker were separated by only a few dozen votes when the sun came up after Election Day and a recount will likely be considered in either direction. The loss of Simon to the GOP would be another stunning one on an already rough night.
District 38 was predicted to be the top priority for Republicans and Democrats after Democrats Tim Eustace and Joe Lagana won in 2013 by a margin of approximately 25 votes. All eyes were fixed on the Bergen County District as it not only would indicate a key GOP pickup but it would have meant the county Republicans were likely to mount a comeback on the Freeholder Board.
But when GOP candidate Anthony Coppola was discovered to have written a book laced with racist and sexist commentary, he dropped out of the race only to re-enter when it became cost prohibitive for the GOP to pay to reprint the ballots with a new name. His running mate, Mark DiPisa, immediately distanced himself from Cappola and the two essentially spent the last month of the campaign explaining the impact of the controversy amongst themselves and not challenging the Dem incumbents.
The incumbents were also assisted by a focused “Get Out the Vote” operation and a Democratic leadership that knew Lagana and Eustace had a target on their backs. Once the GOP campaign fell apart, the incumbents took a 25-vote win and turned it into a nearly 4,500-vote rout.
Impact of independent expenditures and PACs
On top of the significant Democratic win at the polls, the other major story of this election is the role independent expenditures and PACs played for many victorious candidates. More than $8.5 million was spent by these organizations, a record for New Jersey legislative races. These special PAC’s serve almost as a shadow campaign. Prohibited by law from coordinating officially with a campaign, they are permitted to raise and spend money outside of the State’s ELEC restrictions.
The fact that several of them that spent the most are aligned with Democratic leadership (George Norcross) and unions (NJEA) is not lost to observers of New Jersey politics, and the ability of these groups to raise and spend more freely than formal campaigns has changed the landscape of state politics for the foreseeable future.
County races wins for both parties
Most County Freeholder incumbents were re-elected, despite the wildness of the Assembly results. Two races of note stand out:
The Democrats took the three seats up for grabs in Bergen County. This is important because as the state’s most populous county, Bergen serves as a critical point for success for any statewide candidate. A solid Democratic majority that can safely return its incumbents gives Democrats an edge in turning out votes in the 2016 Presidential election and 2017 governor’s race.
Second, in Burlington County, the Republicans defeated the last two Democratic Freeholders to take a 5-0 control of county government. The win not only gives the GOP room to work during the 2016 Presidential election when Democratic voters tend to drive out their vote in the county, but it also ends the career for the time being of Democratic Freeholder Aimee Belgard, who had previously lost the 2014 Congressional race to Tom MacArthur. The loss may make MacArthur a more comfortable incumbent looking into 2016.
The results and Chris Christie
While his name wasn’t on the ballot and the Republican candidates hardly even mentioned him, Gov. Christie may be feeling the sting of the GOP Assembly losses. He is likely to suggest he had nothing to do with it, and he may be right. He will blame the District Map as helpful to the Democrats (which it is). He will blame unions and PACs for giving heavily to support the Democrats (which they did). But this is now the third Assembly election since his initial victory in 2009 in which the GOP didn’t win a seat.
Some may place the blame, albeit quietly, for the Assembly’s fall near the governor. There will be accusations that while he has access to donors and a network of national supporters and PACs, his own GOP members were outspent by state Democrats. It is also possible that some will grumble that the time he has spent working on national issues has made it hard for the GOP in New Jersey to develop a unified message that the governor is firmly at the head of his army using that unity to drive a drive out votes.
Elections are decided by many factors and, while it may not be fair to make a direct connection to the governor, the GOP losses in the Assembly have the potential to stick to the governor’s legacy. Whatever the reason, the future presents a few options for the governor and his allies in Trenton. A weaker GOP caucus may dig in during the next two years and remain a solid block of votes for the governor. Or that smaller Assembly GOP could look toward 2017 and see mountains of Democratic PAC spending and nasty campaigns as a reason to go their own way to preserve their seats rather than give the governor pyrrhic legislative victories.
The 2015 elections are not an end. They are a beginning to a new legislative session and a new political reality in New Jersey. Where that beginning takes the state will ultimately be decided on Election Night 2017.